When Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing opened in 1982 one of the characters said, “Debbie’s into Australian films. Australian. Not Chips Rafferty — actual films.” When the play was revived recently the reference had disappeared, presumably because it was considered no longer relevant. That’s because in the past 30 or so years, Australian cinema — and to a lesser extent New Zealand — has become recognised around the world as a distinct feature on the cinematic landscape.
Mainstream movies such as the Mad Max movies, Crocodile Dundee and Strictly Ballroom all became international hits — although they’ve invariably played on Antipodean stereotypes — while smaller movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Piano, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Muriel’s Wedding have acquired cult status following critical acclaim and strong word of mouth.
Where once the aforementioned 50s star Chips Rafferty seemingly appeared in every Australian movie made, there’s now a remarkable array of acting talent from Down Under including the likes of Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Mel Gibson, Rachel Griffiths, Nicole Kidman, Toni Collette, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush and Guy Pearce to name just a very few.
Hollywood Or Bust
An indication of Australia’s late-development as a filmmaking nation is that it didn’t actually have a national film school until 1975. Graduates of the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) have subsequently included Gillian Armstrong, the director of Dead Calm Phillip Noyce, Jocelyn Moorhouse the filmmaker behind Proof and Paul J Hogan who brought to life the delightfully quirky Muriel’s Wedding.
While this list of names is impressive, it also highlights one of Antipodean cinema’s biggest problems: the haemorrhaging of talent to Hollywood. So, for example, the aforementioned list could also have read as Armstrong: Little Women, Noyce: The Saint, Moorhouse: How to Make an American Quilt and Hogan: My Best Friend’s Wedding.
When you add high-calibre directors such as Peter Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock and in the US The Truman Show, Bruce Beresford who first made Breaker Morant and then went American with Driving Miss Daisy, and Fred Schepisi who brought us The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith before heading State-side with Six Degrees of Separation to the list, you begin to appreciate that Australian cinema is about far more than its indigenous output.
One of the biggest problems with the Australian film industry will come as no surprise to British filmmakers: big-budget movies are being enticed over to utilise Australia’s superb studio facilities and vast technical know-how at a fraction of the Hollywood (or UK) cost. That’s why so many Hollywood blockbusters are filmed there – the weather also seldom gets in the way.
While this is good news for the industry, it shouldn’t obscure an even bigger problem for Antipodean filmmakers: actually getting their films seen in their home countries.