The Sum of Us
directed by Geoffrey Burton & Kevin Dowling
A Critical Review and Bibliography by Matthew Potter
Kevin Dowling, Geoff Burton
Hal McElroy, Errol Sullivan
Corky Kessler, Donald Scatena, Kevin Dowling
Hal McElroy, Southern Star Entertainment Ltd, Australian Film Finance Corporation Ltd
Southern Star, UIP/CIC Video
David Stevens (Based on his play of the same name)
Graham 'Grace' Walker
Jack Thompson ….Harry Mitchell
Russell Crowe ….Jeff Mitchell
John Polson ….Greg
Deborah Kennedy ….Joyce Johnson Mitch Matthews ….Gran
Rebekah Elmalogou ….Jenny
July 1994 AUSTRALIA
10 September 1994 CANADA
8 March 1995 USA
8 July 1996 SPAIN
13th Oct- 18th Nov 1993
1994 AFI Awards Best Adapted Screenplay
1994 Asia Pacific Best Actor
Film Festival (Jack Thompson)
1994 Montreal Best Screenplay
Film Festival (David Stevens)
1995 Cleveland Best Film
International Film Festival
Bibliographical Details of Interviews
Hannah, L & Caputo, R, "The Sum of Us: Interview with filmaker Geoffrey Burton, Cinema Papers, no 100, Aug 1994, pg 30
This article interviews Geoffrey Burton who discusses his previous work and how it relates to The Sum of Us, particularly his previous work as director of photography in Sunday Too Far Away (also starring Jack Thompson). He also comments on the increasing tolerance towards homosexuality and his motivations for making this film.
Lorenzo, M, "Chatting with Crowe", Interview Magazine, no 85, Sept 97, pg 74
This interview with Russell Crowe is not primarily concerned with The Sum of Us but Crowe still discusses his portrayal as a homosexual in this film. Crowe comments that his portrayal of a homosexual on screen should not alarm anyone as "sexual orientation is not something that people necessarily choose; its just who they are" (pg76)
Barlow, H, "A bush anarchist travels the globe", The Age, 16/05/94, pg 21
This article interviews Jack Thompson on his role in the film and asks his views on homosexual representations in film.
Bibliographical Details of Reviews & Essays
Mortimer, L, "Fathers and sons, mothers and lovers- in the film The Sum of Us", Metro, no 100, Summer 1994, pg 18
This article reviews The Sum of Us and praises the film for its originality and refreshing portrayal of Australian masculinity. Mortimer is impressed by Thompson's performance which "doesn't miss a beat" (pg 21) and the irony in his casting since Thompson has been an icon of rugged masculinity in Australia for years. Finally, Mortimer criticises the complaints made against the film that it is "a gay film for a straight audience" by suggesting that the object of the film wasn't to simply focus on the homosexual issue but to cover many issues such as father-son relationships.
Walker, J, "Summing up The Sum of Us", Time Magazine, no 11, Dec 1994, pg 95
This article reviews the movie and discusses its significance in regard to the changing representation of homosexuals in mainstream entertainment. It declares that "its arguably the most important film yet" for this subject.
Stevens, D, The Sum of U s, Penguin (Sydney, 1995)
This book (written by David Stevens-the author of the play and scriptwriter of the movie) reproduces the film script and full production credits. There is also a good introduction explaining Steven's personal reasons for writing the script.
