“It’s come to my attention that you don’t know who I am” – is a line that Cate Blanchett delivers with deep and devastating effectiveness when she first enters THOR RAGNAROK. Could it be that she is referencing her old acting teachers, Kevin Jackson and myself? Not certain – but what this line does reflect is the subject of ‘identity politics’ that has come to dominate so much of modern theatre and film.
So – here we are – at the end of 2018 – that brief time in which we reflect on what we have seen and done over 2018, amidst the plethora of ‘Best of’ lists. I am not necessarily into the ‘Best of ’ etc. I have a fervent dislike of art becoming a kind of superficial competition, which is why I don’t watch a lot of TV. My lists are far more personal and revealing, reflective of those productions that affected me in one way or another, and have stayed with me for various reasons. I have my favourites, certainly, but they are not necessarily the “Best” of anything. I like the respective following works – because they moved me – that’s all.
I feel very fortunate to be living and working in Adelaide, partly because I am able to see a relatively vast range of national and international productions each year. This is primarily due to the respective festivals, such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and (my favourite) the Oz-Asia Festival.
So – here we go. However, let me first state that I did not see any opera this year, nor did I see much dance and ballet, so these kind of productions are not on my list. All the theatre productions listed below were different in their own way, yet each profoundly moved me as well as enlightened and thrilled me.
THEATRE (in roughly chronological order)
JOHN BUCCHINO: IT’S ONLY LIFE – Davine Productions (USA/AUST. – Fringe Festival)
FLESH & BONE by Elliot Warren – Unpolished Theatre (UK – Fringe Festival)
KING JACK QUEEN by Baboab Tree Theatre Company (UK – Fringe Festival)
SMOKING WITH GRANDMA (Threewords Playwright (China – Fringe Festival)
KINGS OF WAR based on the ‘History’ plays by William Shakespeare – directed by Ivo von Hove and produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Adelaide Festival)
US/THEM by Carly Wijs and BRONKS, Belgium (Adelaide Festival)
FLA.CO.MEN – Israel Galvan (Spain – Adelaide Festival)
MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald – directed by Chris Drummond with Helen Morse (Brink Productions) (Australia – Adelaide Festival)
PATTI LUPONE (USA – Cabaret Festival)
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL (USA – Cabaret Festival)
NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour (Iran – Oz-Asia Festival
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai (China – Oz-Asia Festival)
SUTRA by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Netherlands/China – Oz-Asia Festival)
FAITH HEALER by Brain Friel – directed by Judy Davis with Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell. (State Theatre of South Australia.)
THE PURPLE LIST by Libby Pearson (UK – Feast Festival)
SEUSSICAL by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens– Northern Light Theatre Company
LINES by Pamela Carter (UK) – directed by Cory MacMahon (UK)
GODS OF STRANGERS by Elena Carapetis (State Theatre of South Australia)
Whilst this is really just shameless self-promotion, nonetheless, I am very proud of the productions that STARC the company I have formed with Stefannie Rossi and Marc Clement, produced in 2018. This includes TOYER by Gardner Mackay, TWO by Jim Cartwright, and REASONABLE DOUBT by Suzie Miller. Plus – there was Genet’s THE MAIDS.
Suzie Miller’s REASONABLE DOUBT, Elena Carapetis’ GODS OF STRANGERS, as well as Jada Alberts’ BROTHERS WRECK were the outstanding new Australian plays produced in Adelaide in 2018. I did see other new works in Sydney and Melbourne – but that’s another story, and none of them had the same impact on me as these three works. I may be biased re REASONABLE DOUBT but it was an honour and privilege to direct and produce the Australian premiere of this play.
FILM (not in any order of preference)
SHOPLIFTERS (2018) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (JAPAN)
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) directed by Jon M. Chu (USA)
A STAR IS BORN (2018) directed by Bradley Cooper (USA)
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) directed by Bryan Singer (USA.UK)
HEREDITARY (2018) directed by Ari Aster (USA)
GURRUMUL (2018 directed by Paul Damien Williams (AUSTRALIA)
Films released at the end of 2017 and seen in 2018
SWEET COUNTRY (2017) directed by Warwick Thornton (AUSTRALIA)
THE INSULT (2017) – directed by Ziad Doueiri (LEBANON)
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017) directed by Sebastian Lelio (CHILE)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnini (ITALY)
THOR – RAGNAROK (2017) directed by Taika Waititi (USA/NZ)
DARKEST HOUR (2017) directed by Joe Wright (UK/USA)
THE POST (2017) directed by Steven Spielberg (USA
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) directed by Martin McDonagh (USA)
THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) directed by James Franco (USA)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) directed by Rian Johnson (USA)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – directed by Michael Gracey (USA)
BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – directed by Denis Villeneuve (USA)
Rather an eclectic group – and there are others – but these are the ones that have stayed with me.
I was also very fortunate in representing the National Film and Sound Archive in presenting during the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival (which was excellent) the newly restored prints of Gillian Armstrong’s STARSTRUCK (1982) and John Duigan’s THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987). The latter, in particular, was very well received, and it was marvellous to see the very young Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn who most certainly have gone on to have quite wonderful careers.
2018 also marked the 100th Anniversary of the Raymond Longford’s and Lotte Lyall’s THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1918), which premiered in Adelaide on the 26 November 1918. I couldn’t attend the anniversary screening in Adelaide, so I watched this great Australian silent film classic at home.
Re Australian films – I did see a number, including Stephan Elliot’s SWINGING SAFARI, Mark Grenfell’s THE MERGER, Chris Sun’s BOAR, Ben Howling’s CARGO, Marion Pilowsky’s THE FLIPSIDE, and Heath Davis’ BOOK WEEK. I also finally caught up with Simon Baker’s BREATH (2017) and Ben Young’s HOUNDS OF LOVE (2017). A number of these films I admit I watched at home as they either had a limited cinema release and/or went straight to Netflix.
So – a wacky combo of romantic comedies and horror. None of these films was ‘brilliant’, but they were OK; in fact, more than OK. I particularly liked and appreciated the romantic comedies, perhaps the most difficult of all film genres to successfully pull off.
It was, however, Paul Damien Williams’ documentary GURRUMUL and Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY that were the stand-outs – especially SWEET COUNTRY.
Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY is terrific! And yet – I don’t know anyone who has seen it. Seriously. I saw it at the movies in Mitcham and I was one of three people in the session. Rather depressing – especially for such an excellent Australian film, but the reality is that it has been a bit of a disaster at the box-office, and continues to be an unknown despite good reviews etc.
