man·ner [man er] n. [<L manus, a hand] 1. a way of doing something; mode of procedure 2. a way, esp. a usual way, of acting 3. [pl.] a) ways of social behavior / bad manners b) polite ways of social behavior / to learn manners/ 4. Kind; sort.
The first thing that pops into my head when I think of the word “manner” is the concept of “minding your manners,” attending to the guidelines we are given as a child. Usually this involves gentility, how we treat other people and how we present ourselves. It is about character, about respect for self and others. These ways of doing something were created to provide structure in our society and our communities. But oftentimes, manners are used synonymously with the idea of good moral behavior and this is not always the case. I think of it being good manners for the host family to sit at one table while the servants ate in the kitchen. I think of outdated rules like not wearing white after Labor Day or women wearing girdles and pantyhose, which once implied—and in some places still do—good manners and an acceptable way of dressing.
The second thing that I think of when I think of “manner” is those people who have a distinctive way of being. I think of old Hollywood celebrities who were recognizable not only for their appearance, but for the characteristics of their demeanor. Celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck.
I have been thinking about Gregory Peck often lately. I saw Roman Holiday when I was younger, but I don’t think I saw To Kill a Mockingbird until I was in my mid-twenties. Unlike many people, I wasn’t assigned the book in high school. I read it when I was twenty-one or twenty-two and I was struck by the book’s poignancy and universality. Although I had not grown up in the same time as Scout, I had grown up in the South very aware of class and racial differences around me. I had grown up with a very keen desire to understand injustice, which I saw seemingly everywhere around me. I identified with Scout and revered her father Atticus Finch as an upstanding citizen and moral voice amidst a community ruled by lunacy and fear.
I didn’t see the movie until years later. I was living in San Francisco at the time and had visited my local independent video store. I picked up To Kill a Mockbird then. I was again moved by the story, now told through film, and by the way each character works through their own relationship to the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in a rural Southern community. I was particularly moved by Peck’s performance as Atticus. I watched the special features, which included a documentary about Peck’s life.
Here, I thought, was a man with a unique manner. It was he who had pushed for the production of To Kill a Mockingbird after having read the book. He devoted himself to films whose stories also held a greater social importance. I remember watching the documentary and feeling a real affection for him. This feeling was renewed when, that same year, I saw the film again on the big screen of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The screening included a question and answer period with Mary Badham, the actress who had played Scout as a child. She described Peck as having been very much a father figure to her. He was so similar in real life to the character he played in the film, she said.
Recently, I watched the film The Gentlemen’s Agreement, which stars Peck. Dennis Hopper had just died and I decided I wanted to watch Rebel without a Cause, his first film in which he played a minor role. While browsing the Classics Section at Casa Video, I picked up The Gentlemen’s Agreement, read the back, and decided to rent it. The film is about a newspaper reporter Phillip Skylar Green who is asked to write a feature on anti-Semitism. He is searching for an angle for his story and arrives at pretending he himself is Jewish for a given period of time. No one is to know except his boss, his mother, and his fiancé, who he has just recently met. As the story unfolds, his interpersonal relationships are challenged by this choice to pretend to be Jewish. His fiancé doesn’t understand why he needs it to be a secret amongst her family. His son is threatened at school. His Jewish friend Dave even advises him against it. He is used to discrimination because he has been Jewish his whole live, but he fears that Skylar will not be able to handle it in one concentrated time period.
The film asks large questions of the viewer and challenges the viewer by the subtlety with which the characters come to realizations. The effect of prejudices like anti-Semitism, is revealed through interpersonal relationships, where the impact is felt in real life, and there are no true villains only complicated people. The film also makes a strong statement about people who are good-hearted and thoughtful but who remain silent or apathetic.
Another thing that makes this film so remarkable is its context. The film was released in 1947, just after World War II, just after anti-Semitism so strong it resulted in the genocide of over six million Jews in Europe. When Elia Kazan (who himself is a complicated character as he testified in 1952 in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and named eight Hollywood associates who were former members of the Communist Party) decided to make the film, several Jewish studio heads told him not to make it. One said it would be “like stirring up a hornets’ nest.” That conversation ended up being worked in as a scene with the newspaper’s editorial board and its dissenting voice against the “anti-Semitism” story.
Skylar Green is a character who has manners but who is unwilling to abide by social constructs without critical thinking. He embodies a persecuted group in order to challenge certain social norms and to understand better where anti-Semitism is rooted and what impact it has on individuals. And yet, it is not Skylar who ends up being the hero, but his friend Dave, who in a strong speech talks about the eventual impact of being silent while others are mischaracterized, mistreated, and oppressed.
The actor who played Dave, John Garfield, was an actor who was a headlining leading man at the time, and he took a supporting role in the film because he so believed so strongly in the worth of the project.
The film’s title itself refers to a unspoken agreement that allows and endorses discrimination. At one point, Skylar Green goes to a hotel that he has reserved for his honeymoon and asks point-blank if they allow people who practice Judaism to stay there. The manager comes out and asks in a nuanced way if that is a hypothetical question or not. Eventually, he is asked to leave.
I think of today’s celebrities who get more attention for their outrageous, scandalous and often disgraceful behavior instead of getting revered for who they are. They become caricatures of how not to behave instead of models of how to be. And oftentimes, their loud lives are more recognizable than their body of work. I am grateful to actors like Peck who were more concerned with the impact they made with their work than with being famous and who picked their roles carefully, choosing the stories that were worthy, that asked questions and that ultimately modeled a way of being and asked viewers to question the way they themselves moved in the world.