Nicoll, F, "Up ya bum"?: queer(y)ing Australian nationalist subjectivity", Critical InQueeries, vol 1, no 3 May 1997, pg 53
Tati, A, "Outakes!-Gay themes in the cinema", Campaign Australia, no 232, July 1995, pg 40
Arthur, Kayt, "Brave new words-the emergence of gay and lesbian themes in Australian films", Campaign Australia, no 223, Oct 1994, pg 34
Online Presence in Web Literature
There are a large number of reviews of The Sum of Us on the internet. Many American movie databases had information about this film, such as The Internet Movie Database. This is indicative of the increasing popularity of quirky Australian films and Australian actors in the US. The recent international success of Russell Crowe (The Insider, Gladiator) has also placed the spotlight on The Sum of Us as revealed by the number of online reviews which have only been written in the last six months. With Crowe's increased exposure, many sites have traced his filmic roots and subsequently reviewed The Sum of Us in the process. A number of reviews have been instigated by the film's representation of homosexuality (such as the review of the film in Q-Gayteway to South Africa database). Most of the websites that do not have homosexual affiliations at least have links to pieces about gay/lesbian themes in movies. This reveals the influential online presence of homosexual literature. Amazingly, a number of Australian movie databases such as Urban Cinefile, or Senses of Cinema do not review this film. The most likely explanation for this is that these Australian databases only review recent Australian films (perhaps because of a lack of resources or web-space), and are not as dazzled by Crowe's recent stardom to review his previous films. Below are just some of the web-sites that contained information about The Sum of Us.
Review by Dennis Harvey in Popcorn Q Movies (online)
This review comments on the depth and honesty of The Sum of Us. Harvey believes "the lack of overt preachiness makes this possibly the best gay-positive propagandic tool mainstream cinema has yet offered".
Review by Roger Ebert in Chicago Sun Times (online)
This review criticises The Sum of Us for its melodramatic transformation at the end of the film.
Review by Mary Brennan in Film.com
"Adapted from a popular play, Sum is earnest in the best way, alternating sincerity with off-hand humour".
Review by Rita Kempley in Washington Post (online)
The filmmakers are criticised in this review for not fully comprehending what type of film they were trying to make-the end result according to Kempley is a confusing mix of genres.
Review of the film by the Australian Film Commission
Short synopsis, and information about the film.
Review by Mark Leeper in The Internet Movie Database
This review complements the film's minimalist approach. Leeper wishes "this country would make more of this sort of film".
Review of the film in Q-Gayteway to South Africa
This is a short review of the film on this database dedicated to homosexual issues. Its location here is due to the film's coverage of homosexuality.
Essay on the film by Alan McKee titled "How to tell the difference between a stereotype and a positive image" in Screening the Past
This article is more about the representation of homsexuality in Australian cinema, but there is a good comparison between The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot) and The Sum of Us — two well-known Australian films dealing with the portrayal of homosexuality.
I began my search by simply using a variety of keywords (such as the film's title, year of release and country of origin) in the search engines of Yahoo (www.yahoo.com.au) and Excite (www.excite.com.au). This found a number of reviews from the major US newspapers as well as independent reviews of the film.
The Library databases such as APAIS were useful to help find articles in journals such as Metro. The Film Index International CD-Rom was also useful in providing production information.
Finally the links in the H231 Reading room provided invaluable information. I found many American reviews of The Sum of Us using the Movie Review Query Engine (www.mrqe.com). The Internet Movie Database (www.us.imdb.com/News/) provided a great deal of basic information which I needed such as box office takings. Furthermore, the majority of web-sites I examined contained links to other reviews of the film.
Harry (Jack Thompson) lives with his gay son Jeff (Russell Crowe) in a modest little house in the suburb of Balmain, Sydney. They are not only father and son, but also best mates who go to the pub together, shop at the markets together, and cook dinner for each other. Their constant bickering is only a surface disguise for their strong father-son connection. Furthermore, Harry unquestioningly accepts his son's sexual preference. He is never ashamed of Jeff, and is only disappointed that Jeff will miss out on having a baby. Underlying Harry's acceptance is the fact that his mother was a lesbian, revealed by a flashback to Jeff''s youth. Whilst staying at his grandmother's house he discovered her in bed with another women. Instead of being shocked, Jeff believes it looked "like the most natural thing I'd ever seen…like love".
Although both men are happy living together, they both long for romantic companionship. Jeff is interested in Greg (John Polson), a man he meets in a local gay bar, but according to Harry, Jeff lacks confidence in the "romantic stakes". When Jeff finally asks Greg back to his home Harry's desire to see his son happy has the tendency to overwhelm Greg who "can't hack" the domesticity of Jeff's relationship with his dad. Greg is unable to deal with Harry's acceptance because his own Dad is so different. Greg is eventually kicked out of home when his Dad finds out that his son is gay. Jeff is not the only one pursuing a relationship, as Harry secretly joins Desiree's Introduction Agency and meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy). After a whirlwind romance in the space of a few dates and with the need for companionship Harry invites Joyce to dinner on New Year's Eve. The audience is left with anticipation that Harry's relationship will be a success unlike Jeff's relationship with Greg.