SWEET COUNTRY, however, did trigger and inspired me to explore in more detail the nature of Australian ‘westerns’, and the ‘Western’ as a film genre in general.
The ‘Western’ is arguably the most common form of film in World Cinema, beginning with the Tait’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906), the first feature film in World Cinema, and the shorter THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903).
Subsequently, it is possible to argue that it was the ‘Western’ that began cinema and feature film. There are so many sub-genres in regard to ‘Westerns’, including musicals, comedies, horror, and science-fiction. Virtually all major ‘stars’ have at least one ‘Western’ in their body of work – and often more than one. Nor is the ‘Western’ confined simply to US film – they are everywhere; for example, the influential Italian/ Spanish ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone. Australian ‘Westerns’ have the strange title of ‘meat-pie’ Westerns.
There is not the time nor space to elaborate on this wonderful conundrum (what does the ‘West’ mean? Etc), but SWEET COUNTRY certainly joins the pantheon of great Australian ‘Westerns’ that includes WAKE IN FRIGHT, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, THE TRACKER, THE PROPOSITION, MYSTERY ROAD, GOLDSTONE, as well as earlier films such as ROBBERY UNDER ARMS, BITTER SPRINGS and even JEDDAH.
The ‘Western’ is also very much a part of contemporary US films. Here is a list of some of the modern US ‘Westerns’ that I have watched. John McLean’s SLOW WEST (2015) and Ti West’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) being two in particular that I enjoyed and would thoroughly recommend.
THE HOMESMAN (2014) – directed by Tommy Lee Jones
SLOW WEST (2015) – directed by John McLean
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) – S. Craig Zahler
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) – Quentin Tarantino
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) – Ti West
BRIMSTONE (2016) – Martin Koolhoven
Looking back – WOW – quite pleased with myself that I have actually seen so much.
Finally – did Ms Blanchett wickedly reference either Kevin Jackson or myself in THOR RAGNAROK?
I don’t really know – but it certainly has been suggested. No matter – but if and whenever I see this wonderful ex-student of ours I do intend to say to her in a rather deep voice – It has come to my attention that you don’t know who I am (Kevin), quickly followed by – Have you been listening to a word I’ve said!!! (Me)
Bring on 2019.
I have been neglectful of my WordPress website. I have recently had a very successful exhibition of my photography for this year’s South Australian Living Artists festival, a number of which have been sold. Thank you.
I have started a new series called DANCING TREES. This is an attempt to capture the movement and character of trees. I will post a few of them – the story so far. This one from Brown Hill Creek, Mitcham, Adelaide, has already been sold. My photos are available for sale on the BlueThumb web site.
As part of the South Australian History Festival that has been running throughout May, there is a truly fascinating exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide – Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales. This a celebration of the compelling majestic power and beauty of whales.
Part of this exhibition is devoted to the history of ‘whaling’, past and present. Hunting whales, despite its current ‘politically incorrect’ status, was and still is part of human history. Why hunt whales? Many people today, including myself, would find such a thing truly repulsive – and it is! Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging the brutality of ‘whaling’, this exhibition captures the fascination, dependence upon and respect for whales by a number of human groups and tribes, some of which continue to hunt whales today. This includes a few modern indigenous tribes in places such as Indonesia and Greenland, as well as past ‘western’ commercial whaling that inspired artists and writers, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
I am most certainly not defending the hunting of whales and ‘whaling’, nonetheless, there is a fascinating mystery, a kind of ‘romanticism’ about ‘whaling’ that is part of past and modern human history. Why? Neither I nor this exhibition has an answer, yet it does exist and is a conundrum – which is partly why this exhibition is so fascinating and well worth a visit. Furthermore, it is a part of South Australian history as Port Adelaide once was a trading centre for commercial whaling in the now distant past. This may be uncomfortable for many who think it should be buried beneath the veneer of the niceness of modern ‘political correctness’ – nonetheless, it remains an historical fact. This exhibition challenges as well as informs without being gory and horrific, adding to its overall impressive value.
Furthermore, there are many other reasons why a visit to the South Australian Maritime Museum is worthwhile. There are numerous artefacts from the past that are fascinating. This includes a series of ‘figureheads’ that once stood proudly at the prow of sailing ships – a lost art form in itself.
Currently, in Adelaide at the Art Gallery of South Australia, there is a truly wonderful and enlightening exhibition – Colours of Impressionism – that has some excellent works from Musee D’Orsay in Paris. What follows is a brief overview of the exhibition.
The first colour that is focused on is black. Following traditional methods, black was used for shadows, to highlight landscapes and portraits. Black hues were used by the romantic artists to darken their predominantly historical paintings. Significantly, ‘black’ was also the dominant colour of men’s clothes in the mid-nineteenth century, hence its relatively constant presence in realistic portraiture of the time, and was regarded as very ‘modern’.
Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne (1869) – Edouard Manet
It was Edouard Manet (1832-1883) who exemplifies the beginning of a new approach by the ‘impressionists’ in the use of the colour black. To quote from the exhibition pamphlet – ‘Manet applied thick black paint to create stark shapes with greatly simplified contrasts. Black played a key part in the balance of his compositions, a departure from its standard use in creating shadows and darkening other tones’.
There are other works in this first section of the exhibition. Two works that captured my attention that also exemplify this new use of the colour ‘black’ are by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and James Tissot (1836-1902).
Le Bain (1873-74) – Alfred Stevens
What is remarkable about Alfred Stevens’ Le Bain (The Bath) is the juxtapositions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ objects. The actual bath, which was traditionally done in ‘white’, is in various dark shades and hues. In contrast, the eye is drawn to the ‘white’ objects, such as pale flesh of the female bather, the book and linen next to the bath, the flowers, and the soap dish on the wall. Intriguingly, there seems to be a black ‘fob watch’ in the soap dish, which suggests that there is a time limit for this bath.
I am big fan of James Tissot’s work. He is primarily known for his painting of ‘high society’ that are generally quite crisp and vibrant in detail. Subsequently, it was great to see La reveuse (The Dreamer), which is a rather dark intimate painting of a woman reclining in a chair. According to the accompanying descriptor, Tissot was also inspired by Japanese art at the time in regards to linear portraiture.
La reveuse (1876) – James Tissot
The second section of the exhibition deals with the colour white. This is exemplified by respective paintings of snow by Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). There are others, including a most unusual Paul Gauguin, nonetheless, it was the following that captured my attention and imagination.
