TERRY GROSS, host:
Australian actors and film makers are now so much a part of the American movie scene that it's easy to forget that it wasn't until the late 1970s that the world even noticed that they made serious movies in Australia. One of the first films to grab international attention was Gillian Armstrong's �My Brilliant Career,� which made stars of its lead actors - Judy David and Sam Neill. The movie is just out on a Blu-ray disc from Blue Underground, which has also released the film on DVD.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says that we can still feel its influence today.
JOHN POWERS: A few months ago, I was watching a very entertaining documentary called �Not Quite Hollywood,� a rollicking look at the Australian exploitation movies of the �70s and early �80s. Although it was bursting with affection for gleefully bawdy and violent pictures, it got me thinking about the first non-exploitation Aussie movie I remember seeing - Gillian Armstrong's �My Brilliant Career.�
Turns out, this is the 30th anniversary of that film's release. And after watching the gorgeous new version on Blu-ray, I can constantly say that this tale of a young woman's self-creation seems even better now than it did in 1979, not least because our current movies have virtually no interest in women. �My Brilliant Career,� is based on a 1901, novel by a teenage girl who wrote under the name of Miles Franklin. The time is the late 19th Century, the place rural New South Wales, and the heroine Sybylla Melvyn - a willfully, conflictedly headstrong young woman, thrillingly played by Judy Davis.
A born romantic, Sybylla dreams of being a writer. But everything is against it - her family's poverty, her need to work as a servant, provincial society's hostility to her seemingly unwomanly ways. Then she meets a wealthy landowner named Harry Beecham. That's a young Sam Neill, who's never been so wolfishly charming. The two fall in love but nothing is ever simple with Sybylla. And even as she leads Harry on, she also fends him off, actually slapping him with a riding crop the night he proposes marriage.
Here, Sybylla and Harry are talking the next day and she tries to explain herself.
(Soundbite of movie, �My Brilliant Career�)
Ms. JUDY DAVIS (Actor): (As Sybylla Melvyn) Could you - can you give me a bit of time, maybe two years.
You see, I'm just not ready yet, not like�
I don't know, I think I was trying to hurt you. I think you let go, (unintelligible).
Give me a chance to find out what's wrong with the world and with me, who I am, everything. And I'll marry you if you need me and I can help.
You do understand, aren't you?
Mr. SAM NEILL (Actor): (As Harry Beecham) Of course, I do.
(Soundbite of river)
Ms. DAVIS: (As Sybylla Melvyn) (Unintelligible).
POWERS: When �My Brilliant Career,� first came out in the U.S., it deservedly became a hit. Still, many critics wrote it off as merely another of the feminist fantasies common in the 1970s. It is that, but it's also something more. You see, most of the women's empowerment films of that era centered on women who were dumping a creep of a husband, sometimes swapping that creep for a sensitive artist. Here, it's Sybylla who wants to be the artist, and what makes it tricky is that she loves a good guy who loves her precisely for her imagination and independence.
The question is, can she have this love and achieve the brilliant writing career that she sees as her true destiny? As it happens, �My Brilliant Career,� was itself destined to become a cultural watershed, one whose affects we can feel when we go to the movies or turn on our TVs. In fact, 30 years on, we're currently living in an era that will be remembered for being dominated by great Australian actresses. There are the ubiquitous stars like Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, who gave this decade's most brilliant performance in �Mulholland Drive.�
There are the superb character actors like Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths. And then there are the terrific up-and-comers like Mia Wasikowska, who stole the first season of �In Treatment,� and Abbie Cornish from the recent �Bright Star.� Now, I know that there are strong American actresses, too. I'm well aware that Meryl Streep is a prodigy and that Sandra Bullock and Kate Hudson keep churning out hits. Still, it's modern Hollywood's shameful failing that it trains homegrown actresses to be likable, you know, not bitchy.
Of course, that usually means being bland, girlish, uncomplicated, and totally unthreatening. That's why, when American filmmakers have a nice, complex role, they tend to cast an Aussie actress. And who can blame them? Australian actresses are less pre-packaged. They're smart, tough, moody, and not cookie-cutter beautiful. Their good looks are born of intelligence and style. Better still, even their biggest stars are utterly fearless. They let themselves look plain, they don't demand star vehicles and they're willing to play characters the audience actively dislikes. No doubt, there are profound cultural reasons for all this, but there's also one straightforward explanation. Whenever I ask Aussie actresses who's inspired them, they always say the same thing - Judy Davis.
It was Davis whose bravery, incandescence, and occasional cussedness set the template for what it means to be an Australian screen actress. She's the lodestar, the yardstick, and to this day, one of the world's great talents.
In fact, if you want to know why this is the Golden Age of Australian actresses, you should start by watching Judy Davis play Sybylla Melvyn. She's the Godmother of all those brilliant careers.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and writes the Absolute Powers column for vogue.com.
I'm Terry Gross.
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