Harry's success becomes short lived as Joyce is disgusted to find out on New Year's Eve that Jeff is gay and cries that Harry "ought to be ashamed of him" and she storms home. Harry suddenly suffers a stroke and is debilitated. Jeff cares for Harry's every need exemplifying his devotion to his father. Despite the turn of events, Jeff meets Greg again and in the closing scenes they decide to continue where they left off, with Harry finally asking, "turned out real nice after all, didn't it?
With Hollywood's penchant for making romantic comedies (inevitably staring Meg Ryan), where love's portrayal is cliché ridden in order to prevent any independent thought by the audience, it is refreshing to find a comedy-drama like Geoffrey Burton's and Kevin Dowling's The Sum of Us which explores love's different manifestations. This film treads relatively unfamiliar ground through its overt yet down to earth representation of a gay couple, but it is more about the need for companionship and love, both sexual (gay and straight) and familial (between a father and son in the film).
This film could have become completely concerned with the issue of Jeff's homosexuality but David Steven's script remains loyal to the play of the same name that he wrote. Steven's play was "a love song for Australia", but he wanted it to cover all types of love. His story's concept mirrors Jeff's words when he states "I don't want to live in a world that begins and ends with being gay". I believe that the film's lack of focus on Jeff's homosexuality is why the film is realistic in its depiction of homosexuality. Rather then sensationalising Jeff's homosexuality, the film prefers to prevent it from becoming the main issue. Harry easily accepts his son's sexual preference and matter of factly informs the audience that he doesn't know why people can't accept homosexuality. This further encourages the audience to accept Jeff without the film preaching to them.
The characters ordinariness (Harry is a ferry driver and Jeff is a plumber) also adds an element of working class realism to the film. Jeff is not employed in a stereotypically homosexual profession, but is rather a plumber who likes his beer, plays his footie and lacks culinary skills. Jeff displays the defining characteristics of the typical Australian male through which the Australian male audience can identify. Furthermore, both Thompson (in Sunday Too Far Away and Breaker Morant) and Crowe (in Romper Stomper and Proof) are perceived as archetypal icons of Australian masculinity. This ironic piece of casting, however, allows the audience to relate to the characters regardless of their sexual design.
Even though this film is very funny in parts, it deals with these different types of love in a mature and confronting manner. Most of the film's comedy comes from the awkwardness of situations such as Greg's introduction to Harry where Harry makes a toast, "Up your bum", which does little to settle Greg's nerves. The film remains light-hearted even in the more serious or dramatic scenes, for instance when Harry is reminiscing for his departed wife but Jeff walks in at the right moment and tells his Dad to "cheer up you old pisshead". Another example is immediately after Harry's stroke when he informs the audience that "the trouble with having a stroke is the people that treat you like a fuckwit afterwards". Both scenes had the potential of dragging this comedy drama into the regions of nauseating sentimental melodrama, but it is saved by the jokes.
The use of direct monologues to the camera by Jeff and Harry could have become artificial if it was not for the easy familiarity of their speeches. They talk to the members of the audience as if they are personal friends who need to be filled in on gossip. This device was most likely used to carry on the tradition of Steven's play, but it also prevents any wastage in the film in terms of having to create new scenes in order to inform the audience. Furthermore, while it could be said that this technique steps away from the traditional views of a realist dramatic comedy, this could also be seen as breaking away from the mould of traditional cinematic portrayals of homosexuals.
This film is a no thrills comedy that can be sombre at times yet it always remains sincere. The characters are not overacted and the film has an unassuming feel to it even though it had the opportunity to be very political considering its discussion of homosexuality. Instead, the audience is simply shown an expose of different types of love, which according to Harry is "the greatest adventure of all".