La neige / Snow (1873) – Charles-Francois Daubigny
Following new contemporary theories in regard to colour, shades of blue were used for shadows and highlights. Furthermore, inspiration came from Japanese artists, such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Monet, in particular, was inspired by these Japanese artists, and kept a large personal collection of Japanese art.
Vue de toits (effet de neige) / Rooftops in the snow (snow effect) – Gustave Caillebotte
La neige a Louvreciennes / Snow at Louvreciennes (1878) – Alfred Sisley
There are a number of Alfred Sisley’s ‘snow’ paintings but this one stood out for me, partly because of my own fascination with ‘pathways’ and ‘perspective’.
However, the most impressive painting for me is this section was Claude Monet’s magnificent La pie (The magpie). This relatively large painting not only exemplifies the use of white and blue, but also the vulnerability of life in winter, represented by the sole magpie perched on the rickety gate.
La pie / The magpie (1868-69) – Claude Monet
3. PAINTING LIGHT
The third section of the exhibition is devoted to the matter of la peinture claire (‘painting light’). This involved the impressionists use of luminous colours, ‘subtle contrasts of tone and rapid broken brushstrokes to capture the ephemeral effects of light’. This complemented another developing characteristic of ‘Impressionism’ known as en plein air, which essentially meant painting in the open air.
La peinture claire and en plein air were partly due to a reaction against the conventional and academic approach to historical painting favoured by the official ‘Salon’ of contemporary Paris. The ‘Impressionists’ were also called the ‘Independents’ because of their reactionary position. The term ‘impressionism’ came from the art critic, Louis Leroy, who used this word to describe the work of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renior and Alfred Sisley, who were the artists represented in the first Impressionist group exhibition in Paris in 1874.
There are numerous examples of la peinture claire and en plein air in this exhibition, particularly by Pissarro. However, it was the ones by Alfred Sisley that mainly attracted my attention. This included La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly (Boat in the flood at Port-Marly). Sisley lived in Port-Marly from 1874-1880. In 1876 the region was subject to severe floods and Sisley did a series of paintings, of which this is one.
La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly / Boat in the flood at Port-Marly (1876) – Alfred Sisley
What is remarkable about this painting is not only it perfectly exemplifying la peinture claire but also adds a dramatic element to un plein air. Even here there is the unexpected subversion of conventional ‘historical’ painting, based on real events. The two figures, as well as the whole canvas, seem rather calm and tranquil in contrast to the natural disaster of the flood.
There is also another – a ‘triptych’ that has paintings by Sisley, Pissarro and Monet, all depicting different aspects of a ‘lie-de-France’ – Sisley’s Saint-Denis Island (1872), Pissarro’s Entrance to the village of Voisons (1872), and Monet’s Pleasure Boats (1872-73).
These three paintings were donated to the Musee de Louvre in 1923 by Ernest May and remain exactly as they were when they belonged to him. As the catalogue states, ‘Each in a similar gilded frame, they maintain their long-standing dialogue’. Whilst Pissarro’s painting centres the triptych it remains within his general preoccupation with earthy rural settings. Sisley’s and Monet’s offer a chance to discern their respective differences in depicting reflections in water. As the catalogue states, ‘in Monet’s treatment of water, the areas of flat colour impart a vigour absent in Sisley, who preferred small, juxtaposed touches to express the shimmering river.’
4. OF GREENS AND BLUE
The fourth section of the exhibition is about the Impressionists use of green and blue. Monet’s advice to a young American painter, Lily Cabot Perry, encapsulates the use of these colours and more: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you…Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint them just as you see them…until your own artless impression of the scene appears before you’.
Most of the paintings in this section are un plein air. There is one Monet, however, that is of an interior – Un coin d’appartment (A corner of the apartment), which contains a young boy in blue who is framed in different shades of green shubbery. It is a rather unsettling painting as the young boy seems like a ghostly presence in this corner of the apartment.
Un coin d’appartment / A corner of the apartment (1875) – Claude Monet
Another extraordinary Monet painting is Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie rose (Water lily pond, pink harmony). This comes from a much later period in Monet’s life, around 1900, and is one of two studies; the other being Water lily pond, green harmony. As stated in the catalogue, these paintings ‘anticipate the long sequence of pictures that Monet painted of the pond that was built in Giverny in 1893’. Nonetheless, the ‘pink harmony’ painting also exemplifies the respective use of la peinture clair, the use of green, blue and pink, and the influence of en plein air.
Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie / Water lily pond, pink harmony (1900) – Claude Monet
The fifth section of the exhibition is devoted to the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. This is exemplified by works by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944). These artists featured in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
The critic Felix Feneon identified Neo-Impressionism as ‘a modern synthesis of methods based on science’. Rather than mixing on the palette, the Neo-Impressionists divided primary colours based on the principles of contrasting colours advocated by Michel-Eugene Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell, as well as Ogden Nicholas Rood’s influential 1879 ‘colour circle’. As the exhibition’s pamphlet states, the Neo-Impressionists ‘methodically juxtaposed small brushstrokes of complementary unmixed hues, these responding to and invigorating each other’. This was called Divisionism, that included the sub-genre of Pointillism, ‘which refers to the technique of applying tiny dots of paint rather than adopting the principle of colour division to create more vivid and accurate tones’.
One of the most famous examples of Pointillism is Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86). This exhibition contains a couple of ‘studies’ that Seurat made in preparation for the final painting.
Whilst there are a number of other Neo-Impressionist work in this section, there are three by Paul Signac that I found particularly impressive – Les andelys (The Riverbank), La bouee rogue (The Red Buoy) and Les chateau des papes (Palace of the Popes); and L’entree du port de Roscoff (Entrance to the port of Roscoff) by the lesser known Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).
Les andelys / The riverbank (1886) – Paul Signac
La bouee rouge / The red buoy (1895) – Paul Signac
Le chateau des papes / Palace of the Popes (1909) – Paul Signac
L’entree du port de Roscoff / Entrance to the port of Roscoff (1889) – Theo van Rysselberghe
6. IDEAL HARMONIES
The final section of the exhibition involves how the colours of the Impressionists softened in the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This exemplified by works from Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Auguste Renior (1841-1919).
Sur un banc au bois de Boulogne / On a bench in the bois de Boulogne (1894) – Berthe Morisot; Gabrielle a la rose / Gabrielle with a rose (1911) – Auguste Renoir
As stated in the exhibition’s pamphlet, ‘The works us “fluid harmonies” of gentle tones, rather than complementary colours, to create subtle effects such as the morning mists, the pink of dusk and the play of light at different times of day. Painting the fleeting light was now, however, less about recording direct observation than the expression of a mood evoking a sense of memory or melancholy’.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94).
La cathedrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil / Rouen Cathedral. The portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight (1893) – Claude Monet
The exhibition concludes with a painting by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), representative of and anticipating ‘Cubism’ in the early twentieth century.
Rochers pres des grottes au-dessus du Chateau Noir / Rocks near the caves above Chateau Noir (c.1904) – Paul Cezanne
EPILOGUE – AUSTRALIAN IMPRESSIONISM
The Art Gallery of South Australia contains some truly exceptional artworks. This includes some 19th Century paintings that exemplify the kind of ‘historical’ works favoured by the conservative academics at the Paris ‘Salon’ that the ‘Impressionists’ reacted against. This includes popular works such as The Feigned Death of Juliet (1856-58) by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) and Zenobia’s last look at Palmyra (1888) by Herbert G. Schmaltz (1856-1935).
The Impressionist exhibition has a couple of paintings by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), citing his ‘experimental use of colour’ influence on the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. Australian ‘Impressionism’, which was like its European counterpart also primarily characterized landscape painting – un plein air – can trace its own unique influence with the early colonial artists, such as John Glover (1767-1849).
Baptism on the Ouse River by Rev. Henry Dowling (1838) – John Glover
One of the most impressive Australian paintings and one of the most popular in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection is Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) by H. J. Johnstone (1835-1907). This perhaps couldn’t be regarded as a work of Australian ‘Impressionism’, more like a precursor to twentieth-century ‘photo-realism’ (Jonstone was a professional photographer), nonetheless, its use of colour is very much sympatico with ‘Impressionism’, as well as coming from the same time.
Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) – H. J. Johnstone
The first major Australian ‘Impressionist’-like artist is perhaps Tom Roberts (1856-1931). Roberts, like his European Impressionist counterparts also firmly followed un plein air, as exemplified by his Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885).
Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885) – Tom Roberts
Other major Australian ‘Impressionists’ are Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), exemplified by his Cario Street Scene (c.1897), and Charles Conder (1868-1909) and his A Holiday at Mentone (1888), both in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection.
There are many others. Complementing the final section of the Musee D’Orsay’s exhibition – ‘Ideal Harmonies’ – and the more ‘fluid’ and softer use of colour and light in the early decades of the twentieth century, there is From the apartment window, Paris (1901) by Hans Heysen (1877-1968), Le Bar, Saint Jacques, Paris (1904) by American artist Ambrose Peterson, La Coiffure (1908) by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947), After the Bath (c. 1911) by E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915), and The Pheasant (c.1919) by English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942).
Finally, to finish with one of my personal favourites is German-Australian Hans Heysen, who studio and home were in Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, which can be visited today. The Art Gallery of South Australia has a number of large paintings by Hans Heysen – one of which is Mystic Morn (1904), which is a superb example of ‘Australian Impressionism’, as well as a painting that exemplifies ‘ideal harmonies’.
Mystic Morn (1904) – Hans Heysen
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Event’.
2. THE EVENT
This production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was arranged and performed as part of an ‘event’ – in honour of King George III’s birthday. It is highly likely that Governor Arthur Phillip and the rest of the ‘First Fleeters’ had no idea that by this time King George III had succumbed to the first in a series of serious mental health battles, which quite possibly was the generic disease ‘porphyria’ that has plagued other members of the British royal family. Besides, the approximately 1,500 people who made up the ‘First Fleet’, convicts as well as officers, free settlers and their respective wives and servants, had their own concerns – mainly survival in a strange and hostile land.
Lieutenant Watkin Tench (1753-1833) was a Marine officer with the ‘First Fleet’ and provided one of the few eye-witness accounts of this production of The Recruiting Officer. Tench wrote, ‘That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced will not be wondered at’ (Trench – A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales (1793). 25. Tench’s comment reflects the genuine concern and fragile position that faced the ‘First Fleeters’ in establishing the colony. There were only copies of two English plays that accompanied the First Fleet – George Farquhar’s popular satiric comedy The Recruiting Officer (1706) and the sentimental The Tragedy of Jane Shore (1714) by Poet Laureate Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718). Considering the difficulties, the ‘dreariness and dejection’ felt by Tench and one can assume by many others, Governor Arthur Phillip wisely chose Farquhar’s comedy to honour King George III’s birthday.
The complementary matching of theatrical performances with respective events is still very much a part of the annual modern Australian theatre scene. It is notable that the occasions in which there is the most heightened theatrical activity occur during the numerous festivals throughout Australia. This includes the Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Darwin Festivals – plus others – such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, which is the second largest in the world.
Furthermore, a number of festivals are targeted towards specific audiences, similar in a way to the target audience of The Recruiting Officer – the respective Marine officers and their wives. Examples include The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Festival, and the Oz-Asia Festival in Adelaide.
In conclusion, whilst a number of Australians are regular theatergoers, nonetheless, it would seem that Australian audiences really love ‘events’ with theatre attendance soaring during such ‘events’ like the annual festivals, combined with and complementing the vast range and diversity of productions that can be seen and experienced in these respective ‘events’ and festivals. Many of these productions are in ‘site-specific’ locations, such as the convict production of The Recruiting Officer, which is the subject of the next post in this series. Whilst it may be somewhat romantic (and theatre is a romantic world), the combination of heightened theatrical activity and events helps to produce a ‘spirit of play’ in the formulation of the character of the Australian actor.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Play’ itself.
1. THE PLAY
George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was a popular ‘Restoration’ comedy that had been first produced in London in 1706 and had remained in regular performance throughout the 18th Century. It concerns the social and sexual exploits of two officers, Captain Blume and Captain Brazen, in the rural country town of Shrewsbury, and the recruitment of soldiers from the local farming community with the ‘trickster’ Sergeant Kite to assist them.
One of the central tenets of ‘Western’ theatre is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), that ‘the purpose of playing’ is ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’; that the theatre is a reflection of life and the human condition in all its myriad forms. More often than not this a reflection of immediate contemporary life – as was the case with this convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
What does the title – The Recruiting Officer – suggest? This is a play involving the military, and subsequently, it had an immediate contemporary relevance for its elite audience of Marine officers and their wives and the ‘free settlers’. Recruiting was something they would have all be very familiar with, particularly being often enforced by the notorious “press gangs’. Furthermore, as Humphrey Hall and Alfred J Cripps state in The Romance of the Sydney Stage (1996) it is more than likely that the convict actors were dressed in borrowed clothing from the officers and their wives. Somewhat ironically, the convict actors were dressed as their jailers.
In modern theatre parlance, this would have been a ‘modern dress’ production of a relatively old and ‘classic’ play. This issue, plus the immediate relevance and topicality of the play has remained a relatively common feature in Australian theatre, film, and television – we like our dramatic works to be ‘modern’. Whilst we certainly do ‘historical drama’, nonetheless, for the most part, Australian audiences like their plays/films to be of immediate contemporary relevance.
This is particularly evident in the numerous ‘modern’ dramas and especially in satiric Australian ‘comedy of manners’, exemplified by the plays by David Williamson (amongst others), of which Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971) remains the most popular. Other examples include Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (2007) and Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White (2017). Subsequently, Australian actors are not only distinctively ‘modern’, reflecting their times, but are also experienced and skilled in ironic and satiric comedy. The mischievous ‘trickster’ character of Sergeant Kite in The Recruiting Officer is arguably the first in a long line of ‘larrikin’ characters.
The next installment in this series on The Genesis of the Australian Actor will look at The Event, and how similar events and festivals are those which are the most heightened times of theatrical activity in Australia.
This is a continuation of the series involving ‘neglected’ plays.
MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON (1835-1915) was a popular Victorian novelist, her most acclaimed and successful work being the ‘sensation novel’ Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Initially published in serial form, the novel proved so popular that it was almost immediately adapted for the stage. There were a number of adaption, however, the most lasting and performed one was by the comedian Colin Henry Hazelwood (1823-1875); an irony in itself.
It was subsequently produced many times throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century – and then – disappeared from popular view. It was further adapted for ‘silent film’ in 1912, 1915, and 1920, Sadly, the 1915 version starring ‘the vamp’ Theda Bara, the most notorious and popular femme fatale of the early silent film era, has been lost. Perhaps the last big success it had in the theatre was in 1930 when Tyrone Guthrie directed it with Dame Flora Robson as Lady Audley.
There are a number of fascinating things about Lady Audley’s Secret, not least its theatrical history and influence but also a rather fine connection to Australian history. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s elder brother, Edward Braddon (1829-1904), immigrated to Australia in 1845 and eventually became Premier of Tasmania from 1894-99, and was a Member of the First Australian Parliament. The suburb of Brandon in the Australian Capital Territory, and the Tasmanian electorate of Braddon are named after Sir Edward Braddon. However, our story lays with his sister and the ‘sensation’ of Lady Audley’s Secret.
Sensation fiction in novels and plays was the most popular genre in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. The three novels that best represent this are Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60), Ellen Woods’ East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61) and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) also fall into this genre. Many of the sensation novels of this time were subsequently adapted for the theatre and later film, even musicals.
The definition of this genre is that the story involves the uncovering of a secret, and is a deliberate mixture of romance and realism often involving murder, adultery, greed, forgery, blackmail, corruption, revenge, and madness. They are works of sheer melodrama. This is not something that can easily be dismissed as not matter how sensational the secret and action may be, invariably they are set within a relatively domestic world. The question of personal and social identity rises to the front, questioning individual and the world’s morals, ethics and actions. Invariably a kind of moral universe eventually exerts itself, with good triumphing over evil. One of the best essays on sensation fiction is John Ruskin’s Fiction – Fair and Foul.
Furthermore, sensation drama, in theatre, film and television has been relatively and consistently present from the 1860s to today. Wonderful examples include Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film of the same name, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall (1935). Adding to these personal favourites, which are also now somewhat ‘neglected’ plays, is Reginald Denham’s and Edward Percy’s Ladies in Retirement (1940), which Charles Vidor turned into a film in 1941 with ida Lupino.
As with all the works cited in this series of ‘neglected’ plays, if you are seeking new acting scenes in which to work on you will find some pretty fabulous ones in these plays. The fact that we still love sensation drama can be seen in popular crime detective dramas, as well as in the modern musical versions The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Woman in White.
Very often this type of drama is based on a real-life event, adding to the complexity of the ‘identity’ issue, almost as if we need the incident to be dramatised in order to understand it. This is exemplified by Rope, which was inspired by the real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Lady Audley’s Secret, which was inspired by the life of child murderer Constance Kent (1844-1944). Issues of gender and class division and madness played a significant role in the Constance Kent case, as they do in Lady Audley’s Secret. This is exemplified by the last lines spoken by Lady Audley in the play – ‘Aye – Aye (laughs wildly) Mad, mad, that is the word. I feel it here (Places her hands over her temples)’.
Is Lady Audley mad? Or is she simply a cold-blooded psychopath? Or is she a type of proto-feminist character, a lowly female member of the Working Class, battling for upward social mobility against domineering men? She has been seen as all of these in subsequent analysis and re-inventions of the novel, play, and story. She certainly prefigures the ‘woman-with-a-past’ characters in the subsequent ‘problem plays’ in the late 19th Century, exemplified by Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) [see previous article].
However, she also belongs to the much older theatrical heritage of the femme fatale character in drama, which stretches as far back to ancient times with Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, as well as Medea and Phaedra. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Alexander Dumas’s Lady deWinter in The Three Musketeers , and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler are femme fatales, and modern times the femme fatale has been wonderfully portrayed a number of times by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liasons (1988). Aspects of Lady Audley can also be seen in Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Double Indemnity (1944) and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in Tay Garnett’s terrific The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). I’d even add Ann Downs in Joseph Kramm’s Pulitzer Prize winning play The Shrike (1952), and Shirley Stoller’s Martha Beck in Leonard Kastle’s ‘cult classic’ The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which Francois Truffaut called his ‘favourite American film’ (check it out), and, of course, Sharon Stone’s stunning Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
One distinguishing characteristic of these characters, as well as Lady Audley, is that invariably they are ‘blondes’, or ‘redheads’. I have no idea why ‘blonde’ and ‘red-headed women have been associated with the femme fatale, but it stands as a rather curious essentially masculine construction and projection. Not only do you get the beautiful ‘Blonde Venus’ there is also the ‘Blonde Vampire’.
I’m actually not too sure where the femme fatale sits today. She and sensation drama is certainly still present, exemplified by the upcoming revival in London of the musical version of The Woman in White. It would seem that she primarily belongs in the world of gothic fantasy and horror, exemplified by Rachelle Lefevre’s Victoria Sutherland in the Twilight film series.
