Director: George Miller
Stars: Barry Humphries, Pamela Stephenson, Andrew Clarke, Hugh Keays-Byrne
First viewing, via SBS on Demand
Down Under Flix will be taking a break for the rest of September, and will resume business in early October. Since the website kicked off with a broad, crude, deliberately cringe-worthy Australian comedy, there’s a nice symmetry in ending this first “season” with another flick of this ilk: 1987’s Les Patterson Saves the World, directed by George Miller of The Man from Snowy River fame (not George Miller of Mad Max and Babe fame).
For those unfamiliar with the character Les Patterson, conceived and performed by Barry Humphries, David Stratton provides an apt thumbnail: “a kind of latter-day Toby Belch, a larger-than-life caricature of a nouveau-rich bon vivant – belching, farting, womanising and chundering his way through life with scant regard for the sensibilities of others” (The Avocado Plantation, pp. 306–307). Miller’s film brought Humphries’ lecherous, vulgar, perpetually intoxicated elder statesman – whom he’d been performing on stage and television for over a decade – to the silver screen.
Following a diplomatic faux pas at the United Nations where he sets alight another diplomat through a combination of fire and flatulence, it looks like Sir Les Patterson’s (Humphries) career is on the skids. In cahoots with the US President, Prime Minister Bob Hawke assigns Patterson to the Middle East where he’ll be executed for his blunder. When a coup usurps his executors, Patterson is reinstated as Australian diplomat, but then uncovers another plot: to poison people worldwide through toxic toilet seats.
Whether you’re a fan or detractor of Humphries’ work as a writer and performer, there’s no denying that he’s a fascinating cat. Tony Moore, in his Australian Screen Classics book The Barry McKenzie Movies, writes of McKenzie’s creator:
A conservative contrarian while many in his generation were moving left, Humphries nevertheless retained a bohemian delight in transgression that makes him a radical. While Humphries the artist indulges elitist inclinations, the performer loves the applause from the crowd (p. 49).
That contradiction between conservative and transgressor, elitist and gleeful vulgarian, is very much embodied in the character of Patterson, who enables Humphries to parody the aspects of Australian culture that both repulse and fascinate him, in turn expressing his cultural cringe, delighting in it, and sadistically pointing it back towards viewers. It’s perhaps not surprising that the film was a critical and commercial disappointment (and earned the wrath of no less than future Prime Minister Paul Keating in the process). Whilst there’s some history in Australia of adapting successful comedic television and stage properties to film (seen most recently with The Wog Boy films and Kath and Kim), Les Patterson Saves the World turned out not to be a sound investment. As Humphries himself wryly laments in one of the DVD’s special features, it was “one of those projects that seemed like a good idea at the time”. He also notes that similarities between the film’s HELP virus, spread via toilet seats, and the very topical and very serious AIDS virus did not help the film’s cause.
It’s a pity the common rhetoric and conversation surrounding the film is one of failure, because Les Patterson Saves the World is more blast than bust. Humphries’ parodic sweep is broad and inclusive, and whilst some of the jokes don’t quite work today (a caricatured depiction of two gay characters very much belongs to its cultural moment), others remain amusing. The film’s not as politically savvy as the Humphries-scripted Barry McKenzie films of the previous decade, but like those films it both recoils from and gladly perpetuates local stereotypes: an early scene showing marsupials roaming the streets of Sydney is one instance of the film celebrating, denigrating, and perpetuating clichéd perceptions of Australia.
As noted above, director Miller had earlier helmed the box office success The Man from Snowy River, as well as a series about Ned Kelly, The Last Outlaw, and episodes of the prestige series Anzacs. Les Patterson Saves the World took some of the wind of respectability from his sails, but ultimately Miller’s always been more of a journeyman director, and he does solid work here, giving the whole tacky affair a professional, functional sheen.
But of course, as creator, co-writer and star, Barry Humphries dominates the film and provides its gravitational and creative centre. One can’t really critique his performances as Patterson or Dame Edna Everage, who plays a prominent role in proceedings as a secret agent: Humphries simply is Patterson and Edna, and excels at being them. The rest of the cast includes other familiar faces doing decent work, including comedienne Pamela Stephenson as Patterson’s love interest, Andrew Clarke as an official tasked with babysitting Patterson, Graham Kennedy (briefly) as a member of the Hawke upper echelon, Joan Rivers as the first female U.S. president, and the great Hugh Keays-Byrne of Stone, The Man from Hong Kong, Mad Max, and Mad Max: Fury Road fame as a heavy.
In summary: In this year’s Archibald Prize competition rewarding the best portrait paintings in Australia, the winning artwork was a portrait of Humphries by artist Louise Harman. Consequently, between now and 9 October you can find Humphries’ portrait adorning the walls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Such respectability will no doubt continue to evade Les Patterson Saves the World, but it’s a funny, entertaining film worthy of a second look.
Next month: Greeks with guns, dead hearts, and a pair of flicks about Norman Lindsay. Until then…