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Their brilliant careers

by Jenny Gall, 19 December 2017

Movies shown in cinemas have come to represent the most powerful form of entertainment of our age, due to the size and diversity of the audiences they reach and their larger-than-life format. Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits – a collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and National Film and Sound Archive – translates and channels that movie-going experience into an exhibition, revealing how still photographic images capture the elusive quality of stardom in Australian actors, from the earliest silent films through to the cinematic fare of today. Starstruck’s striking photographic portraiture, accompanied by costumes, documents and artefacts, connects audiences with behind-the-scenes stories as engaging as those shown on the big screen, and includes distinctive thematic threads.

One of these distinct (and central) themes is the role of women in the history of Australian cinema; and, given the current revelations of discrimination against women in the entertainment and movie industries, it is an apposite one. From the 1920s onwards, women have worked at the heart of the industry, mastering and harnessing the power of celebrity, and collaborating to make exceptional films. Starstruck pays homage to an array of these women, among them the courageous 1920s film pioneer Lottie Lyell, and the creative trio behind the 1979 movie My Brilliant Career, Margaret Fink, Gillian Armstrong and Judy Davis.

Lottie Lyell’s career spanned 18 years, commencing in the theatre and concluding with the posthumous release in 1926 of Peter Vernon’s Silence, a Longford Lyell production, and The Pioneers, for which she adapted the screenplay from Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s novel.

Lyell and Raymond Longford made 28 films together, with Lyell performing in 21. Ignoring narratives of outback hardship, the duo chose stories based on the qualities of the individual, incorporating human faults and vanities into the characters. In The Sentimental Bloke, Lyell and Arthur Tauchert – under Longford’s direction – were able to subvert conventional, stylised Hollywood portrayals with freer, home-grown gestural patterns. The actors invested the narrative with their own interpretations, endearing the film to Australian audiences by embodying recognisable cultural characteristics, as captured in the still images taken on set.                                                  

Lyell was fearless in her commitment to her career, riding, fencing and rowing as required, as well as performing her own stunts, such as jumping 30 feet off a cliff into water, dressed in period costume. As her health deteriorated due to tuberculosis, Lyell combined performing with writing, directing, titling and editing, concentrating her energies on production work in the early 1920s. Her role as feisty factory girl Doreen in The Sentimental Bloke introduced audiences to a new theatrical heroine – a woman of integrity and humour from the working class who leads her man (played by Arthur Tauchert) to a better and more responsible life. Lyell's untimely death occurred at the close of the golden age of Australian feature film production. Without government protection, overseas films swamped the Australian market and crippled the home-grown industry.

While Lottie Lyell’s career flamed at the end of an era, the triumvirate of producer Margaret Fink, director Gillian Armstrong and actor Judy Davis heralded a rising crest in the ‘New Wave’ Australian cinema of the 1970s, with the success of their film My Brilliant Career. The film burst onto the world stage to an enthusiastic reception, exemplified by reviews of the time.

In October 1979, the Sun Herald’s John Lapsley enthused: ‘My Brilliant Career is a brilliant exploration of what it was like to be not only artistic, but an artistic woman in a society that could put little store by either, back at the turn of the century’.

The poster image of Davis’ imposing heroine is consistent with the London Sunday Times’ 1980 characterisation of the film: ‘A strong, confident, modern love story even though set in the 1890s. Like many recent Australian films, it speaks out with a real woman’s voice – a sound rarely heard in the cinema, since the women we see are usually creations of male fantasy, wishful thinking, sentimentality or even hatred … Judy Davis is a young lioness with a broad nose, wild mane, dangerous eyes.’

So far-reaching was the impact of the film that The Telegraph claimed later in 1980, ‘The Queen has asked to seethe highly successful Australian film My Brilliant Career as part of the briefing before her four day Australian visit in May’.

The release of Career to world-wide critical acclaim marked a significant moment in Australian cultural history. The film consolidated the achievements of the New Wave – the renaissance of Australian cinema – bravely rejecting the established formula of a romance with a happy ending. In sharp contrast to Hollywood convention, Sam Neill’s male lead is the ‘eye candy’, although his strong performance guarantees that he is never merely decorative; and Davis as Sybylla is presented as a heroine who is not conventionally attractive. By telling the story through the eyes of a female protagonist who renounces marriage for a career, My Brilliant Career is also a portrait of its era, transcending its 19th century setting to capture the socio-political zeitgeist of the late 70s. Implemented earlier in the decade, Whitlam’s no-fault divorce reforms, affirmative action policy in government employment strategies, and the prioritising of women’s health and education had created a relatable social backdrop.  

