My Brilliant Career (1979)
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Producer: Margaret Fink
Screenplay: Eleanor Witcombe (based on the book by Miles Franklin)
Editor: Nick Beauman
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Original Music: Nathan Waks
Non-Original Music: Robert Schumann ("Kinderszenen")
Sound Recordist: Don Connolly
Costume Design:Anna Senior
Production Design: Luciana Arrighi
First Assistant Director: Mark Egerton
Camera Operators:Louis Irving & Peter Moss
Electricians: Sam Bienstock & Paul Moyes
Production Company" Margaret fink Films PTY LTD
Released in 1979
Cast (in alphabetical order)
Robert Austin Willie McSwat
Julia Blake Mother
Aileen Brittain Grandma Bossier
Simone Buchanan Mary Anne
Bill Charlton Joe
Basil Clark Butler
Aaron Corrin Jimmy McSwat
Sharon Crouch Sarah McSwat
Max Cullen Mr. McSwat
Su Davies Aurora
Judy Davis Sybylla Melvin
Gerry Duggan Squatter
David Franklin Horace
Robert Grubb Frank Hawdon
Alan Hopgood Father
Tony Hughes Peter McSwat
Wendy Hughes Aunt Helen
Patricia Kennedy Aunt Gussie
Babs McMillan Miss Benson
Ray Meagher Mailman
James Moss Pub Drinker
Sam Neill Harry Beecham
Gordon Piper Barman
Amanda Pratt Blanche Derrick
Tina Robinson Lizer McSwat
Suzanne Roylance Biddy
Marion Shad Gertie
Carole Skinner Mrs McSwat
Zelda Smith Ethel
Mark Spain Tommy McSwat
Dorothy St. Heaps Mrs Derrick
Bobbie Ward Mrs Butler
Peter Whitford Uncle Julius
Aaron Wood Stanley
Awards: Best Film, AFI Awards, 1979
Best Achievement in Cinematography (Donald McAlpine), AFI Award, 1979
Cinematographer of the Year, (Donald McAlpine), Australian Cinematographers
Best Achievement in Art Direction, (Luciana Arrighi), AFI Award, 1979
Best Achievement in Costume Design (Anna Senoir), AFI Award, 1979
Best Director, (Gillian Armstrong), AFI Award, 1979
Best Adapted Screenplay, (Eleanor Witcombe), AFI Award, 1979
Best Newcomer, (Judy Davis), BAFTA Film Award, 1981
Nominated for Best Actress in a Lead Role, (Judy Davis), AFI Award, 1979
Best Australian Film Promoting Human Values, Organisation Catholique
Internationale du Cinema
My Brilliant Career (1979) was a coming of age story based on the Miles Franklin's book of the same title (Armstrong cited in Wright, 1986:92). It told the journey towards maturity of an idealistic and headstrong girl, Sybylla Melvin (Judy Davis) who had been raised in relative poverty on her father's property in the Australian bush during the 1890's (McFarlane, 1987:170). Her journey was enriched and at times complicated by her encounters with her Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes), her grandmother Bossier (Aileen Brittain), Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy) and Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) and by her life-learning experiences of squattocracy of "Caddagat" and "Five Bob Downs" to the humbler farmlands of the Goulbourne valley (Hall, 1985:30). At the point of her maturity and at the conclusion of the film, Sybylla developed a feminist philosophy that drove her to tear off the "social straight jacket" confining women like her mother and aunt (Wright, 1986:93). This heroine of the Australian bush managed to untangle herself from the "bourgeois trap" of a life with handsome and wealthy Harry Beecham to choose a life of literature (Armstrong cited in Martin, 1998:3).
