Bruce Beresford Bildungsroman Bonanza: The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Susannah Fowle, Sheila Helpmann, Patricia Kennedy, Candy Raymond, Hilary Ryan, Barry Humphries, John Waters, Sigrid Thornton, Kerry Armstrong, Julia Blake

At the time of The Getting of Wisdom’s release, Bruce Beresford was best known for directing muscular, rowdy entertainments like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, and Don’s Party. The latter film, adapting to the screen a play by Australia’s premier playwright David Williamson, was a step towards respectability for Beresford after his near professional ostracization following the Barry McKenzie films, and he was awarded a 1977 Best Director AFI Award for his efforts. The Getting of Wisdom seems an even more decisive step towards respectability, courting association with the dominant commercial aesthetics of the Australian New Wave: indeed, with its period setting, girls boarding school location, and literary origins (based on Henry Handel Richardson’s 1910 novel), it’s immediately evocative in its surface details of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, released two years earlier and likewise set in Victoria at the tail end of Queen Victoria’s reign. However, The Getting of Wisdom’s a lighter yet more full-bodied blend than Weir’s artful, enigmatic melodrama. And while its focus on a young woman protagonist and feminine milieu outwardly suggests a significant departure from his earlier work, in its focus on culture clash the film is consistent with not only Beresford’s prior films but also subsequent ones like Breaker Morant and The Club.

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Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974)

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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.

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Les Patterson Saves the World (1987)

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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.

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