Still images provide a gateway for dicovering deeper dimensions of the portrait’s meaning. In recent interviews, Judy Davis has expressed a vehement dislike of her performance in Career, due to the physical appearance she was required to adopt and the strictures she felt were placed upon her. In a 2011 conversation with Leigh Sales she lamented, ‘They did this [ruffles hair furiously with hands] with my hair!’ Speaking in David Stratton’s 2016 autobiographical film, A Cinematic Life, Sam Neill also provided an insight into the dynamics on set when he remarked with a wry smile, ‘Judy certainly left me in no doubt that she thought I was a lightweight’.

Exactly what was it like on set? A candid group portrait of the leads and director on location at Michelago provides a study of the day’s work as it commences, with Neill and Davis receiving advice from Armstrong about the morning’s shoot. The image subverts any notional concept of glamour associated with production, providing a glimpse of a regime that was, by all accounts, a gruelling one. The trio, seated on spindly fold-up chairs, appear immersed in proceedings; it’s a picture that reflects their commitment to the project, consistent both with descriptions of dedication from actors, director, producer and crew and the headlines of the time heralding the beginning of ‘their brilliant careers’.

Journalist Geraldine Pascall outlined the daily routine in The Australian in December 1978: ‘It’s about a 45 minute drive to the homestead (Michelago) and that time, there and back, makes up an hour and a half of the 10 ¾ hour union-regulated work day, motel to motel, on location. There’s a 6 day week, Sundays off and three quarters of an hour for lunch, morning tea and afternoon tea breaks. The shooting day on set works out at about 8 hours. The director and producer of course can notch up a much longer day and week ... Judy Davis is in virtually every scene and is on call every day.’

As lengthy as the production days were, the hard work pre-dated filming. To prepare for the shoot, the film’s director and producer searched diligently for the most effective settings, contemplating such variables as landscape colours, interior composition and lighting.  The inclusion of seldom-seen proof sheets and continuity Polaroids in Starstruck documents this process, drawing attention to the range of options tested and the extent of craftsmanship that lies behind the set-up for every movie scene.

Sets and costumes are, of course, integral to the success of any film. Sybylla’s white dress tells its own story, epitomising the role of costume in helping to create and define a film character. The garment’s fabric

was selected because of the way the lighting highlights its lustre in the settings in which it features. It is comprised of two pieces, a bodice and skirt, and appears both in a fire-lit drawing room scene – featuring Sybylla and Uncle Julius – and the boating scene in which Sybylla, Harry and the dress are soaked.

In each scene, the lighting creates a new look for the dress. When we first see it, the cream fabric absorbs the warmth of the drawing room firelight to create an intimate atmosphere, with Sybylla appearing vulnerable as she seeks advice from her uncle.

In the barge on the billabong, however, the intense daylight accentuates the lace detail of the dress which, framed by her striking red parasol, equips Sybylla to play the coquette. But the facade is short-lived – Sybylla the tomboy comes to the fore, capsizing the vessel and tipping herself and Harry into the water, reducing the dress to a dripping sheet. Armstrong uses the multiple manifestations of the frock to parallel Sybylla’s questfor identity.

The film’s conclusion sees My Brilliant Career transition from period drama to timeless masterpiece. It is a moment captured by the still image featuring hero and heroine embracing in the stark setting of the open countryside. Once again the costuming supports the narrative – Sybylla in her working clothes, Harry as the gent – with Sybylla’s conflicted tenderness for the friend who understands her and Harry’s vulnerability lit mercilessly by the Australian sunlight. The shot is masterful, and yet to capture the nuances of the emotion the photographer had just a fleeting opportunity to record the mood in a ‘stolen’ image that was not part of the official filming process.

It is the skill of the stills photographer in capturing these transcendent moments that the Starstruck exhibition presents to audiences. Through the lens of this discipline, forever exploring and documenting the movie set’s junction of fictional and real, there emerge extraordinary photographic portraits, both of Australian film characters and ‘characters’ of Australian film. The images evoke memories and delight in equal measure, and, as a chronicle of the Australian film industry, tell us much about our national identity and consciousness, past and present.

Lottie Lyell as Doreen, by Monte Luke.
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