Last month I reviewed two films headlined by the late, great John Hargreaves. Today’s piece spotlights two films from another great Australian actor of similar vintage. To say Jack Thompson is iconic is an understatement. He was one of the brightest new stars of the Australian New Wave, appearing in both lead and supporting roles in stone cold classics like Wake in Fright, Sunday Too Far Away, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and Breaker Morant as well as interesting flicks like Petersen, Caddie, Mad Dog Morgan, The Club, and The Journalist. He was the first male centerfold in Australia’s Cleo magazine, was awarded the first Best Supporting Actor gong at the Cannes Film Festival for Breaker Morant, was the only logical choice to embody Clancy of the Overflow in The Man from Snowy River, hosted a travel program called Jack Thompson Down Under, and in recent years has alternated between roles in Australian films and supporting turns as men of influence (lawyers, politicians, military men, businessmen) in American films. This piece highlights two star turns from Thompson’s filmography separated by twenty years: 1975’s Scobie Malone and 1994’s The Sum of Us.
Director: Terry Ohlsson
Stars: Jack Thompson, Judy Morris, Noel Ferrier, Shane Porteous
Scobie Malone is adapted from Helga’s Web, a 1970 novel by Jon Cleary. Cleary, also known for penning The Sundowners, wrote 20 books featuring detective Scobie Malone between 1966 and 2004. Terry Ohlsson’s 1975 film was the second movie derived from Cleary’s Malone novels (following a 1968 film starring Rod Taylor as the detective) and to date it’s also the last, making the books a ripe property for adaptation. The plot of Scobie Malone revolves around the murder of Helga Brand (Judy Morris). Malone (Jack Thompson) is tasked with investigating Helga’s death, and the film alternates between Malone’s investigation and extracurricular activities and flashbacks to Helga’s dalliances with various powerbrokers.
The shot above is from the film’s opening credits showing Malone driving across Sydney Harbour Bridge, and from its outset Scobie Malone is gaga for its Sydney setting. Because the film industry was still in the infancy of its renaissance, Sydney as a city had not yet been filmed to death. Scobie Malone thoroughly taps the largely untapped production value of the Australian metropolis, as well as its brand-spanking new architectural icon – the Sydney Opera House – which was completed in 1973: the city is crisply photographed in its summertime glory and the Opera House is shot with a reverence befitting the Pyramids.
Speaking of thoroughly taps, Thompson’s Malone does just that throughout the film’s running time. Malone makes 007 look chaste, and while Hoodwink director Claude Whatham would approve, author Cleary took offence. By modern standards, Malone is a promiscuous sleazeball, but the film presents him as a suave perennial bachelor enjoying the high life and this is consistent with the loose censorship and spirit of the films of the era, as seen in the Alvin Purple series and the Thompson-starring Petersen. And Thompson as an actor is so innately likable that the character still works, more or less, as a charming rapscallion. One of Thompson’s best qualities is finding the Everyman in larger than life characters (and conversely finding something larger than life in the Everyman) and that gift is showcased here. Judy Morris is also terrific as Helga and brings humanity to an essentially enigmatic character. Ohlsson’s direction is solid, albeit with some rough edges; Scobie Malone would be its directors feature debut and swansong rolled into one, but he’d subsequently produce for television, including a long stint on popular drama The Flying Doctors.
Directors: Kevin Dowling, Geoff Burton
Stars: Jack Thompson, Russell Crowe, John Polson, Deborah Kennedy
Family drama The Sum of Us casts Thompson as father to Russell Crowe, then a rising Australian star with Proof, Romper Stomper and assorted other films under his belt. Thompson’s Harry is a widowed ferry driver who meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy) through a matchmaking service. Crowe’s Jeff is a young gay man who takes a liking to gardener and bartender Greg (John Polson). The film depicts the parallel romantic lives and frustrations of father and son and the challenges they encounter following a tragic turn of events.
The Sum of Us is based on a play by David Stevens and was adapted for the screen by the author, who also co-wrote Breaker Morant for the screen. The film has the texture and heft of a good piece of theatrical material, and while it retains the theatrical device of breaking the fourth wall and having characters speak directly to the audience, Stevens’ script also finds way to open up the play in terms of setting and action. The Sum of Us isn’t visually stylish or showy, and that’s a good thing: directors Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton (a veteran cinematographer responsible for lensing Storm Boy, The Year My Voice Broke, The Time Guardian, and Sirens, among others) keep things simple and in service of the material and actors.
The Sum of Us came out two years before Love and Other Catastrophes, and like that film strove to paint a positive portrait of gay relationships onscreen for mainstream audiences. It does this in large part through the warm father-son relationship at the film’s core and through presenting Harry’s support for and approval of his son, and by extension Thompson’s endorsement as a national icon. The scenes between Harry and Jeff are beautifully played by Thompson and Crowe, two actors who have embodied (and here subvert) traditional notions of Australian masculinity across different eras. In some respects the film represents the passing of a torch from one iconic Australian star to another who would, in subsequent years, take full advantage of the opportunities for Australian actors abroad not necessarily available to Thompson’s generation.
Next time: Phillipe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)