*This film can be watched in its entirety on YouTube
The Film and Performance:
In 1925, teacher John Scopes was accused of violating a Tennessee law that made it unlawful to educate students about Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially human evolution, in any state-funded school. This became known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” During the Trial, the defense led by Clarence Darrow argued that the trial wasn’t merely about creationism versus evolution, but about free thought and having the right to express that thought. In contrast was three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who was adamant that the word of God as expressed in the Bible was the final word on all aspects of life. The trial ultimately concluded with Scopes being found guilty, but rather than incarcerate him, he was charged with the feeble fine of $100 dollars (equivalent to $1300 in 2015). Despite the guilty verdict, Darrow proclaimed the trial a victory because it brought about national attention to a law that was unconstitutional. In that regard, he was correct. Advocates soon fought for the sake of science, ultimately exhausting the anti-evolution movement by the mid 1930s.
Inherit the Wind is a dramatization of the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” It debuted as a play, premiering in 1955. Despite the play’s numerous inaccurate representations of the real-life trial, the play was a tremendous success with many at the time linking similarities to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” to the then McCarthyism era. It became a film in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy and Fredrick March. The film was considered one of the best films of the year and received four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Since the 1960 film, there have been various TV adaptions. The 1999 Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott version is one of these television adaptions.
Inherit the Wind may be directly about the “Scopes Monkey Trial” but it functions more as symbolism for conformity versus individualism. The action within the play or films showcase a community that demands a single way of thinking and vilifies anyone who does not adhere to their ideology. The teaching of evolution contradicts what has been established as the normative behavior of the community and they react harshly to silence that outside opinion. In that regard, Inherit the Wind has remarkable relevancy to today’s society where pressure to conform continues to be a major issue.
The problem with the 1999 television version is that it offers nothing new to audiences other than being another interpretation of the original play/film. Therefore it becomes painfully evident that the production of this film put the majority of its focus on the casting of Jack Lemmon as Henry Drummond, the crusader for evolution and George. C. Scott as Matthew Harrison Brady, the staunch defender of the Bible. Outside of these two lead actors, the film is stale and almost abhorrent to view.
What especially destroys what could have been a stellar adaption is the inferior, and downright awful supporting cast of this film. There is a blatant mixture of under and over acting in this film to the point that it even disrupts the pacing and tone of the film. Scenes that had the potential to be impactful nearly become laughable. Worst of the supporting cast is Tom Everett Scott as the accused, named Bertram Cates in this adaption. Everett Scott showed absolutely zero range and his acting was so deadpan that the actor’s disinterest in the filming of this film was abundantly clear. It is also painfully obvious that the director of this film was aware of this bad acting from Everett Scott and desperately tried to limit his on-screen presence. Considering the film’s script is almost verbatim from its source material, it reinforces the long-standing claim that the success to any play (or its adaptions) is having a strong ensemble cast to support each other. Even so much as one bad actor can ruin an entire show and diminish the extraordinary talent that has managed to occur. With the 1999 version of Inherit the Wind, the entire cast outside of Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Beau Bridges, and Piper Laurie are downright awful and drag this movie down from being enlightening to forgettable.
The film’s saving grace is Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott, who both were magnificent in their dueling roles. Having recently faced off against each other in the television remake of 12 Angry Men in 1997, it is evident producers wanted to recreate that dense drama in this film and that was a wise decision. Yet Lemmon and Scott were sure not to merely copy their 12 Angry Men rivalry into this film. Instead, they crafted their performances as two individuals who deeply respect each other but find themselves on opposite sides of an issue they are passionate about. Instead of framing their performances as two persons determined to win, Lemmon and Scott craft their characters’ interactions as if they are playing an elaborate game of chess, each of them hoping to checkmate the other in defeat. This mutual animosity towards each other allowed for both characters to be liked and respected despite their clear differences.
Yet it is their courtroom scenes where they both excel, especially Lemmon. Both actors brilliantly captured the tension and frustration of trying to convey their ideals and thoughts in these court scenes. Of the two, Lemmon had the more arduous performance as someone who has been limited almost the point of submission, but still fights for what is right. Additionally, Jack Lemmon had to truly represent himself as an outsider in a conformist community in order to adequately sell the performance and he does, establishing the character as methodical, careful, but knowing when strike with his words. For Lemmon, this was a fantastic performance. The only flaw comes in that it is diminished due to a very poor supporting cast that distracts from his overall performance.
Inherit the Wind is one of two films (the other being Tuesdays With Morrie) Jack Lemmon starred in 1999, the last year he acted in film before his death in June 27, 2001. For this performance, Jack Lemmon won his final Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for TV. To view Jack Lemmon’s acceptance speech, click HERE. He was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, but didn’t win.