David Ashton is watching all the AFI Best Film winners – so you don’t have to.
1979 was the International Year of The Child so for twelve months children were allowed to vote, join the army and drink in pubs. To celebrate this, the Music for UNICEF concert was held, which featured the Bee Gees, ABBA, Donna Summer, Earth Wind and Fire and Rod Stewart. And people think Live Aid was a big deal! 1979 was also the year that Skylab fell out of space and onto West Australia.
Meanwhile in the world of movies the success of Star Wars was being followed by a slew of futuristic hopefuls, the best of which was probably Ridley Scott’s Alien. Others included Disney’s The Black Hole and Robert Wise’s Star Trek The Motion Picture. Another TV series spin-off was the timeless Muppet Movie. Also released this year were Volker Schlöndorff’s film of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Hair, The Jerk, Moonraker, The China Syndrome, Escape From Alcatraz, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Quadrophenia and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now. But the Best Picture Oscar that year went to divorce drama Kramer Vs Kramer, which – amazingly enough – was also that year’s highest-grossing film. Cannes were perhaps a bit more on the ball, with The Tin Drum and Apocalypse Now sharing their top prize.
The Vietnam War was also on the mind of Australians – the controversial war drama The Odd Angry Shot (dir: Tom Jeffrey) was released that year. Max Gillies and Bruce Spence starred in John Duigan’s adaptation of the Jack Hibberd play Dimboola, while a young up-and-comer named Mel Gibson starred in two feature films – the unconventional romance Tim (Directed by Michael Pate, adapted from a Colleen McCullough novel) and the seminal Mad Max. George Miller pulled off quite a coup with Mad Max, making a taut, action-packed (and extremely violent) film with very little money, which went on to be a huge financial success world-wide. Mad Max and its sequels were arguably the peak of the ‘Ozploitation’ cycle. But while Mad Max won the Australian Film Institute awards for editing, sound and music, and Mel Gibson was given a nod for his performance in Tim , the Best Film award (also cinematography, design, costume, director and adapted script) went to…
My Brilliant Career
Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Written by Eleanor Whitcombe from the novel by Miles Franklin. Starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill.
What’s It About?
Sybella Melvyn (Judy Davis) is a headstrong young woman in the late 19 th Century. Despite being the ‘plain’ daughter of poor farmer parents in the Australian outback she refuses to accept the narrow options open to her and dreams of being part of the world of “art and music and literature”. She jumps at the chance to live with her wealthy grandmother, and a proposal from the handsome, rich Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) seems to offer her a happy ending. But is it the happy ending she wants?
Is it hauntingly beautiful?
Yes. The beautifully-photographed period setting (courtesy of cinematographer Donald McAlpine) – with its contrast of the harsh-yet-picturesque Australian countryside and the frocked-up Anglo gentry – pretty much continues the Artsploitation template established by Picnic at Hanging Rock (dir: Peter Weir, 1974). Also placing it firmly in the artsploitation genre is its relaxed pace and highbrow themes. Add this to the fact that this is a coming-of-age film (of sorts) and it’s no wonder that it was the AFI’s favourite that year.
Is it any good?
Despite the story dating from 1901, My Brilliant Career could almost be viewed as a post-modern deconstruction of the period romance. All the traditional elements are in place: the heroine’s family has fallen on hard times, she’s dissatisfied with her lot in life. She meets a handsome man who she first takes to be a cad (there’s even a classic ‘cute meet’) before she realizes he is actually the local heir-to-a-fortune. They fall in love, he proposes… but then (spoiler alert!) she tells him that no, she wants to be single and have a career. She then writes a book about her life so far, it gets published, is made into a film, I review the film on the internet and so on.
Producer Margaret Fink was originally drawn to Miles Franklin’s autobiographical novel as it appealed to her feminist sensibilities, and screenwriter Eleanor Whitcombe and director Gillian Armstrong have kept that theme front and centre of the film, while still producing a charming story about appealing characters. Occasionally there is the odd line of dialogue that underlines the message in fluorescent purple ink, but while some characters may lack depth, they at least avoid becoming mere devices only there to prove a point.
Central to the film’s success is the character of Sybella herself. She’s no paragon of virtue, or victim downtrodden by the evil patriarch. Her ‘feistiness’ could easily come across as selfish or petulant – and sometimes it does – but as played by the always-impressive Judy Davis she comes across as likeable -sometimes confused about what she wants but finally brave in her determination to take the difficult road her sense of independence and her artistic calling demands of her. If it had been me I’d have married the rich guy.
Apparently there was some pressure from the film’s backers to give the story a more conventional romantic ending, but Fink & Armstrong stuck to their guns and their decisions were validated when the film was a huge success in Australia and abroad. Janet Maslin spoke highly of the film in the New York Times, describing “the radiance with which Miss Armstrong and Miss Davis invest so many memorable moments”. It became only the second Australian film to be nominated for the Palme D’or at Cannes.
Great Moments in Missed Moments
Convinced that no one was enjoying the film, Gillian Armstrong left in the middle of the first Cannes screening of My Brilliant Career and so missed seeing the standing ovation it received. She stayed all the way to the end of the second screening, but with a strange combination of naiveté and cynicism assumed that the audience’s reaction had all been arranged by publicists!
Where are they now?
My Brilliant Career was the first feature directed by Gillian Armstrong – at the time women directors were still rare in Australia and it was much remarked upon. In Australia and the in the US Armstrong went on to direct more period films with strong female leads including Mrs. Soffel (1984), Little Women (1994), Oscar and Lucinda (1997) and Charlotte Grey (2001). Other films include Star Struck (1982), High Tide (1987) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)
My Brilliant Career was the first starring role for Judy Davis. She went on to a fairly stellar career, working with directors like David Lean (A Passage To India, 1984), David Croenenburg (The Naked Lunch, 1991), the Cohen Brothers (Barton Fink, 1991), Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives, 1992 amonst others) and Clint Eastwood (Absolute Power, 1997). Other notable roles include a re-teaming with Gillian Armstrong for High Tide, playing writer George Sand in Impromptu (1991) and the lead in Peter Duncan’s underrated Children of the Revolution (1996). In recent years Davis has been sadly absent from the big screen, mostly working in television.
Sam Neill had previously starred in cult New Zealand film Sleeping Dogs (dir: Roger Donaldson, 1977), but My Brilliant Career was his breakthrough role. Although never an A-list star he has starred in some of the biggest films of all time and even became an action-figure after his role in Jurassic Park (1993). He starred opposite Judy Davis again in Children of the Revolution and his other films include Evil Angels (1988), Dead Calm (1989), Death in Brunswick , (1991) The Piano (1993) and The Dish (2000). He also contributed his voice to an episode of The Simpsons (1994).
Max Cullen , who plays Mr McSwatt, appears in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcome Australia as ‘Old Drunk’.
Next Time: Australians fighting overseas in another country’s war over controlling the natural resources of a country they have no rightful claim over. The more things change… Breaker Morant.
– David Ashton
Was Kramer vs Kramer better than Apocalypse Now? Was My Brilliant Career better than Mad Max? Can you honestly believe it’s not butter? Comments below… Remember, you can read previous entries in this series by clicking on “afi best film series” under “categories” on the right-hand menu.