Hightide (1987): “Story about a backup singer for an Elvis impersonator who re-enters her past when she leaves a tour in a small town and finds her daugh“Movies are made from the outside in, the inside out, every which way. But then you have the actor. If all of a sudden he gives you something so startling and illuminating it throws the whole movie out the window, ideally the director has to find a new movie in the old one.” (The Magician Awakes, Jon Rappoport)
“The Hollywood culture has developed its own subconscious ideas about what emotion is and what it isn’t. Some emotions are permitted to exist; others aren’t. Audiences don’t realize this kind of exclusion, for obvious reasons. They don’t see the censored outpouring of feeling; it isn’t on the screen.” (The Underground, Jon Rappoport)
Yes, we have fine Australian actors like Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman, and the unstoppable Russell Crowe of LA Confidential.
But for my money, put Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush down anywhere, in a café, on the street, turn on a camera and just let them talk and walk and move in and out of pretending they’re other people for six or seven hours; and I’m there. They’re Australian immortals. And perhaps the two greatest film actors in the world.
Judy Davis was hatched in a different galaxy, the Australia of the 1980s, when filmmakers were young and free and precocious, and knew in their bones, with no shame or embarrassment, what life-force was.
In the early 1960s, I haunted the Thalia Theater in New York, and watched dozens of foreign films. I was struck by actors who revealed what were, to me, alien (non-American) “energies.” Gunnar Bjornstrand in The Seventh Seal. Monica Vitti in L’Avventura. Alastair Sim in The Green Man.
Years later, while living in Los Angeles, I experienced the same strange phenomenon, while watching three Australian films: Winter of Our Dreams (1981); Heatwave (1982); and Hightide (1987).
Judy Davis starred in all of them. See them yourself. She comes alive in a way that American actors rarely achieve—if they even grasp the possibility of her raw emotional recklessness (that somehow reaches blowtorch focus). It occurred to me there had to be something Australian about her performances…some kind of power Australians could recognize as their own (during a period before the country would turn into a caricature of itself).
Particularly in Hightide, as she comes upon her long-abandoned daughter in a bleak coastal town and struggles with that shock, Davis takes you into feelings, if you’re an American, that seem to be coming from another planet, a place you want to say is completely foreign and impossible…but you know it’s the fuse and force of pre-modern society, when there was no taboo against emotion pouring and striking from the electric core of a human out into the landscape.
You suddenly say, because you can’t stop yourself, “Well, this is what I’ve always known. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Davis doesn’t let down for a moment. There are no gaps, no resting places. Who knows how director Gillian Armstrong achieved that victory? And while you’re riveted on Davis, Jan Adele, who plays Davis’ mother-in-law in the film, poleaxes you with a volcanic mother/protector performance from another vector that is so seamless you absolutelyknow she couldn’t be acting at all—and maybe she isn’t. Maybe a few Australian actors in those days had some mysterious hybrid version of performance which, in the American vocabulary, has no name. I don’t have the filmography to prove it, but I suspect Adele would be on a par with Davis and Geoffrey Rush, had she been given the necessary roles during her career.
Heatwave, a Judy Davis film from 1982, directed by Phillip Noyce, is described this way: “A planned housing development in Sydney’s Kings Cross in the mid 70s…becomes the centre of controversy as tenants and squatters in the doomed, older houses refuse to move. Their most outspoken member is Kate Dean (Judy Davis), who works with the publisher of a small but vocal local paper, Mary Ford (Carole Skinner) – whose relentless rabble rousing against the development is silenced only with her disappearance. Kate searches for Mary…The union bans work on the site, but a well timed fire changes the dynamics of the dispute – but leads to tragedy.” (urban cinefile)
In the film, Davis makes solo activism an irresistible wrecking-ball life. Even when her own emotions have burned out into ashes, she keeps making war. At first, you don’t know what you’re seeing. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. She’s so much more than a movie, in a movie. It’s as if you finally and embarrassingly begin to understand, for the first time (how could this be?), what tragic means. Not in the classical sense, but as it comes to the surface in a single human being. It was always there, waiting to be unearthed; and then it is. In that respect, I know of no other film that touches on what Davis is doing in Heatwave.