In 1965, a woman "half way through a breeding decade in a lace prison of marriage" (Fink cited in Wright, 1985:92 ), picked up a turn of the century novel and it changed not only her life but enriched a nation of people. The book was Miles Franklin's semi-autobiographical, My Brilliant Career (1901) and the woman was Margaret Fink (McFarlane & Mayer, 1992:188). Margaret was so inspired by Sybylla, a heroine more at home today than in the late 1890's, that she poured her passion into a film career, in hope of one day capturing her on screen (Fink cited in Wright, 1986:92) . It was to be nearly fifteen years before Margaret's Sybylla reached the screen. During this time Margaret experimented with documentary and short film making before producing The Removalists (1975), her first feature film (Fink cited in Beilby & Murray, 1979:289). It was on the set of this film, that a young and talented prop assistant caught her eye. " I was very impressed by her earlier films too (The Singer and the Dancer, 1976 ), so I said to her , I have the rights to this book, will you read it and see what you think?"(Fink cited in Wright, 1986:93) From this point onwards the successful film partnership between Gillian Armstrong and Margaret Fink began.
Gillian Armstrong found the book fascinating, "here was a country girl who had worked out her own feminist philosophy while living in poverty in the Australian bush during the 1890's" (Armstrong cited in Martin, 1998:3). She desperately wanted to work on the film in any capacity although she had "never dreamed" that she would direct it (Armstrong cited in Mathews, 1984:139). Although Gillian had studied film at the Swinbourne Institute of Technology and had also graduated from the 1973 Interim Training Scheme at the Australian Film and Television School, she had had no major film credits (Wright, 1986:92). It seemed that it was only Gillian and Margaret who shared insight and perhaps courage to see the film's potential. In fact, "few male producers and directors put their hands up to be involved in the film" (Armstrong cited in Beilby & Murray, 1979:291) As an English film critic pointed out "it was only rare when male directors cultivated a real interest in presenting women as sexual protagonists ... a film was seldom made primarily from the desire to tell a good, personal story about a women ..." (The Times, 1 January, 1980).
A mature, sensitive and insightful film about a woman is what Gillian and Margaret had envisioned and they had a certain type of woman in mind (Wright, 1986:97). Miles Franklin's Sybylla inspired them to search for a team of talented scriptwriters, designers, cinematograpghers and one outstanding actress that could authentically create a character of depth, contradictions and complexities (Collins, 1999:9). The talented scriptwriter, Eleanor Witcombe, was hand picked by Margaret for her work in the The Getting of Wisdom (1977) (Fink cited in Beilby & Murray, 1979:290). As Margaret had expected, Eleanor achieved an "authentic portrayal of a woman's harsh reality of the Australian bush life" from her own memories of a childhood that mirrored Sybylla's (Fink cited in Wright, 1986:99 ).
Sybylla's journey to maturity was beautifully portrayed with Luciana Arrighi sets and choices of locations that were done with an immense care and artistic flair (Wright, 1986:97). Luciana was among the most talented designers in Australia, having a career that spanned, from work at the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Sydney to television and stage production in Europe and returning home to work on Jim Sharman's The Night The Prowler (1979) (Adler, 1979:422 ). Luciana was chosen not only for her talent, but because of the importance the sets and locations played in the film's narrative. " The film emerges as a triumph of mise-en-scene ... much of the film's meaning is made in the impact of the changing scenes on Sybylla; in the tensions created between her and the place she finds herself" (McFarlane, 1979:422).
It was perhaps the decision of the actress who was to play Sybylla that made My Brilliant Career an unforgettable Australian film. The "riveting screen presence of Judy Davis" lay etched on the minds of audience long after the memory of the actual film had faded (The Australian, 18 & 19 August, 1979). A very young, vibrant and relatively unknown National Institute of Dramatic Arts Graduate, Judy Davis, brought Sybylla to life from the pages of Eleanor script beautifully (Wright, 1986:100). Judy Davis' performance was probably the most "compelling of an Australian performer to date, full of wit and vitality" and in America "it provoked comparisons with the young Katherine Hepburn" (Turner cited in Moran & O'Regan, 1989:110). For the first time in Australian cinema the heroine said "no" to marriage (Wright, 1986:93). Audiences worldwide mourned as Sybylla heartlessly tossed away the charming and dashing Sam Neill (a.k.a. Harry Beecham) who "reversed Hollywood conventions to play the pretty young thing" (Turner cited in Moran & O'Regan, 1989:110). To his credit Sam Neill made Harry more than camera fodder. It was this acting ability that Gillian spotted when she saw his brilliant performance in Sleeping Dogs at a Sydney film festival (Armstrong cited in Mathews, 1984:146).