However, the modern femme fatale may not be the personification of pure evil that she once was, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Feminism has largely had an influence in diluting and reducing the evil power and nature of the modern femme fatale. This is highly apparent in Disney’s Maleficent (2014) in which the classic evil witch, although wonderfully played by Angelina Jollie, is given a relatively predictable ‘back story’ that makes her subsequent actions ‘understandable’ due to be the victim of male domination. This romanticised reduction concerns me a little, as it does with male villains, such as the vampire, as it seems to suggest that real evil, real evil people, male and female, don’t really exists, and that everyone and all evil actions are relatively ‘understandable’ – they are actually ‘nice’ people underneath all this. Rubbish. Real evil, real evil people, male and female, do exits, and their actions rather than being ‘understandable’ are repugnant, destructive, and – well – evil – and should be denounced. The potential danger of hypocrisy, and the gullibility of accepting ‘wolves in sheep clothing’ is remarkably pronounced; not all people are ‘understandable’ or ‘nice’.
However, the above characters cited above are not really those that sit within the genre of sensation drama. As previously stated, and in reference to Lady Audley, sensation drama and the femme fatale really exists within a relatively domestic setting and not in the world of fantasy. This makes the modern femme fatale figure particularly dangerous. I am, however, hard put to find modern examples; although arguably Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in the US TV series House of Cards (2013-2017) falls into the femme fatale archetype. As does Nurse Ratched in Dale Wasserman’s continuing popular play adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963). Furthermore, whilst Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth may remain the most ever-present femme fatale I doubt very much if we will ever see again Ann Downs in Leonard Kastle’s The Shrike, or Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret. Nonetheless, you can always read and see these works, and the femme fatale remains, in various forms, a vital archetype in modern and classical drama – long may she reign.
With Alfian Sa-at’s and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s HOTEL (2015) about to open here in Adelaide as part of the Oz-Asia Festival I thought it opportune to write something about Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s best modern playwrights. Most people in Australia may not be aware of Alfian Sa’at and his work. This is an attempt to slightly address that. He is an exceptional playwright, poet, and from my all to brief dealings with him, a really great guy as well. I first became aware of Alfian Sa’at’s work whilst I was living in Singapore. During that time I was fortunate enough to see a number of his plays being performed by Singapore’s terrific Wild Rice theatre company, led by another exceptional person, Ivan Heng, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Wild Rice. The productions I saw included Dreamplay (2000), which is Part One of Alfian Sa’at’s beautiful Asian Boys Trilogy (2000-07), Cooling Off Day (2011), Cook a Pot of Curry (2013), and my personal favourite, the intriguing The Optic Trilogy (2001). All these are terrific plays and make an excellent introduction to the world of Alfian Sa’at.
Alfian Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977 and attended Raffles Junior College where his passion for theatre was first revealed. His tremendous creative spirit led to the publication of his first collection of poetry One Fierce Hour in 1998. This was a instant success with The Malaysian New Strait Times praising and calling him a ‘prankish provocateur’ and ‘libertarian hipster’. What followed was a steady outflow of excellent work – a collection of short stories called Corridor (1999), many of which have been adapted for television, and his second collection of poetry A History of Amnesia (2001). All these are available and are excellent reads; personal favourite being Corridor.
It was partly due to this work, and subsequent others, that Alfian Sa’at earned the moniker of being Singapore’s enfant terrible. He is a ‘provocateur’. This rebellious stance is also evident in his many plays, which are often acute observations of contemporary life in Singapore, combined with a deep knowledge and appreciation of Singapore’s history, as well as World Theatre in general, and a delicious and mischievous wit.
The Asian Boys Trilogy is something that could be seen during Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and/or Adelaide’s Feast Festival. This is a terrific ‘gay’ play that is not only enlightening about ‘gay’ life in South-East Asia, past and present, but is also very entertaining. I have only seen Part One – Dreamplay, which is theatrically influenced by Strindberg’s Dreamplay, and was directed by Ivan Heng and featured the wonderful Singapore actor and dear friend Galeb Goh, amongst other excellent Singapore actors.
One sequence in Alfian Sa’at’s Dreamplay that I found particularly fascinating and gripping involved a relationship between a young Chinese-Singaporean and a Japanese officer during the horrendous Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2. To be frank, Australians know virtually nothing about this tragic chapter of Singapore’s history, and yet we are intrinsically involved, not just because of the horrors of Changi Prison, but much much more, which time and space does not allow me to enter into here.
Cooling Off Day (2011) was actually the first Alfian Sa’at play I saw. It is a series of monologues based around the then recent Singapore General Election. I didn’t know much about the politics of Singapore so this was a terrific introduction. Whilst some of it went way over my head and was very local specific, nonetheless, it was extremely entertaining and enlightening. I loved the structure of the piece, a snap-shot of Singapore at a particular and politically important moment in time, the different voices and perspectives, a cross section of Singaporean characters and society, and the vital and engaging performances by the respective actors. It was also through this play and production that I became aware of the delights of Singlish.
Singlish is the English based patois or slang that is spoken in Singapore. When I was there Singlish was often denigrated as not being ‘proper English’ by those in the so-called social and academic elite, who can be ruthlessly and dully conservative. I loved it! When queried I would be mischievously provocative with these borish snobs, stating that I thought Shakespeare would have loved it too. Shakespeare was a words-smith and you only have to be familiar with his plays, as well as his contemporaries, to see how much he incorporated colloquial English (and others) slang into his works.
I tried many times to speak Singlish, much to the amusement of my Singapore friends. I even had a couple of Singlish dictionaries, and would fervently implore my Singapore students and friends to speak Singlish as I just loved hearing it. Unfortunately, I never got the hang of it – lah. Friends would just giggle at my attempts, my problem centring on differences in stress. Australians follow our English-speaking heritage with an iambic word/vowel stress (Dee-DUM), weak-strong; Singaporeans follow their English-speaking heritage with a trochaic word/vowel stress (DUM-Dee), strong-weak. I couldn’t break my Australian cultural habit. Instead of saying the common ‘CAN lah’, I would say ‘Can LAH’, which generally produced shrieks of laughter. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware that whenever Singlish was spoken in the theatre, as in Alfian’s plays, it was like an electric current suddenly shot through the audience, making them excited and animated – it was fantastic! This was most apparent in Alfian Sa’at’s delightful domestic comedy Cook a Pot of Curry – I didn’t understand half of it, but it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed the vitality of the show, and the joy of the Singapore audience as it would roar with laughter at recognition of themselves and their unique colloquial language. I am sure Hotel will have some Singlish in it – can’t wait to hear it again.