This film is part of the Australian 'sleeper' phenomenon of the early 1990's as it was produced on a low budget and became an economic success at the box office. It was also a critical success upon its release in Australia. This film was released at a time when homosexuality was gaining more public coverage (as the first national televisation of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was in 1994). The increasing emergence of homosexuality paved the path for the release of The Sum of Us, but many critics were expecting this film to be "condescending and thoughtless" to members of the homosexual community. The majority of critics in Australia, however, were pleasantly surprised. Mark Naglazas believed that the film's depiction of homosexuality was handled in a "mature manner devoid of mocking characters", while David Stratton commended the film not only for its "honest portrayal but also for the credibility of it's actors". Its critical success was also marked by a number of awards such as the 1994 Australian Film Industry award for David Stevens' screenplay.
The Sum of Us was praised by critics in the US for its originality as it was an "examination of what love is like for those whose lives don't follow traditional movie scripts". Interestingly, many critics commented on its distinctively Australian nature such as Joan Ellis who believed it was an "eccentric example of the Australian love of diving into the cultural conflicts of a given moment".
Some film critics, however, were opposed to the film's representation of homosexuality and believed the film merely glossed over the important issues. A number of critics argued that it was "a gay film for a straight audience" as it presented an aesthetically pleasing depiction of homosexuality without any realism. Julie Sanderson believed that it was aimed at a mainstream audience because of its "blatant avoidance of the AIDS issue". Other criticisms of the film are for its "lack of proper female representation" as there are few women in the film, and Joyce, the main female character, is depicted as narrow minded and unforgiving. Paradoxically, in the US the film faced criticism for becoming too serious at the film's conclusion as it "slips into its melodramatic third act".
Production and Release
The Sum of Us was produced by Hal McElroy and Southern Star Productions. Originally this film was to receive American backing following the success of the Off-Broadway version of David Steven's play in New York. Hal McElroy (producer) approached American production companies, but was disappointed, as the companies would only support the production if amendments were made to the script. These amendments were to include American locations and characters. McElroy refused to make such changes to the script and brought the production back to Sydney. The large gay community in Sydney influenced this decision. Shooting of the film began in Sydney in October of 1993 with help from the Australian Film Finance Corporation. The filming in Sydney was not without its problems as a beer company contracted to provide beer during production pulled out after discovering that the film concerned themes of homosexuality.
Despite this opposition, the timing was perfect for the release of The Sum of Us. The issue of homosexuality was reaching a controversial peak in 1994. The Australian Government released an anti-discrimination campaign against homophobia at the start of that year. In the month before the release of the film the Government overruled Tasmanian anti-sodomy legislation, and this resulted in violent protests in Tasmania. 1994 was also the first year that the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was televised on national television. This was a time when there was a push for greater tolerance of homosexuality in the Australian community. As a result, there was a considerable measure of media hype prior to the release of The Sum of Us. This free publicity may have been a contributing factor to its success.
Upon its release in Sydney in July this film was a surprising success. It was not expected that it would make such an impact let alone a profit at the box office. The film ended up almost meeting costs in Australia, and with its release in America and Canada the following year the film made a clear profit.
The Sum of Us was a risky film to pursue for a number of the cast and crew because of its potentially controversial themes. Nevertheless, this film had a number of well-known faces in the Australian film industry.
The Sum of Us was based on the play of the same name by David Stevens. It was a natural progression for him to write the screenplay for the movie version. Stevens had written screenplays before for Australian based movies, and he was most well known for co-writing the screenplay for Breaker Morant (1979), which also starred Jack Thompson.
The Sum of Us was co-directed by Geoffrey Burton and Kevin Dowling. Geoffrey Burton is a prominent Australian cinematographer and had worked on films such as Sunday Too Far Away (1975) (which also starred Jack Thompson), Storm Boy (1976), Flirting (1991), and Sirens (1994). His previous work in Sunday Too Far Away inspired the joke at the start of The Sum of Us when Thompson is washing potatoes for dinner and the camera focuses on his backside. This is reminiscent of Sunday Too Far Away when the camera is honed on Thompson's nude backside whilst he washes his clothes. Despite Burtons's previous work on films he had never before directed a film prior to The Sum of Us. This movie was also Dowling's directorial debut as he was previously a stage director. Nevertheless, he was the director of Steven's play in America and so he was familiar with the story.