The film achieved a success beyond all expectations, (earning $A42291 in its first quarter) particularly those of the Australian Film Development Corporation who had rejected the film three times (McFarlane & Mayer, 1992:150-151). They believed the film would fail because it lacked a happy ending. They were naively under the assumption that the Australian audience "would want to see the couple end up together" (Armstrong cited in Mathews, 1984:144). However an insightful producer and director refused to budge. Gillian (cited in Wright, 1986:94) recalls how she and Margaret both stood up and said, "We are sorry but the whole point of the film is that they don't".
The NSW Film Commission and the Greater Union Organisation took a collective sigh of relief after investing fifty thousand dollars and two hundred thousand dollars respectively in the film's production budget of eight hundred and thirty thousand dollars (McFarlane, 1987:23-25). The Premier, Mr Wran announced that the film distribution rights had been sold to the USA and Canada for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which was the biggest overseas sale of a government backed Australian film (Beilby & Murray, 1979:288-289). The sale price of My Brilliant Career has only ever been exceeded by that of the privately funded film, Mad Max (1979) (McFarlane, 1987:24). The film not only dominated the Australian Film Awards in1979 and was featured at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival but Mr Wran also announced that the film had been invited to be screened as the 17th New York Film Festival, making it only the second Australian film achieve such an honor (The Australian, 4 September, 1979).
What was it about My Brilliant Career that made it an, arguably, successful signifier of Australian National Cinema? It has been critiqued as a truly nationalistic film that has graced the pages of many media and cultural studies book in schools and universities around Australia. Perhaps the film did produce and reproduce Australian myths and images located in the colonial past (Turner cited in Moran & O'Regan, 1989:115). The image of the Australian landscape has always been central to the Australian identity, "conjuring up images of the rural and frontier settings" in a Dorathea MacKeller's sunburnt untamable drought ravaged country (McFarlane, 1987:71). One day, after stumbling across 1890's postcard paintings of the Australian bush , Gillian became mesmerised with the beauty and terror of the land captured in the images she had found (Armstrong cited in Mathews, 1984:140). She took these images from these early Australian paintings and translated them to screen in an attempt to portray Sybylla's connection with her landscape. Gillian wanted to show how Sybylla's experience with the Australian landscape was both, oppressive, as it tore her away from a life of art, music and elegance and inspirational, as it compelled her to enter the world of literature (Myers, 1987:75-77). Sybylla's love/ hate relationship with the land was captured by long atmospherics shots of the talented cinematographer, Donald McAlpine (Beilby & Murray, 1979:290-293).
Perhaps My Brilliant Career can be grouped with the "Nostalgic " films of the seventies (Picnic At Hanging Rock, 1975, Sunday Too Far Away, 1975, Breaker Morant, 1980, The Devil's Playground, 1976, The Chant o Jimmy Blacksmith, 1978, Caddie, 1976 ect.). My Brilliant Career could be considered a "Quality" film due to its beautiful and realistic reproduction of the physical aspects of the 1890's (McFarlane, 1987:171). However, can it be placed under the not so complementary label created by Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka, of the "AFC Genre of good taste period films"?( Dermody & Jacka, 1988:28) This may not sound so bad, but what they meant was a film that was compared to "taxidermy" , an "unshaped aesthetically, politically and ideologically conservative story" littered with "dull and bland characters that said virtually nothing about contemporary Australia" (Turner cited in Moran & O'Regan, 1989:100-101). Critic after critic and filmmaker after filmmaker argued Australia needed contemporary representations of a post-colonial society not a "nostalgic world set in the mythic past" embedded with the symbolism of the classless society, of mateship and of the "Aussie" battler (O'Regan, 1996:196-197).
