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Robert Mulligan 1925 - 2008

Posted by Ty Burr  December 23, 2008 12:14 PM

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The director of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Summer of '42" is dead at 83, after a long battle with heart disease. The Times obit touches on the basics, and if you haven't seen "Mockingbird," you need to right now: the 1962 film stands as the high point of the earnest, socially conscious drama purveyed by Mulligan and the rest of the generation that came out of 50s television ready to take on the world.

Yet Mulligan never made the transition to film with as much ease as peers like Sidney Lumet or his one-time producing partner Alan J. Pakula. He had the misfortune to arrive just as American cinema was overtaken by the age of sensation, and that just wasn't Mulligan's strength: Sensitivity and stolid, character-driven honesty were. See his debut film, 1957's "Fear Strikes Out," for an example of 50s issue-drama at its most harrowing -- Anthony Perkins plays Jimmy Piersall, a Boston Red Sox player having a nervous breakdown on and off the field -- or look to his last movie, 1991's "The Man in the Moon" for an example of Mulligan's elegant, subtly resonant way with a story. That film, by the way, introduced an actress named Reese Witherspoon; Mulligan was especially good with younger characters and players. He'll be missed, even if the culture has long since gone crashing noisily past him.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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