A Tribute by:
Alan & Sharon Waldman


Photo credit: WENN.com


Robert Mulligan, director of critics’ favorite TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and audience darlings SUMMER OF ’42 and UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE recently died at the age of 83. He worked effectively with top stars, guiding five of them to Oscar nominations: Gregory Peck and young Mary Badham in MOCKINGBIRD (Peck won), Natalie Wood in LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER, Ruth Gordon in INSIDE DAISY CLOVER and Ellen Burstyn in SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. He elicited fine performances from many of his players, including Anthony Perkins in FEAR STRIKES OUT, Jennifer O'Neill in SUMMER OF ’42, Robert Redford in INSIDE DAISY CLOVER and Richard Gere in BLOODBROTHERS.

During his 39-year career, Mulligan helmed 20 movies and 42 live TV episodes. His films covered a range of genres, including: social drama, Western, coming-of-age story, horror mystery, romantic comedy, spiritual epic, psychological melodrama and biography. 

He was Oscar-nominated for directing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which also won him awards at Cannes and San Sebastian, plus three other noms. Mulligan took home an Emmy for THE MOON AND SIXPENCE (1959), a Best Director award at the Sitges Catalonian Film Festival and eight major award nominations for SUMMER OF ’42, THE NICKEL RIDE, THE GREAT IMPOSTOR, FEAR STRIKES OUT and UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE.

He was one of a new wave of American directors (along with Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt and John Frankenheimer) who emerged from the heyday of live post-War television. Unfortunately, he began making movies just as American cinema was overtaken by sensationalism, and that conflicted with his honest, character-driven, sensitive approach to storytelling. Robert Mulligan was known for working closely with writers on the screenplays for his films. He once declared, “The attention which has been paid to directors is flattering but overrated.”

We recently watched a dozen Mulligan movies to help us recommend our four favorites to you. Although I (Alan) couldn’t easily obtain their DVDs, I recall really enjoying two more of his films. CLARA’S HEART (1988) had great performances by Whoopi Goldberg and 15-year-old Neil Patrick Harris, who was nominated for Golden Globe and Young Artist awards. INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965) won Golden Globes for Robert Redford and Ruth Gordon, plus a nom for lead actress Audrey Hepburn.

Although it was a critical success, Mulligan’s first feature, FEAR STRIKES OUT (1957), which tells the true story of how Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall (played by Anthony Perkins) coped with mental illness, now seems overheated and melodramatic. (I disagree; I thought it was bold for its time. – Sharon)

His slow-moving 1968 Gregory Peck western THE STALKING MOON was a somber, interior work with very little dialogue. It dealt with the relationship between an army scout, a woman and her half-breed son whom Peck is protecting from the boy's deranged Apache father.

SUMMER OF ’42 was an enjoyable boys’ movie back in ’71, but it doesn’t hold up well today and is very draggy in parts. It is a love story between a virginal teenager and a 22-year-old woman whose husband is away at war. Narrated by Mulligan, this sentimental movie was a big hit. (I didn’t like it then and now. It’s a boy’s fantasy film. – Sharon)

Mulligan’s final film, THE MAN IN THE MOON, was a mopey coming-of-age melodrama that featured a fine performance by 14-year-old newcomer Reese Witherspoon. (Reese was amazing. – Sharon)

We agree that the four films boxed below are our favorites among Mulligan’s works, although we rank them somewhat differently.




    STRANGER (1963)


(Sharon): TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is one of the world’s most beloved films, and is certainly one of mine. The American Film Institute rated it the country’s best courtroom drama and Gregory Peck’s lawyer Atticus Finch the greatest hero of American films. The book by Harper Lee, published in 1960, won a Pulitzer Prize and has never been out of print. Both book and film were warm and humorous, while dealing truthfully with the horrible racial injustices going on in the South. The narrator, Scout, an independent, brave and honest little girl, tells the story as she sees it. Her innocent questions of the members of a lynch mob remind them that they are her neighbors, and they disperse. Scout is as admirable a character as her father, Atticus. Because of the film’s gentle tone, the children’s entertaining antics and Atticus Finch’s heroism, audiences were moved to feel sympathy and understanding for the falsely accused Tom Robinson and his family. The civil rights movement was new in the early 1960s, and the book and film profoundly affected people’s attitudes against racial injustice. Till the end of his life, Peck said that people told him that the film had changed their lives. I agree. Both book and film are magnificent.

(Alan): TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a beloved classic, and it holds up quite well. I am not crazy about watching a story told from the young daughter’s POV, but the film is dramatic, nicely detailed, well played (especially by Peck, Brock Peters and the children) and superbly directed. This earnest social drama is highly atmospheric. It captures well the ignorant, racist views of the rural South in the 1930s. The courtroom sequences are gripping, and the surprise ending, featuring a silent Robert Duvall as mysterious recluse Boo Radley, is quite satisfying. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three: best actor (Peck), screenplay (Horton Foote) and art direction. 