However it would appear that My Brilliant Career was a film that has a multiple of identities and readings. Many saw it as a powerful and relevant women's film, others saw it as a film that questioned Australian nationalism and mythology and some simply saw it as both (Collins, 1999:12). One argument believed the film strongly challenged taditional romantic bush legends by twisting three celebrated Australian myths, the Aussie battler, the classless society and mateship to such an extent that they became new myths (Barber, 1998:4-6).
The Australian myth of the "Aussie" battler is often portrayed in the image of Henry Lawson or Banjo Patterson, men who stuck to their "impoverished land despite drought, depression, bush fire, isolation and poor soil" (McFarlane, 1987:166-168). Sybylla was a brilliant inversion of this image. She was a bush heroine and a proud and determined artist who remained true to herself. She refused to be servant, she refused to be a governess and she "refused to sell herself like a bird, into a well fed marital captivity where she would sing songs for her benefactor husband "(Wright, 1986:92). This brilliant symbolism was captured by Donald McAlpine's overhead shot of Sybylla and Aunt Gussie in a bird sanctuary, where we are compelled to see how one woman had achieved freedom from the cage while another was trying to escape.
My Brilliant Career successfully dissolved the myth of Australian classless society . One can not help but to see and experience the societal chains of class and gender prejudice that bound Sybylla (Myers, 1987:75). The paino was used as a symbolic motif to portray Sybylla's precarious social position as she journeyed from the " highest to the lowest echelon on her social horizon" (Collins, 1999:22). The cracks in the ideal of a classless society began to show as Sybyllas was bustled about from the genteel poverty that offered her a simple in tune piano at Possum Valley, to middle-class squattocracy of Caddaget and Five-Bob Downs that offered her a elegant piano and finally, at the height of Sybylla's forced humility, the out of tune broken down wreck offered as culture at the McSwats (Collins, 1999:21).
The final myth that was cleverly inverted was the one of "mateship". In the film, mateship was not limited to the friendship between two men humping their sags in the outback. Gillian wanted to explain how there could and should be mateship and platonic friendship between a man and woman as partners of equal rank. In the film Sybylla was hurt when Harry came back from his business trip and failed to call. This subtly yet powerfully showed how conventional techniques of dating, seducing and provoking of jealousy was beneath their sincere friendship (Myers, 1987:46-48).
Although Gillian Armstrong has said that she "did not set out to address a solely female audience or to make a women's picture" , her film has been has been classified both as a "stylistically brilliant, maternal melodrama and an art-adaptations of literary classic featuring a rebel woman" (Collins, 1999:10). There was and still is a large section of the Australia film industry who believe My Brilliant Career was a feminist text (McFarlane, 1987:171). One could argue that the film was not about the "transformation of an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan nor was it about unrecognisable genius struggling for recognition" (Collins, 1999:19). Perhaps the film was about a gifted colonial woman who resisted becoming a gift in the exchange system of marriage. Mary Keneally (cited in Bowers, 1980:46) believed that the film was "not frightened to portray women in non-stereotyped roles and offered a turn-of the -century heroine who seemed to have wandered from the pages of a Louisa May Alcott novel into the Australian outback". Robson and Zalcock (1997:125) claimed that My Brilliant Career was the "first Australian feminist film" and they positioned Sybylla as "prototype for many of the strong representations" that were to follow.
Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka (1988) did concede, but only slightly . They did note the "witty mise-en scene" and the "larrakin heroine", as elements that went against the genre's typical aesthetic of "beautifully lit women in richly textured costumes" (Dermody & Jacka, 1988:135). However while they accepted that the film was "challenging in that it confronted ideas of gender and nationalism", they believed it did so only mildly because it was "swamped with romantic melo-drama". It appears that there is a lively sector of the film industry that agrees (Dermody & Jacka, 1988:136-137).
Geoffrey Barker (1979) reviewed My Brilliant Career at the Cannes film festival in May 1979 for both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He reported that the film had "both the virtues and vices that might be expected in a feminist love story written, produced and directed by women". In particular he was critical of the "passive, even caricatured quality about the male performances and believed that the film tended to make some of its feminists points a touch too obtrusively".
Sandra Hall (1985) argued in The Bulletin that "although Judy Davis is arresting as Sybylla, Gill Armstrong directs at a languorous pace and so Miles Franklin's precocious feminist is never translated successfully into dramatic terms".
Barbara Creed (1982) in The National Times wrote that " Even films written and directed by women can end up being told from a male point of view. So in My Brilliant Career the female narrator's voice is lost soon after the film begins, the visual narrative takes over and focuses not on the career but on the love story of an unconventional girl".
There is a messiness that surrounds Australian national cinema as it seems that with every critic and film maker who believes that My Brilliant Career was a good film there are equally a number of individuals who simply do not like it (O'Regan, 1996:71 & 77). It was not a conservative time when My Brilliant Career was released There were immense changes in Australian society and during a time of a revival of feminism, I have discovered many people considered the film a contemporary even feminist text that examined issues central to life today (McFarlane, 1987:170-171). This was also a time of a growing dis-enchantment in the Australian audience in the 'nostalgic" film. In light of the second wave of feminism and of the changes in the Australian film milieu, one could wonder how or why was My Brilliant Career so successful (Barber, 1998:6). Perhaps because it was not the same old tired formula of the "nostalgic" film that had been churned out over a decade near to an end. In my opinion, My Brilliant Career, was in fact, a different, unique and distinct film that refused to fit into any one genre. It was a "hybridisation" (Dermody & Jacka cited in O'Regan). It was a glorious example of "international contamination" (Gibson, 1992:81). Perhaps it was this mixture that gave this unassuming film, which had the dis-advantage of originating from a medium sized English language film market (O'Regan 1996:77), the ability to successfully reach out to wide spectrum of individuals from the art-critic to the working class Australian. It even reached American shores.
Searching For Details
Searching for information in the library proved very fruitful. As My Brilliant Career is a relatively old film, in the twenty one years since its release there has been an extensive range of books, articles, reviews and interviews that has scrutinised the film. It seems that this film will encourage a great deal of discussion for years to come. My Brilliant Career appears to be a dominant and significant film in the history of Australian Cinema hence one will find a reference to it in nearly any published work on cultural or media studie in Australia.
Bertand, Ina (Ed.) Cinema In Australia: A Documentary History, New South Wales Univeristy Press, Kensington, NSW, 1989.
Collins, Felicity The Films of Gillian Armstrong, Australian Teachers of Media,Victoria 1999, p.1-35.
Dermody, Susan and Elizabeth Jacka The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a Film Industry, Vol. 1, Currency Press, Sydney, 1988.
Dermody, Susan and Elizabeth Jacka. The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a National Cinema, Vol.2, Currency Press, Sydney, 1988.
Hall, Sandra Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review, Rigby Publishers, Adelaide, 1985.
McFarlane, Brian "My Brilliant Career", Cinema Papers, No.23, September-October, 1979, p.564.
McFarlane, Brian Words and Images: Australian Novels into Film, Heinemann Publishers, Australia, Victoria, 1983, p. 111-126.
McFarlane, Brian Australian Cinema: 1970-1985, Heinemann Publishers Australia, Victoria, 1987.
McFarlane, Brian & Geoff Mayer New Australian Cinema: Sources and Parallels In American and British Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1992.