As previously mentioned, my favourite amongst Alfian’s plays is The Optic Trilogy. This is a two-hander between an unnamed man and woman in three separate scenes. I remember this Wild Rice production clearly, which featured dear friend and colleague the wonderful Brendon Fernandez, and how from the very first scene set in a hotel room I was absolutely transfixed – by the drama, the complexity, the language, and the brilliant performances. This is a play about deceit, full of poetic metaphors, and is often very funny. It has been performed in a number of other countries, but not, as yet, in Australia. This is the play that I would love to do in Australia. I can only encourage you to get hold of it, as it is published, and read it. But please – let me do it! Haha!.
Hopefully this brief little introduction to some of the works of Alfian Sa’at will encourage you to find out more about this terrific Singapore playwright and poet. It is well worth the effort. Also – if you haven’t as yet booked your tickets for Hotel here in Adelaide then please do so immediately – now! From all reports it is simply marvelous – both parts. I know that if you do you will not be disappointed and discover the joy of Alfian Sa’at, as well as Wild Rice.
DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND was born 1 July, 1916, in Tokyo and at the grand age of 101 she is still alive and well and living in Paris. Whilst her parents were British, nonetheless she and her younger sister Joan (later known as Joan Fontaine) was raised in Saratoga, California by their mother. She made her acting debut in an amateur production of Alice in Wonderland. What follows in this rather lengthy article is essentially a tribute to Olivia de Havilland’s brilliant career. In my respective acting classes I am often citing past great actors and films, of which my young (and not so young) students are often completely unaware. Many have not even seen or even know about Gone With The Wind, which is perhaps the film that most would identify with Olivia de Havilland. However, there is so much more to this extraordinary actress and 20th and 21st Century woman.
In 1934 she played the role of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That summer the legendary director Max Reinhardt came to Los Angeles to direct a production of The Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. One of Reinhardt’s assistants saw Olivia de Havilland in the Saratoga production. Due to this assistant’s praise Reinhardt offered de Havilland the second understudy for the role of Hermia. One week before the production opened Gloria Stuart (Titanic), who was playing Hermia, and the first understudy left the production and Olivia de Havilland went on. Reinhardt was so impressed with the then 18 years old Olivia de Havilland that he subsequently cast her as Hermia in his lavish 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She appeared with alongside other Hollywood legends including James Cagney, Dick Powell and a very young Mickey Rooney. Also in the cast was Australian actress Jean Muir who played Helena.
Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream she then appeared in Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn. This hugely popular film, Olivia de Havilland’s ‘break-out’ film, led to more films in which she starred with Errol Flynn – Four’s A Crowd (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
The 8 films that Olivia de Havilland did with Errol Flynn’s is a classic example of the successful on-screen romantic couple. Born from the Hollywood Studio system, as well as the classical theatre, many have tried to emulate this very specific but elusive kind of movie magic, but only a few have ever been as successful as the de Havilland-Flynn pairing. This includes, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In modern cinema the films of Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are the only on-screen pairing that comes close, although I would also argue that the pairing of Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series captures this special type of movie magic.
In the 1930s as well as the films she made with Errol Flynn she also appeared in a few films with Bette Davis, my favourite being It’s Love I’m After (1937). This marked the beginning of a life-long friendship between Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, which is an aspect of de Havilland’s current plans to sue the producer’s of the TV series Feud that deals with the relationship between Davis and Joan Crawford, and in which Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as Olivia de Havilland. One delightful little story about Olivia de Havilland’s relationship with Bette Davis can be found in the This Is Your Life: Bette Davis episode in which Olivia de Havilland makes a surprise appearance. She talks about her relationship with Bette Davis, who is sitting right next to her, and they laugh about how prior to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex de Havilland was Flynn’s leading lady, but in Elizabeth and Essex she now was Bette Davis’ maid! Haha!
Olivia de Havilland also appeared in such ‘big budget’ epics such as Anthony Adverse (1936), but then came the biggest of them all – Gone With The Wind (1939). I love Gone With The Wind, in which Olivia de Havilland played ‘mealy-mouthed’ Melanie Wilkes. She, like the rest of the film, is simply wonderful. I am fully aware that it now attracts some severe criticism in regards to its depiction of slavery and African-American stereotypes. Whilst there may be some validity in these censures, nonetheless, it is still a great film – for many reasons. Olivia de Havilland was amongst the first to congratulate Academy Award co-Best Supporting Actress nominee Hattie McDaniel when McDaniel won the award – the first African-American actress to do so. I love Hattie McDaniel’s quip when she was criticized as subscribing to so-called ‘Uncle Tom’ black stereotypes for her fabulous and memorable performance of Mammy: “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars playing a maid than seven dollars being one’.
Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Vivien Leigh, with whom Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a great friendship and working relationship, nonetheless, de Havilland’s Melanie also displays a wonderful ‘cool charm’ and ability to successfully lie and deceive. This ‘cool charm’ is particularly apparent in the second half of the film, in the Atlanta section, involving the deception of the army in regards to her wounded husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard). Olivia de Havilland is also at her best in all her scenes with Vivien Leigh (and there are a lot) including the final ‘death of Melanie’ scene. She is also wonderful in her scenes with Clark Gable, comforting him after the death of Bonnie, and before that her one scene with the terrific Ona Mason as Belle Watling.
One terrific example of superb screen acting is the sequence in which Melanie recognizes from afar the returning battle scarred Ashley (Leslie Howard); in this short sequence there are no words spoken, and the range of emotions that go across Olivia de Havilland’s face is wonderful and extraordinary – from concern, intrigue, disbelieve, realization and finally rapturous joy. I love Gone With The Wind and have watched it many many times, and always find it delightful and discovering something new about it.
Olivia de Havilland made 16 films during the 1940s. The best of these in the e 40s are Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Died with their Boots On (1941). During WW2 Olivia de Havilland was an active member of the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and entertaining troops. This is somewhat reflected in the film Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), in which she appears in a comic song ‘The Dreamer’ with Ida Lupino and George Tobias. Olivia de Havilland also bravely visited front-line troops on islands and other places in the Pacific war zone.
From 1943 to 1945 Olivia de Havilland was engaged in a legal battle with Warner Brothers to whom she was contracted. This was a battle for artistic freedom. A number of others, including Bette Davis, had challenged the fixed and rigid control the respective studios had over their contract players and failed. Not Olivia de Havilland. Her landmark victory meant that in future contract players were able to negotiate their artistic freedom and work with other studios. It went into law as the ‘De Havilland Law’. Even her estranged sister, Joan Fontaine, acknowledged her victory, stating, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal”. Subsequently, however, due to Warner Brothers’ influence, and the respective studios ganging together, Olivia de Havilland was ‘blacklisted’ and did not work for two years.