Jack Thompson who stars as Harry is an icon of Australian cinema. He had starred in many Australian classics prior to The Sum of Us such as Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Caddie (1976), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Breaker Morant (1979) and The Club (1980). He has recently starred in a number of American films such as Broken Arrow (1996) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1998).
Russell Crowe who plays Jeff is also a respected actor in Australia. Prior to the release of The Sum of Us he had already starred in many Australian films such as Proof (1992), Romper Stomper (1992) and Spotswood (1993). The year after The Sum of Us was released he made his American debut in The Quick and the Dead (1995). Since then he has starred in The Insider (1999) and The Gladiator (2000) and he is considered to be an international acting sensation.
Greg Polson who stars as Greg had been in a number of films prior to The Sum of Us but was not as well known as his fellow actors. Notably, he had starred with Crowe in Blood Oath (1990), and worked with Burton in Sirens (1994). Since the release of The Sum of Us he has starred in the critically acclaimed The Boys (1997) and has recently worked on Mission Impossible 2 (1999) with an unforgivable over-exaggerated Australian accent.
Place and Value in Australian Cinema
Tom O'Regan believes a film's value is not simply measured by its box office revenue. Rather, it is a measure of many considerations, such as how it was received by critics and community alike, as well as its significance to a country's national cinema. The notion of a national cinema involves the relationship between the film texts and industry of a nation in contrast to the international film industry, as well as their "various social, political and cultural contexts". A national cinema allows a film of a nation to be distinguished from other national cinemas and Hollywood. To determine a film's contribution it is necessary to determine the significance of its release.
The Sum of Us was released during a period of cinematic revolution in Australian cinema. Following the decline in the popularity of Australian films at the end of the 1980's, Australian cinema faced a resurgence of popularity in the early to mid 1990's. Not only was there a push for greater international financial assistance for the production of local films, there was also a renegotiation of Australia's independent cinema as the definition of an 'Australian' was in flux. Multicultural policy was prominent, equal rights for homosexuals were increasingly accepted, and Australian women were coming to the forefront of Australia's film industry. The cultural identities of Australians were becoming more varied, and Australian national cinema was representing this "transition" of the public face through Australian cinema. Thus, in 1994 we saw the release of two Australian films, Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994) and The Sum of Us, that both dealt with homosexual themes and sexual minorities. While both were markedly different they were also successful in Australia and America and have now attained cult status throughout homosexual communities.
Furthermore, the post recession period of the early 1990's reduced private film investment. As a result the Australian Film Finance Corporation was created in the early 1990's, and this allowed a wide variety of original films to be made that canvassed a number of thematic issues. If it wasn't for the AFFC finance, The Sum of Us may not have been made. The Sum of Us, like many films of the early 1990's was different from the films of the 1980's as it had a small budget, it was dialogue driven and it was not expecting a huge success. However, like Strictly Ballroom (1992), The Sum of Us was considered part of the Australian 'sleeper' phenomenon as it was successful upon release.
During this cinematic revival of Australian cinema in the early 1990's a number of films were released which were neither considered "quality" art films nor mainstream cinema. The Sum of Us was intellectual but also popular like so many other films of the period, such as Proof or the later Shine (1996). It showed the audiences something new, as the issue of homosexuality had not been so publicly and frankly dealt with in an Australian film before. This film is typical of a number of films in the early to mid 1990's in that it was original and it pushed the boundaries of Australian cinema by showing audiences something new while still remaining entertaining.
