Director: Bruce Beresford
Stars: Barry Crocker, Barry Humphries, Donald Pleasance
First viewing, via DVD
In Les Patterson Saves the World, reviewed back in September on Down Under Flix, screenwriter and star Barry Humphries’ intoxicated elder statesman Les Patterson teams with covert secret agent Dame Edna Everage to stop an international terrorist plot to poison citizens worldwide through toxic toilet seats. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view 1974’s Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – also written by and co-starring Humphries, and pitting the titular larrikin Barry McKenzie against a Transylvanian plot to bolster national tourism by kidnapping and manipulating the Queen of England – as a dry run for the later film. Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is ultimately the more successful undertaking, though its commercial success did little good, at least at the time, for director Bruce Beresford – returning to the fold after 1972’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie – who was treated as a pariah and had difficulty securing work afterwards.
The film opens with McKenzie (Barry Crocker) and his aunt Edna (Humphries) on a flight to Paris, where a pair of shifty Transylvanians mistake them for Queen Elizabeth II and her bodyguard. In Paris, Edna is kidnapped and shipped to Transylvania, where the country’s desperate tourism minister, the vampiric aristocrat Count Plasma (Donald Pleasance), attempts to ingratiate himself and his nation to the supposed monarch. Barry joins forces with a Paris-dwelling expatriate (Dick Bentley), assorted intelligence officials and Australians abroad, and his priest brother (also Crocker) to rescue Edna from Plasma’s clutches.
Objectively, there’s no getting around that Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is a silly, vulgar, broad, base movie, and your enjoyment of the film will be intertwined with your tolerance for and generosity towards such fare. But it’s also a commercially and culturally savvy product, well-made for its era and ambitious for its budgetary constraints. From a craft perspective, it’s an improvement on its 1972 original, serving as testament to the development and growing skill of director Beresford, who over the course of the decade would transition into more serious projects, and would subsequently helm earnest fare like last week’s film The Fringe Dwellers, score an Oscar nomination for Best Director (for Tender Mercies), and direct a Best Picture Oscar-winning film (Driving Miss Daisy). Moreover, throughout his career Beresford has straddled various genres with more dexterity than most Australian directors, tackling comedies, action thrillers, war films, character dramas, romantic comedies, Biblical epics, and so on. He showcases this affinity for genre-hopping here, dabbling in genres like schlock horror, espionage thriller, the musical, and kung fu flick amidst the comedic shenanigans, preceding later Australian films that would dabble in these genres like The Man from Hong Kong and Thirst.
Politically speaking, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is a fascinating artefact, not merely for the cameo by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at film’s end. By 1974, the Sydney Opera House was newly completed, Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ was newly purchased by the National Gallery at a record cost of 1.3 million (with Whitlam’s approval), and Australian art was thriving across numerous mediums, including films. Beresford’s film displays a love-hate relationship with the establishment and cultural elite of the era, which had heaped scorn upon McKenzie’s earlier adventure and produced such anti-ocker creeds as Max Harris’s 1974 volume Ockers: Essays on the Bad Old New Australia. Humphries, who disdained both the ockers he depicted onscreen and Australia’s burgeoning and overreaching intellectualism, ribs the cultural pretensions of the moment from the film’s outset, in a scene where Australia’s Minister for Culture praises the current Australian cultural renaissance … with kookaburra noises on the soundtrack and a Warhol-esque painting of a Fosters Beer Can in the background undermining such lofty aspirations. Later in the film, McKenzie observes that “back in Oz now we’ve got culture up to our assholes” and says there’s lucrative cash to be made by “any bastard who reckons he can write poems, paint pictures or make films”. While joking at the expense of the local film industry, many of the key crew who cut their teeth on Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – Beresford, cinematographer Don McAlpine , associate producer Jane Scott, composer Peter Best, editors William M. Anderson and John Scott, to name a handful – would make great contributions to the Australian film industry as well as world cinema over the coming decades.
Despite its financial success and popularity, and its role as a training ground for Australian talent, in the ensuing years Barry McKenzie Holds His Own was banished to a cinematic leper colony. Tony Moore, author of an Australian Screen Classics volume on the McKenzie series, reflects that the film was “disowned by its production house, denied both a TV and video release and left to moulder in the Grundy vault. There it remained in darkness, a victim of its status as a privately financed film until the end of the [20th] century. Only in Australia would a high budget and commercially successful motion picture that featured a host of national comic legends and a Prime Minster be so forgotten. There was not even a copy lodged in the national screen archive” (Australian Screen Classics: The Barry McKenzie Movies, p. 65). Four decades later, it’s difficult to fathom that this scrappy little flick bore so much brunt of establishment animosity, no matter how suspect its cultural worth or immense its rejection of good manners.
Having said that, it’s hard not to flinch at some of the parochialism and political incorrectness on display. For example, in one scene future Play School host Don Spencer hosts a game show-style immigration test where desperate Britons must answer three questions correctly (correct answer to all: Australia) to be granted a second chance down under, and must uphold the immigration department’s rigid “No poofters allowed” policy. For many viewers, such scenes would probably play as literal text rather than satire; consequently, despite his disdain for and best efforts to lampoon larrikins, it’s unsurprising that Humphries ended up perpetuating and glorifying the cause. The film’s depictions of other countries and cultures – for example, on a French airline, live frogs are served by fishnet-wearing air hostesses while the pilot indulges his amorous inclinations in the cockpit, and London is characterized by its miserable weather, horrendous people, and footpaths lined with dog excrement – likewise simultaneously lampoon and perpetuate those stereotypes.
At the centre of it all is Barry Crocker as the returning but not quite conquering hero. As befitting a caricature, Crocker’s performance as McKenzie is one note, but he plays that one note boisterously. The actor also has a likeable screen presence – if he didn’t, the film would be a tough slog – and shows a softer side in his secondary role as McKenzie’s priestly twin and in McKenzie’s own sexual awkwardness beneath his macho exterior (when a student tells Barry she’s studying Kant, he responds “Me too, but I keep failing the practical”). A few years earlier Donald Pleasance co-starred in one of the great Australian films, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright. While he’s slumming somewhat in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – though not quite as much as he would in a later Australian film, David Hemmings’ Race to the Yankee Zephyr – he brings a pantomime enthusiasm to his speech-challenged ghoul. And Humphries, naturally, wears Dame Edna like a second skin.
In summary: In a book about one of Barry McKenzie’s cinematic brethren, Alvin Purple, Catharine Lumbie laments that films like Alvin Purple or The Adventures of Barry McKenzie are no longer being made; that is to say, populist Australian comedies explicitly calibrated for both local audiences and, more specifically, adult audiences (Australian Screen Classics: Alvin Purple, p. 69). However, their abrasive, vulgar spirit still lingers in the work of directors like Stephan Elliot (see the film that launched Down Under Flix, Welcome to Woop Woop) and Paul Fenech, and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own remains vital as comedy, historical artefact, and red-headed larrikin stepchild.
Next week: Down Under Flix celebrates Christmas with David Swann’s Crackers (1998)