(Sharon): LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER has been a favorite romantic comedy of mine since I first saw it in 1963. For the first time, I saw a family like mine portrayed on film: an affectionate ethnic bunch yelling and arguing and generally being overly dramatic. Mine was not Italian, but very similar to the characters who populate this film, so I find the film’s supporting characters to be humorous portraits—and the character actors are superb. Natalie Wood portrays Angie, the modern girl of the ‘60s, striving for independence from her overprotective family but looking for love in all the wrong places. Steve McQueen is Rocky, the irresponsible, rootless musician who barely remembers the one-night stand when he got Angie pregnant. Knowing that being an unwed mother would ruin her life, Angie opts for a dangerous illegal abortion (this was 10 years before Roe v. Wade). She asks only for his financial help. Angie’s valiant attempts to solve her problems by herself draw Rocky’s sympathy and admiration, and he begins to feel protective of her, ultimately refusing to let her have the abortion. When Rocky decides that he should marry her, she rejects him. She decides that homely suitor Tom Bosley will make a good husband, but his mother and sisters terrify her. Angie moves into her own apartment, where Rocky tries to seduce her. She throws him out, telling him he is “dead.” The closing scene is one of the most satisfying in cinema, so I won’t reveal it. I promise you, it’s funny and romantic!

(Alan): LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER is an interesting love story, but I don’t believe it holds up well over time. Natalie Wood is good, although I don’t believe her performance is worthy of her Oscar nomination, and Steve McQueen is fine. The supporting cast is fun, but I think that the stereotypic Italian immigrant shtick is laid on much too heavily.

(Alan): SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR is a wonderful romantic film about two married people who meet at the same weekend for 26 years. It benefits from a rich, funny, touching and insightful (Oscar-nominated) script by Bernard Slade, based on his hit play. Golden Globe winner and Oscar nom Ellen Burstyn is fantastic in this movie, and Alan Alda is very good. Each act is set 5-6 years after its predecessor, when each of the lovers has changed in some important way. The film is greatly enriched by the gorgeous (Oscar-nominated) song “The Last Time I Felt This Way,” written by Marvin Hamlisch and with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. I loved this play when I saw it on Broadway in 1975, and I loved it again when I saw it on screen in 1978. I loved it again when we watched it on New Year’s Eve 2008-9. The dialogue is witty and charming, the emotions are very real and accessible, and Mulligan does a fine job of opening it up slightly while maintaining all the rich key elements. The stars play together very well.

(Sharon): I agree that SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR is an engrossing, entertaining film. The two leads are superb at showing the many changes people go through over the years. They start out as rather annoying, neurotic young people and grow at different rates and in distinctive ways until they find common ground again at the end. The film is surprisingly touching and intelligent.

(Alan): There have been lots of movies about idealistic teachers struggling to communicate with their difficult students and burned-out colleagues in ghetto schools. The ones that stay with you have something different in terms of plot and characters. UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, under Mulligan’s capable direction, works. The plot has surprises, there is a lot of humorous spoofing of stupid rules and restrictions in school administration, and many of the characters are fresh and interesting, because they offer more than the traditional stereotypes. Sandy Dennis is quite good as the protagonist teacher. 

(Sharon): I was a young teacher when UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE was released, and I found it entertaining but not as true-to-life as it should be. I suppose that’s always the case when it’s a movie about your field. I wanted Sandy Dennis to challenge and stimulate the students more, to get them involved in projects. Seeing the film again, I could appreciate it more on its own. It is charming, funny and well-constructed. (She could’ve tried more projects, though!)

Robert Mulligan was born in New York City to a policeman father and a non-policeperson mother on August 23, 1925. His brother became actor Richard Mulligan, who starred in the cult sitcom SOAP. Robert considered becoming a priest, but he joined the Marines at age 17 for WWII. At 20, he became a messenger at The New York Times and then at CBS. Within three years he rose to TV direction, working on such dramatic series as SUSPENSE, THE ALCOA HOUR and PHILCO TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE. "Nobody knew what they were doing," Mulligan has said of live television. "It was the ones with the cool heads who succeeded."

During the 1960s, Mulligan directed 10 movies, six of them produced by Alan J. Pakula (who was Oscar-nominated for writing SOPHIE’S CHOICE, directing ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and producing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). 

A battle with alcohol diminished Mulligan over the years, so the quality and quantity of his output never quite lived up to its early promise. Robert Mulligan died on Dec. 20, 2008, after a long battle with heart disease. 

Over time, people have forgotten Mulligan’s weaker films, but he remains widely beloved for his great ones.

During the year that he directed his final movie, Mulligan discussed the fact that many of his films deal with the emotional highs and lows experienced by children and adolescents when confronting traumatic circumstances. "Ordinarily they say that cliché, a 'coming-of-age movie', and I reject that term," he said. "I think it's 'coming to life.' I felt, when I looked back on it, that I really didn't know what life was about until I was somewhere in my teens, when you become aware that sooner or later you're going to have to walk out the front door. Mother and father are not going to be there, you're not going to be protected. All those things become exciting and terrifying at the same time."

© Alan Waldman and Sharon Waldman (January 29, 2009) 


About Alan and Sharon Waldman

Writers, editors and smart-alecs Alan and Sharon Waldman have been married for 33 years (15 of them to each other). Alan has won various awards (including “Oldest Oregon Jew to Have Never Owned Real Estate”) and has published more than 2000 articles, in publications from Azerbaijan to New York, from Amsterdam to New Zealand. He has never been sued for more than $7 million, and that was by a man with a severely limited sense of humor.

Sharon was an actress who performed Shakespeare in prisons and in the streets of Minneapolis, a school teacher, and assistant to the executive in charge of the Law & Order shows. She is now a community college teacher and a personal historian who interviews older people and creates books of their life stories. She has had success teaching adults, children and pets, but her goal of teaching her husband something constructive has not yet been achieved.