And The Winner Is… Lonely Hearts (1982)

Our Minister For Theme Tunes, David Ashton, is watching all the AFI Best Film winners – so you don’t have to. Let’s see what he’s up to today…

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While Australia was experiencing one of its worst droughts, in 1982 the UK recorded it’s lowest ever temperature (-27.2C in Aberdeen.) Another cold place – the Falkland Islands – was invaded by Argentina, leading to war with Britain. With the IRA exploding bombs in London and the Queen off visiting Australia to open the National Gallery, Britain was in need of cheering up. So everyone was heartened when Aston Villa won the European Cup and they had a new TV channel to watch – Channel 4. One thing not televised (probably) was the first Rubik’s Cube World Championship, held in Budapest.

1982 was a good year for computers: not only did Scott Fahlman post the first emoticons, but Time Magazine named “The Computer” Man of the Year.

Possibly the editors of Time had all been to see Tron that year. Science Fiction was definitely still big in 1982 with films as diverse as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, and Steven Spielberg’s monster hit E.T. Meanwhile a new popular genre was emerging – the raunchy teen comedy. John HughesFast Times at Ridgemont High has since gone on to be a cult favourite, while Porky’s hasn’t.

If you weren’t a teenager or fan of science fiction in 1982 you may have gone to see the drag comedy Tootsie; the romance An Officer and a Gentleman; the musicals Annie or Pink Floyd: The Wall; or the spooky thrills of Poltergeist. Those with more political tastes may have preferred the Oscar-winning Ghandi, or Costa GarvisMissing, which took the Cannes Palme D’Or this year.

Meanwhile, Australia was experiencing a rare period of commercial success for local films. The biggest hits were The Man From Snowy River (directed by The Other George Miller) and The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir). Australian films were also reflecting the same mix of genres as the international scene. There were the musicals Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong) and The Pirate Movie (Ken Annakin), romance in Far East (John Duigan’s remake of Casablanca), science fiction/horror got a gurnsey with the notorious Turkey Shoot (Brian Trenchard-Smith) and there was ribald comedy in The Clinic (David Stevens). We Of The Never Never (Igor Auzins) represented the post-Hanging Rock historical arthouse picture.

Perhaps perversely, this year the Australian Film Institute decided to give the Best Film award this year to a modest low-budget romantic comedy drama

lonely hearts poster us

Lonely Hearts

Directed by Paul Cox, from a script by Paul Cox and John Clarke. Starring Norman Kaye and Wendy Hughes. Unusually, Best Film was the only AFI won by Lonely Hearts.

What’s it All About?

Peter, a nearly-fifty piano tuner with a penchant for shop-lifting, has been living with his mother until her recent death. Patricia, a repressed thirty-year-old bank clerk, has just recently moved out of her parent’s home. They meet through a dating agency and share such fun activities as Bingo Night at the RSL and starring in an amateur theatre production of Strindberg. Nevertheless, their fledgling romance seems doomed by the interference of their families, the police and their own social awkwardness.

Is It Hauntingly Beautiful?

No. Although the dark, dingy look of this film effectively evokes a grey Melbourne winter, it also looks… well, cheap. Which in fact it was. The Umbrella DVD release of this was film is in 4:3 ratio (i.e. television-shaped) which made me think that it was probably shot on 16mm film, although the National Film and Television Archive claims to have 35mm copies in a 1.85 (widescreen) ratio.

Is It Any Good?

It’s hard to imagine a more striking contrast to the previous year’s AFI winner, Gallipoli. While that film was a glossy historical epic dealing with Big Historical Events from Australia’s history, Lonely Hearts is a small, intimate film. Rather than the youth and charm of Mel Gibson, we have Norman Kaye with a bad toupee. And rather than the enduring mateship between top Aussie blokes, we have the first stumbling steps toward romance between two lonely, shy people.

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Paul Cox has a reputation for making serious – arguably pretentious – art-movies so it is a pleasant surprise to find that Lonely Hearts has a lightness of tone and a gentle sense of humour. It’s warm and charming, when it could so easily have been bleak and morose. Apparently Cox’s original script was quite sombre until producer Philip Adams brought in John Clarke to add a little humour. Although the film still has a sad, slightly bleak tone, it also has Clarke’s subtle wit and ear for idiosyncratic dialogue – although Clarke claims that in the final script some of the funniest material came from Cox, while some of the more poignant scenes were his.