In 1945 she signed a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures and subsequently made To Each His Own (1946), for which she received her first Academy Award for Best Actress.What To Each His Own exemplifies is Olivia de Havilland’s artistic need and desire to play characters that go through a considerable transformation, physically as well as psychologically. In To Each His Own Olivia de Havilland beautifully plays an unwed mother who has to give up her child. In this highly romantic drama the character she plays, Jody, ages from a young innocent American girl to an old woman in WW2 London. Whilst it is perhaps easy today to dismiss this sentimental drama, nonetheless, for its time it was covering controversial ground. Furthermore, To Each His Own marked the beginning of a new period in Olivia de Havilland’s career that saw her make films which what are possible her most impressive in regards to acting performances.
This includes the complex ‘film noir’ psychological thriller The Dark Mirror (1946), in which she plays the dual role of twins battling each other in a torturous love triangle. This fascinating film, written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Robert Siodmak has been regarded as a precursor to Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Olivia de Havilland was experimenting with the so-called ‘method acting’ technique, and did an enormous amount of research into the psychology of twins. It is speculative as to whether or not she also drew on her own problematic relationship with her sister, Joan Fontaine.
What is definite is that her work in The Dark Mirror in a way prepares Olivia de Havilland for her next two films that are in many ways the highlights of her career – Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), and William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) for which Olivia de Havilland received her second Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland is simply marvelous in both The Snake Pit and The Heiress. There is an extraordinary and truly fascinating depth and complexity in the respective characters that she plays in these films.
The Snake Pit is a harrowing and profoundly moving story about madness and the insane. One is completely seduced by Olivia de Havilland’s character, Virginia – is she insane or isn’t she? Just as effective as Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) one is drawn into the world of Olivia de Havilland’s Virginia – a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum, but doesn’t know how she got there. The Heiress is based on Henry James classic novella Washington Square, and the play adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. It is a story about deliberate cruelty. A young woman, a wealthy heiress called Catherine Sloper who is cruelly treated by her father, brilliantly played by Ralph Richardson. She falls in love with a young man, Morris Townsend, played by the irresistible Montgomery Cliff, who deserts her after being offered financial remuneration by her father. Years later, after her father has died and Catherine has inherited her fortune, Morris returns in the hope that Catherine will forgive him and that now they can be married. Catherine goes along with Morris’ plans until the devastating ending. When challenged by her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) as to how Catherine can be so cruel, Catherine replies, “I was taught by experts”. This is a great story, complex and intriguing and Olivia de Havilland is simply brilliant, especially in the final scenes. Once again – as with The Snake Pit, and her other films in this period, one is seduced by her seeming innocence, unaware of the serpent that lies beneath until the end. Well worth watching.
Due to family commitments and various theatre engagements in New York, which included playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Candida in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, Olivia de Havilland did not make another film until 1952. When she did it was the mystery romance, My Cousin Rachel (1952), which was Richard Burton’s first US film. This was followed by Not as a Stranger (1955), which was Stanley Kramer’s debut film, and also featured Frank Sinatra. Her marriage to French journalist Marcus Goodrich meant that she relocated to live in Paris. She returned to Hollywood to make Michael Curtiz’s western The Proud Rebel with Alan Ladd, and 1959 she was in the British courtroom drama Libel (1959), directed by Anthony Asquith with Dirk Bogarde.
Her marriage to Marcus Goodrich ended in 1962, but they continued to cohabitate in the same house in Paris. In that same year Olivia de Havilland scored her greatest stage success, appearing with Henry Fonda on Broadway in Garson Kanin’s A Gift of Time. She also appeared in Guy Green’s film Light in the Piazza (1962) that many years later became the basis for Craig Lucas’ and Adam Guettel’s magnificent musical The Light in the Piazza (2005). In 1962 Olivia de Havilland published her semi-autobiographical book, Every Frenchman Has One, about her life in Paris, which subsequently became a bestseller.
In 1964 Olivia de Havilland made two rather extraordinary psychological horror films. The first was Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964), which featured a young James Cann. This is really odd 1960s film – and it is stylishly very 1960s, almost psychedelic at times, with the addition of a doco-drama element. The other film was Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette Davis, as well as other ‘old Hollywood’ actors, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Morehead, Mary Astor, and Australian actor Cecil Kellaway. Olivia de Havilland took over the role that Joan Crawford was playing when Crawford became too ill and had to withdraw. This film also features the young Bruce Dern. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to his What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). As Bette Davis told me (yes – me) Baby Jane was the better of the two films due its script superiority. Still – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a highly entertaining film, with the seemingly innocent Olivia de Havilland being actually as ruthless and cold-blooded as she was at the end of The Heiress.
The 1970s was the decade that saw the final major film works of Olivia de Havilland. None of them are particularly good or memorable, although Airport ’77 (1977) is the best of the series that followed the success of Airport (1970); and the disaster film The Swarm (1978) is rated as one of the ‘worst films ever made’, and one of the ‘100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made’. Her final film was forgettable The Fifth Musketeer (1979).
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Olivia de Havilland was in a number of TV movies and mini-series. This included playing the Queen Mother in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982). Her best TV performance was as the Dowager Empress Maria in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which she won a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series.
As the above indicates it is a phenomenal and highly diverse career.
She has been honoured many times, most recently being made a Dame of the British Empire the day before her 101th birthday on 31 June, 2017.
As previously mentioned, she is now back in the limelight due to her objections and legal battle with the makers of Feud: Bette and Joan (2017), in which Catherine Zetta-Jones plays Olivia de Havilland. Time will see how this all plays out. However, Time is not on Olivia de Havilland’s side. It is hoped that due to this incredible woman’s deserved status, as well as longevity and age, that no matter what she request that the respective producers will yield to her demands, and apologize for any offense. What does it really matter if Feud is shelved and unavailable for a few years. It has already been screened, and will soon fade into obscurity. We now are all fully aware that being a ‘celluloid hero’ doesn’t mean immortality; the ‘stars’ and films of yesteryear are now largely forgotten and unwatched. However, Olivia de Havilland is still with us. Olivia de Havilland now is really the only person left from the so called ‘Golden Years of Hollywood’. A wonderful actress, and a trailblazer, not only in terms of career but also in enabling other Hollywood artists to work freely. A LEGEND. Thank you Olivia de Havilland.