Richard Chamberlain and David Gulpilil in The Last Wave
Australia’s Leading Actors and Directors Tell How They Conquered Hollywood
A new book by Michaela Boland and Michael Bodey
294 pages, illustrated; Independent Publishers Group, $16.95
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Films shot in Australia by Australian casts and crews evolved into a modest nouvelle vague by the 1980’s: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and A Cry in the Dark (1988), both by Fred Schepisi; George Miller’s popular series of apocalyptic adventure—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)—as well as his darkly comic Babe: Pig in the City (1998); Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977), Gallipoli (1981), and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982); and Bruce Beresford’s Don’s Party (1976), The Getting of Wisdom (1978), ‘Breaker’ Morant (1980), and Puberty Blues (1981).
Most of these helped to supplant the adult entertainment all but abandoned by American studios, then in the throes of the toddler-savvy Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and their innumerable, sugary imitators. But Michaela Boland and Michael Bodey, the authors of Aussiewood, a tight and breezy examination of sixteen contemporary Australian actors and directors whose careers have extended to (and profited from) Hollywood, contend that it was Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) that “opened America’s eyes to Australia, the climate, the characters and landscape.”
Not to imply that the Australians single-handedly rescued mainstream cinema from absolute Disneyfication, but we should pause to give thanks. Aussiewood is less interested in the aesthetic merits of the pictures than the foreigner’s plunge into American business and culture, and the ensuing, sometimes immediate conflict of ethics for those with strong ties back home. Unlike the smattering of Europeans who’ve been relocating and prospering in Tinsel Town ever since the ’50s, Australians arrived nearly en masse during the ‘80s, while American production companies began frequent location shoots there in the ‘90s.
“Hollywood came Down Under in the mid-1990’s and early 2000’s,” according to the authors, “at the invitation of the Australian and New Zealand governments eager to lure ‘runaway’ film and television productions and their apparent riches from the U.S…The influx of made-in-Australia American productions—including The Matrix, Pitch Black, Mission: Impossible 2 and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones—brought new skills, brighter careers and money. They also initiated a boom or bust economic style that was dependent upon the largesse of capricious Hollywood studios and a weak Australian dollar.”
A seamless transfer to America: Nicole Kidman, excellent in To Die For (here seducing Matt Dillon)
Australians Nicole Kidman, Paul Hogan and Naomi Watts have won awards and made fortunes; Hugo Weaving, Heath Ledger and Hugh Jackman have cultivated loyal fan followings. But Boland and Bodey venture beyond the fame and bank accounts to tap into the sense of idealism, heritage and belonging all these people share ‘down under’ while farming themselves out to Los Angeles, the Emerald City of avarice and stone-hearted capitalism. To say nothing of the films they’ve been offered, crass multi-million-dollar productions short on character but heavy on action and effects, consciously geared toward ‘demographics’ rather than people.
At one time poised on the brink of superstardom in the States, actor Bryan Brown recognized how strained these ties could get under the weight of Malibu beach homes and Bel Air estates. “His generation views Hollywood differently to the next generation,” write the authors. “In the ‘70s, Australian actors gained a voice they hadn’t had.” Brown believes “That voice is taken for granted by a lot of the young guys now…I’ve been there when it wasn’t there and I know how fragile it is.” After nearly losing it in the meaningless action of F/X (1986), the hollow Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (1988), and Gorillas in the Mist (1988), a picture whose good intentions were undermined by lofty marketing goals, Brown retreated to low-key projects at home. “That whole period of Twisted Tales and Dead Heart was really stimulating,” he says of the Australian TV work he did in the ‘90s. “And there’s the difference; I do something like that and feel great, and I do something like a Cocktail or F/X and I think, that was nice, thanks for the experience, but I don’t feel anything.”
A familiar name and face on the blockbuster circuit (thanks to The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings series), Weaving admits, “I’ve always felt more of a foreigner in L.A. than in Delhi or anywhere else.” Such thoughts of alienation echo throughout the book: “I always felt lonely in Los Angeles, dreadfully lonely, and wanted to come back and be with my family and work.” As a result, the authors point out, “Weaving is determined but not driven to succeed in the U.S.”
One very notable exception, Kidman has miraculously balanced glamour and talent, b-material (Days of Thunder , Batman Forever , Bewitched ) with the highbrow (The Portrait of a Lady , The Hours ), and experimental (To Die For , Eyes Wide Shut , Dogville ), becoming one of the most interesting and diversified actresses working today. Despite Hollywood, she’s cognizant of her roots: “I do have a strong sense of being an Australian contributing to the world,” she tells the authors. “I hope than when I’m older it will be seen as a good contribution and I would like for my country to be proud of me…I do feel a huge part of my success comes from the uniqueness of [Australia], the way in which we view the world…the way in which we Australians experience things.”
Director Phillip Noyce, who made his best pictures Down Under (Back Roads , Newsfront , Dead Calm ) and his fortune shilling popcorn for corporate America (Sliver , Clear and Present Danger , The Bone Collector ), confesses that he’s “made movies that were good, bad and in between.” But as far as the Hollywood executives were concerned, “it didn’t matter. All that mattered was, how were they going to sell it?” Noyce understood the power of compromise: “One of the advantages of making films in Australia was the freedom to make almost any movie you wanted. One of the disadvantages was that so few of these movies have been seen by anyone.” When he made Patriot Games (1992), a Harrison Ford action vehicle commissioned by Paramount, “Its budget was reported as close to double the combined budgets of Noyce’s previous four films,” note the authors. Bankable and reliable, he now enjoys the privilege of doing modest, intelligent and critically sound work: Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), was filmed in Australia, while The Quiet American (2003) alternated between Australia and Vietnam.
Delivered in crisp journalistic fashion (the authors are both employed by the Australian media), Aussiewood profiles all of its subjects with equal enthusiasm. They cap it off with a brief history of the country’s cinema, from the 1890’s on. The end result is a work which uncovers the dimension and human side of a culture generally pigeonholed by many Americans as dusty, archaic and rough, something out of Crocodile Dundee. Boland and Bodey quickly reveal how shortsighted that mindset is, and whet the appetite to see more work by this roster of dedicated, unique actors and directors.