Cox’s no-frills direction gives his actors the space to do the script justice and they rise to the occasion. Norman Kaye and Wendy Hughes are excellent in the lead roles (as is the supporting cast which includes Julia Blake and Jon Finlayson) which is probably just as well. If you didn’t mostly like the characters – and there are moments when they are difficult to like – the film could become frustrating for the viewer. If you’re looking for pace, tight plotting and an uplifting ending, then Lonely Hearts probably isn’t the film for you. If you’re after a modest observation of some of the less socially-capable then you may find what you’re looking for.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times was positive about the film, saying that despite some reservations about the script “I must also admit having smiled with Lonely Hearts much of the time.” He says that Cox “may be a bright new film-making talent” but adds “the film belongs to Mr. Kaye, who looks like a somewhat older, scaled-down version of Michael Caine, and Miss Hughes, a classically beautiful actress who, here, succeeds in suggesting plainness without sacrificing the beauty. They are a very attractive pair.”

Where Are They Now?

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Scientists have used quantum physics and string theory to prove the existence of multiple universes. In one of these Wendy Hughes had the A-list international stardom her talent and beauty deserved. In this universe she dazzled audiences with starring roles in the AFI-winning films Newsfront (1978), My Brilliant Career (1979), Careful He Might Hear You (1983) and Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1988). More recent film roles include Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road (1997) and Paul Cox’s Salvation (2008). She appeared in episodes of the Australian series Homicide (1968-72), the US series Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993) and the Australian series City Homicide (2007) with many other TV series in-between, including a single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993).

Paul Cox had already made several features before Lonely Hearts and he remains a prolific, but controversial, filmmaker. Although his films are praised by some in Australia and overseas, he is also disliked by many, either for his very European art-house style of film making or his outspoken (some would say “cranky”) opinions about the Australian film industry and his own place in it. His films include Man of Flowers (1983), Vincent (1987), Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999), Innocence (2000) and Salvation (2008).

John Clarke moved to Australia to escape fame in his native New Zealand where he was a household name thanks to his droll comic creation Fred Dagg. His desire to escape the limelight led him turn down the lead role in Lonely Hearts when it was offered to him, although he does have a cameo role in the film. Nevertheless he went on to greater fame thanks to his writing and acting on many film and television projects including The Fast Lane, The Gillies Report, Death In Brunswick, The Games and his series of mock interviews on A Current Affair and The 7.30 Report.

Norman Kaye’s long career has included numerous Australian TV series – Homicide, Prisoner, Bangkok Hilton, Water Rats etc – as well as many films, both with Paul CoxMan of Flowers, Cactus, Island and others – and without – Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train, Bad Boy Bubby, Oscar and Lucinda, Moulin Rouge, to name just a few.

Next Time…

Careful

The bitter struggle between two sisters for the love of a little boy.” Wendy Hughes again in Careful, He Might Hear You.

– David Ashton

Remember, you can read previous entries in this series by clicking on “afi best film series” under “categories” on the right-hand menu. Comments below!

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9 Responses to And The Winner Is… Lonely Hearts (1982)

  1. outlandinstitute says:

    Was The Pirate Movie rated… arrrrrr? Oh, I’m hilarious.

    This film was the only one on the AFI list I’d never heard of, which I think says something a bit sad about our film culture. I’m not a fan of Mr Cox, but I’m keen to have a look at this. Although I’m a bit surprised at Umbrella releasing a 4:3 DVD.

  2. Dave AA says:

    Interestingly, in 1977 Wendy Hughes won a Logie for “Best Sustained Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.”

    Sustained? What does that mean? She didn’t stop acting for the whole show? She did it all in one 60-minute take?

  3. Anne-Marie says:

    Twas a year I must have gone to the movies a lot – cos I’ve seen most of them – but – even then – I missed Mr Cox’s effort. It mustn’t have been on at Hoyts in Adelaide or I chose to see The Pirate Movie instead.

  4. Anne-Marie says:

    and who could forget the awesomeness of the chick mullet – as worn by Christie whats-her-name in The Pirate Movie.

  5. Dan Cardone says:

    This was a column about Lonely Hearts and three of the four comments mention The Pirate Movie… Which leads me to believe we need a column about The Pirate Movie. Or maybe at least that unfortunate habit of needing to make an Australian movies accessable to a US audience by casting a low rent, and often massively miscast, American actor in the lead…

  6. DaveAA says:

    Well, obviously no one has seen or remembers Lonely Hearts…

    As for the low-rent, miscast American actor syndrome, I don’t think there’s a more excerable expression of Australia’s cultural cringe than that. And that approach has never produced a successful movie, let alone a good one.

    The nearest thing to this working was Croccodile Dundee, which took a subtly – but crucially – different approach of making the hero/lead actor a totally (cliched) Aussie, but the audience-identification character an American who falls in love with him (as did the American audience.)

  7. Glenn says:

    This was such a good read. Loved it.

  8. Janet says:

    Sorry DaveAA. I do remember Lonely Hearts. I didn’t see it at the cinema but saw it on video a number of years later. I think I’ve watched most of Paul Cox’s films this way. Except for Molokai. I do remember seeing this at the cinema.

    Never saw the pirate movie.

  9. I know her from Snowy River, and have been surprised that at her many other roles. I guess I shouldn’t be; she was wonderful in Snowy River.

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