Regardless of the originality of The Sum of Us, this film still exhibits a number of familiar traits that are distinctive to Australia's national cinema. The Sum of Us contains distinctly Australian characteristics, such as its place in Australia's "mundane cinema" as the lives of the characters contain an 'ordinariness'. This is not to say that every man is gay, but what this means is that Harry, Jeff and Greg are all everyday working class Australians. This technique has been used in many Australian films such as Muriels Wedding (1994), or more recently in The Castle (1997). Furthermore, even though Jeff is homosexual he still exhibits an overt masculinity found in many male protagonists in Australian cinema. We see him play footie, he uses the appropriate expletives and he likes going to the pub. While this is not the same 'ockerism' seen in early Australian films such as The Adventures of Barry Mckenzie (1972), it is still distinctively Australian male behaviour. We also see the same "bond between male characters that precludes women" which is in other Australian films like Sunday Too Far Away. Finally, the film shows a number of shots of Sydney (including the obligatory shot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). This gives the film a cosmopolitan feel to it, like many other films released in the early 1990's. Just as Strictly Ballroom had a Melbourne feel to it, The Sum of Us is a film distinctly set in Sydney.
The Sum of Us has a valuable place in contemporary critical and market horizons. It proved that AFFC funding was a beneficial process, and it also placed the final nail in the notion of the Australian blockbuster that was so common in the 1980's, by showing that a small budget film can still be popular. More significantly, it was a film that placed a minority group in a realistic context as everyday normal people. The issue of homosexuality is not commonly portrayed in Australian film, but The Sum of Us revealed to audiences across Australia that the homosexual community is part of the varied cultures that make up 'the sum of us', as Australians.
A Medium Sized English Language Cinema
Australian national cinema has been described as a medium sized English language cinema. Australian cinema competes with international cinema, but it is still overwhelmed by Hollywood's dominance. However, Australian cinema has the advantage of being easily accessible to North Americans, as a national cinema must rely "on fellow language speakers for profit". Nevertheless, it is still medium sized as it requires "state intervention to sustain production beyond trivial levels". Thus, to compete with the American market and to sell Australian films in America, Australian cinema must negotiate Hollywood's space by providing something different to audiences, but not too different or else they will be ostracized. This can result in creative tension and as film-makers can become torn between "adjusting what it does in order to compete internationally….or alternatively maintaining a close relation between its activities and a sense of national identity".
I believe The Sum of Us has balanced this position well. Not only is it relevant and entertaining to the Australian community as shown by its success in Australia, but it also has sufficient appeal for American audiences. American critics have hailed this film as distinctively Australian in its down to earth approach and 'quirky' humour, which has separated this film from Hollywood productions. Nevertheless, its themes of love, and its examination of homosexuality has an international appeal. Furthermore, its use of direct monologues has been appropriated from previous films outside of the Australian filmaking context, such as in Alfie (1978?). This is a form of "positive unoriginality" as it has borrowed a previous cinematic practice, and its use could have a favourable cognitive effect upon an audience. Thus, The Sum of Us is an example of an Australian film that has sufficiently negotiated the tension of the Australian film landscape as it is popular to Australian audiences and it maintains its national identity, but it also has significance to international markets.
Mortimer, L, "Fathers and sons, mothers and lovers- in the film The Sum of Us", Metro, no 100, Summer 1994
O'Regan T, "Australian Cinema in the 1990's", in Tapp P (ed) and Sabine J (associate ed), Australian Feature Films, Melbourne: Informit, at OzFilm Site
Diwell, S, "Sum of fighting prejudices", The Sunday Tasmanian, 14/10/94
Naglazas, M, "Gay relationship handled with skill", The West Australian, 29/07/94
Stratton, D, "The Sum of Us", Variety, 09/05/94
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Ellis, J,"The Sum of Us: Nebbaddon review by Joan Ellis" at www.ellis.nebbadoon.com/cgi-bin/Eent
O'Donnell, M, "Whose gay culture is this?, Spinout, 11/11/94
Sanderson, J, "Gay laughs make puritans see pure", Sunday Mail, 24/07/94
Jillett, N, "The Sum of Us", The Age, 28/07/94
Ebert, R, "Sum of Us raises issues then avoids them", Chicago Sun Times (online) www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1995/04/975884.html#cast
Verhoeven, D, "The Sexual Terrain of the Australian Feature Film: Putting the Outback into the Ocker", in Jackson, C & Tapp, P (eds) The Bent Lens; A World Guide to Gay & Lesbian Film, Melbourne (1997)
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Mckee, A, "How to tell the difference between a stereotype and a positive image" in Screening the Past- www.latrobe.edu.au/www/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fr0300/amfr09b.htm
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