Myers, David Bleeding Battlers from Ironbark: Australian Myths in Fiction and Film, 1890-1980's, "The Feminist as Flirt and as Artist", Capricornia Institute Publications, Queensland, Australia, 1987, p.69-79.
O'Regan, Tom Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996.
Robson, Jocelyn and Beverley Zalcock, Girl's Own Stories: Australia and New Zealand Women's Film's, Scarlet Publishers, London, 1997.
Turner, Graeme "Art Directing History: The Period Film" in The Australian Screen, Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan (Eds.), Penguin Books, Australia, 1989:99-117.
White, David Australian movies to the world: The international success of Australian films since 1970, Breakthrough:Europe, Fontana Australia, Sydney and Cinema Papers, Melbourne, 1984, p. 47-72.
Wright, Andree "My Brilliant Career" in Brilliant Career:Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books Australia, Sydney, 1986.
Adler, Sue "Luciana Arrighi: Production Designer", Cinema Papers, No.22, July-August, 1979, p.422.
Beilby, Peter and Scott Murray "Margaret Fink: Producer" Cinema Papers, No. 20, March-April, 1979, p.289.
Beilby, Peter and Scott Murray, "Gillian Armstrong: Director", Cinema Papers, No.20, March-April, 1979, p.291.
Colbert, Mary "I like Bold Films With A Contemporary Edge", Filmnews, October(1992), p.11-12.
Colbert, Mary "Gillian of the Human Jungle" The Age, 23 Jan., 1998, p.6.
Grieve, Anna "Gillian Armstrong Returns to Eden", Cinema Papers, No.63, May, 1987, p.30-33.
Hardesty, Mary "The Brilliant Career of Gillian Armstrong" DGA, 20.4(September-October, 1995), p.20-24.
Martin, Lauren "Emotion Pictures", Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum. 3 Jan. 1998. p.3.
Mathews, Sue 35MM Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984, p.117-172
Wright, Andree "Interview with Margaret Fink, 17th March, 1985" cited in Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, 1986.
Wright, Andree, "Interview with Gillian Armstrong , 20 & 28th February, 1985", cited in Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, 1986.
Barber, Lynden, "Real Women" Weekend Australian, Review, 25-26 April, 1998, p.4-6.
Barker, Geoffre, "Australia's love story", Age, Melbourne, 19th May, 1979.
Bowers, Dennis, "Sybylla-She hates men" , Metro, No.50, Summer, 1980, p.46-47.
Breien, Anja, Cinema Papers, August, 1982.
Creed, Barbara, National Times, 26 December, 1982.
Green, Sharon, New Australian Cinema: Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, University of Washington, Office of Cinema Studies, Winter Quarter, 1982 Film Series.
Moody, Mary " In Search Of A Celluloid Career" , Australian, Sydney, 22/23 April, 1978.
Maslin, Janet, "Brilliant Career" , New York Times, 6th October, 1979.
"Film's brilliant career heads for its first $1M", Australian, Sydney, 4 September, 1979.
Pascall, Geraldine, The Australian, 18 &19 August, 1979 & 9& 10 December 1979.
On-line Sources and Links
Breaker Morant dir. Bruce Beresford, 1980.
Caddie, dir. Donald Crombie, 1976.
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, dir. Fred Schepisi,1978.
The Devil's Playground, dir.Fred Schepisi, 1976.
The Getting of Wisdom, dir. Bruce Beresford, 1977.
Mad Max, dirGeorge Miller, 1979.
My Brilliant Career, dir. Gillian Armstrong, 1979.
The Night The Prowler, dir. Jim Sharman, 1979.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, dir. Peter Weir, 1975.
The Removalists, dir. Tom Jeffrey, 1975.
The Singer and The Dancer, dir. Gillian Armstrong, 1976.
Sunday Too Far Away, dir. Ken Hannam, 1975.