Modern society reflexively closes the door on everything I’m alluding to in this piece. “Don’t play with fire.” “Don’t explore this.” The depth and the free flow of natural emotions are ruled out, because we now have a better system. Our world is devoted to the good of everyone. In order to bring it into being, sacrifices must be made. An area of the soul has to be excised. Amnesia about the psyche must be induced. For the sake of “equality,” humans must be redrawn on a smaller map.
A cosmic fire department is pressed into service. And for the sake of efficiency, the department’s main function is prevention. Don’t let the flames find incendiary material. Recognize sparks and snuff them out.
Re-channel energies into acceptable boulevards. Hold up the correct leaders, so others may follow them.
From this perspective, you could say the early Australian films are strange historical documents. They reveal a time that is now retired as a lost landscape. They remember a possibility that (we’re assured) was once too real to be real.
Except for this—what is covered over and buried is never fully extinguished. You can decorate an artist with a blooming bar of effects and embroideries, in an effort to obscure him, but he can eventually break out. And if he does, if he stands against the artifact of the landscape, he can even disturb the blind in their beds.
Re the great ones from Australia: never let their films disappear.
Coda: If I could transport one American actor back to the Australia of the 1980s, to work with Gillian Armstrong or Phillip Noyce, it would be Ellen Barkin. In America, she’s had one basic problem: she’s bigger than every film in which she’s performed. She spills over the edges of the scripts and the story lines. She jumps out of the screen. (Watch her opening scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law.) Why waste time—build a film around her. Understand that she can project emotional fire power beyond the unwritten rules of American movie production. It would be a genuine revelation to see her finally go all-out and take over. Despite her acknowledged “powerful” roles (Sea of Love, Switch), she has as-yet uncalled-for bundles of dynamite waiting for a director with a match, a director who is hell bent on exploding her full range. Revisit her American films. There are always “pull-back” moments, where she’s forced to retract some of her unapologetic force. The Americans just can’t conceive of her otherwise. She’s too strong. Without restraints, she would make a tattered shamble of the script, she would present a character who is beyond the audience’s comprehension. Well, there are always such characters—until they actually come to life on the screen. And then all bets are off. Then audiences discover what they’ve been unconsciously waiting and yearning for. But Hollywood and its adjuncts operate on fear. “Maybe this is too much. Maybe it’ll flop. Maybe she’ll walk right off the screen and yell Fire and drive the audience out of the theater. Maybe we should confine ‘power’ to crashes on the freeway and heavy weapons. Maybe the whole area of pure emotion is too hot to handle. Because we ourselves are afraid of it…”
Yes, that’s it, isn’t it?
Go back and watch two American films that were supposed to be iconic “emotional breakthroughs,” A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Yes, it’s unfair to pull these films out of their historical context, but Streetcar is a highly stylized version of emotional and physical violence, couched in Tennessee Williams’ sweet sticky prose, the “inevitable” conclusion of which is rape; and Waterfront gives us “the loser who becomes a winner,” even though the mob still controls the New York docks. In neither case is the Brando character allowed to propel his emotions into a true victory (or tragedy).
For that, watch Hightide and Heatwave. The adequate scripts are permitted to melt, because Judy Davis burns them up, just as she should. Because she could.
I predict that no American or Australian actor who happens to read this article will like it. These days, everyone has made his adjustments and compromises; everyone has awakened fully to the way things are; everyone knows the score. Everyone has tailored his conception of what movies are about. Everyone has accepted a simulacrum of acting, within the structure. Everyone has bought the script of scripts dictating how emotion can be expressed and how it can’t be expressed. Everyone has bought The Cartoon as an imitation of life—which involves forgetting what life is or could be.
As I suggested earlier, however, death is never final for the artist. Try as he might to maintain occupancy in a zone of prepackaged accommodation, something will come along and give him the chance to escape. And then another something. And then another. These little unasked for moments arrow into his psyche.
He can keep trying to refuse, but—
The artist is forever.
“Wait! I didn’t sign up for that!”
Yes, actually, you did.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse.