My Brilliant Career
Cast & Crew
In turn-of-the-century Australia, an independent woman tries to make a career as a writer despite pressures to marry.
Dorothy St Heaps
Donald M. Mcalpine
Best Costume Design
My Brilliant Career
That notion was close to revolutionary in 1901, the year Franklin's novel was published. But even in 1979, the movie version was revolutionary in its own quiet way: It's that rare film, Australian or otherwise, on which women fill nearly every key creative role. As critic Gary Couzens has pointed out, My Brilliant Career was not only directed by a woman, it was produced by one, Margaret Fink, who had discovered the book years earlier and had long hoped to see it made into a movie. The screenplay was adapted by Eleanor Witcombe; Luciana Arrighi orchestrated the film's pitch-perfect production design, and Anna Senior designed the costumes. (Nathan Waks composed the original music, Nick Beauman was the editor, and Donald McAlpine contributed superb cinematography.)
Even on today's filmmaking landscape, it would be unusual for so many significant roles on a film set to be filled by women. Yet Armstrong -- - who had made one previous 52-minute feature, The Singer and the Dancer, in 1977 - has said that she "did not set out to address a solely female audience or to make a woman's picture." After My Brilliant Career, Armstrong went on to have a successful career - certainly from an artistic standpoint, and sometimes in box-office terms as well - but she has always resisted ghettoization as a "woman" director. As she told Mary Hardesty in DGA Magazine, "I'm always asked about what the problems are as a woman director, so all my interviews come across as though I'm complaining, and I'm not. Actually, I've been treated very well, generally. But we will never achieve true equality until people drop the label 'woman' before 'director.' I have a different directing style than, say, Kathryn Bigelow or Barbara Streisand, but we have different styles because we're all different human beings, not because we're women or men."
Armstrong had been one of the first Australian women to break into feature filmmaking. (Directors like Ann Turner and Jane Campion would follow.) She'd graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School earlier in the 1970s and had worked as an assistant to Fred Schepisi; she had also made a few documentaries and shorts, as well as The Singer and the Dancer, which brought her to the attention of producer Fink, who years earlier had read and been inspired by Franklin's book. Franklin had written the book as a teenager - she then approached the Australian writer and poet Henry Lawson, who brought it to his publisher in Edinburgh. Franklin wrote several novels in her lifetime (in 1946, she published a sequel called My Career Goes Bung), but My Brilliant Career was her most successful and beloved book, and in the 1970s, in particular, its themes resonated with women struggling to find their niche in the workplace and in the world.
That struggle extended to the making of the film itself. The picture was a hit in its home country, even though the Australian Film Development Corporation had rejected it three times. According to records compiled by Samantha Hepburn at the Australian Film Database, Armstrong said that the Corporation believed the film would fail because it didn't have what they saw as a happy ending. Fink and Armstrong refused to budge. And without giving away the ending, it's safe to say that My Brilliant Career ends on a note that is at least ambiguously happy, as well as honest, which is perhaps part of the reason audiences responded so well to it.
Part of its success, of course, is connected to Davis' marvelous performance as a young woman who refuses to follow all the rules even as she yearns for many of the same things most young women do. Davis, just 24 at the time, had recently graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, in Sydney. With her wild sprigs of red hair and freckled complexion, Davis as Sybylla is beautiful in a striking, unvarnished way. As Janet Maslin wrote in her review of the film in the New York Times, "Miss Davis brings an unconventional vigor to every scene she's in, even in a film that's as consistently animated as this one. Her Sybylla is a coltish creature, creating a merry chaos wherever she goes."
Maslin also alludes to the film's liveliness, which is one of Armstrong's strengths. There are no slack patches in My Brilliant Career, no dreary scenes that are intended to convey the weight of boredom while doing nothing more than inciting boredom themselves. With DP McAlpine, Armstrong created a look for the picture that captured the rugged, unforgiving beauty of the landscape: Inspired by 1890s postcards of the Australian bush, she managed to put all that fearsome glory on-screen, suggesting that while young Sybylla longs to get away from that landscape, its fierceness is part of what created her.
You sense that same lack of sentimentality in this passage written by Franklin herself, in her preface to My Brilliant Career: "SPECIAL NOTICE: You can dive into this story head first as it were. Do not fear encountering such trash as descriptions of beautiful sunsets and whispering of winds. We (999 out of every 1000) can see nought in sunsets save as signs and tokens whether we may expect rain on the morrow or the contrary, so we will leave such vain and foolish imagining to those poets and painters - poor fools! Let us rejoice that we are not of their temperament!" From that passage, it's clear that Franklin's book found just the right filmmaker, a director attuned to the sturdy poetry of her environs and open to the spirit of youthful adventure. My Brilliant Career is a movie about exploring all the possibilities of life, instead of allowing life to just happen to you.
Producer: Margaret Fink
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Screenplay: Eleanor Witcombe (writer); Miles Franklin (novel)
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Music: Nathan Waks
Film Editing: Nicholas Beauman
Cast: Judy Davis (Sybylla Melvyn), Sam Neill (Harry Beecham), Wendy Hughes (Aunt Helen), Robert Grubb (Frank Hawdon), Max Cullen (Mr. McSwatt), Aileen Britton (Grandma Bossier), Peter Whitford (Uncle Julius), Patricia Kennedy (Aunt Gussie), Alan Hopgood (Father), Julia Blake (Mother).
C-100m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Stephanie Zacharek
The New York TimesThe Digital Fix, http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/63881/my-brilliant-career.html
Australian Film Database, http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/dbase/
Australian Film Commission, http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/my-brilliant-career/
My Brilliant Career
My Brilliant Career -
By Glenn Erickson
My Brilliant Career -
My Brilliant Career on DVD
My Brilliant Career introduced Judy Davis (who has to work hard to appear plain), Sam Neill and director Gillian Armstrong - unwisely billed as Gill - to American audiences. It represents the top end of the Australian cinema boom in the late 70s that included Peter Weir and the Mad Max movies. Blue Underground has broken from its usual cult horror films to apply its DVD production prowess to a classy romantic comedy drama we'd expect to be trumpeted by Criterion or Home Vision.
Synopsis: Impoverished bush daughter Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is plain and twenty, and her family needs her out of the house simply because they can't afford to keep her. She has literary ambitions (or the theater! or the opera!) but her only realistic opportunity is to become a servant. Well-to-do relatives take her in; they like her spirit but not her unladylike tendency to make bawdy asides and drink too much at parties. Her aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) helps Sybylla to feel more feminine, and is puzzled when her houseguest happily repels the advances of a rich but creepy cousin Frank (Robert Grubb). Sybylla is attracted to handsome landowner Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) but is put off by his popularity among other available girls. Sorting through her oddball feelings and objections isn't easy. When Harry finally proposes, Sybylla asks him to wait ... so she can figure out what she wants from life.
It takes about twenty minutes before we are exactly certain what direction My Brilliant Career is going. In a sustained long-shot Frank Hawdon, the boring snoot from England hops a fence and struts across a field to present a fistful of posies to Sybyella, who is reading under a tree. As soon as he departs she throws them away to go back to her book. It's the key scene in the show. Sybylla has other things on her mind than proposals, and surely not from a geek like Frank.
The Harry Beechams of this world are supposed to reverse that attitude, and in most cases they do. Harry gets Sybylla's blood moving faster and forces her to struggle to suppress the call of the wild. She's seen what married women become. Her mother married for love and is struggling on a wind-scow of a farm. Her aunt Helen is only a few years older but wastes away like an inert fossil because her husband deserted her without explanation. The family matriarchs sit in judgment over the younger women. None of them have the slightest regard for Sybylla's avowed interests. She doesn't aspire to be a wild single woman, exactly, but she wants an independent creative life of her own; she loves men but would rather avoid the responsibility of being married to one. Harry is a dream guy, an exciting man who wants to settle down. That doesn't sound terrible to the confused young Sybylla - but it's not first on her list of ambitions.
My Brilliant Career is directed by a woman, from the autobiography of a pioneering female author. Their Sybylla doesn't hate men and doesn't want to run wild in the city. She just pines for some better alternative to being an accessory to a man. It's enough to make one feel that one is ruining a girl's life by proposing to her.
Australian Outback movies tend to be about men's men and their wallabies or whatever. The women are even tougher, as evinced by the two stirring version of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice. Sybylla isn't suited to this background; we first see her writing blithely as the rest of her family runs frantic trying to respond to a massive dust storm. Sybylla loudly protests that she's too good to be a servant. But when she has used up her options (and presumably, the indulgence of her relatives) she later toils in a far lower capacity, paying her father's debts by teaching the almost feral children of another farmer to whom her family owes money. Sybylla has learned that maybe she's aimed too high and gallantly proceeds to do more than play the guest in someone's house. Fortune will finally come her way, but not in the way she expects.
One reason My Brilliant Career works is that it's the anti- romance story. Sybylla's first encounter with Harry is almost a parody of bodice-ripping meet-cutes: He has to coax her down from one of the trees where she tends to roost like a twelve year-old. Her sharp personality captures Harry's heart. Harry has no trouble finding willing debutantes but Sybylla is special enough to have him coming back no matter how rudely she behaves. At one point she smacks him with a riding crop, and means it.
The pre-automobile vision of Australia is an attractive setting and the meadow and hillside backgrounds for the lovers' pursuits and pillow fights make My Brilliant Career look better than Hollywood movies with ten times the budget. Director Armstrong's breakthrough picture led to many international opportunities and she quickly became one the top two or three female directors.
My Brilliant Career also put Judy Davis on the map, although it's reported that she didn't care for the role and hated her appearance in the film. Both women and their film garnered plenty of international prizes.
Blue Underground's DVD of My Brilliant Career presents this rewarding and insightful show in a two-disc set that will appeal equally to fans and educators. Ms. Armstrong offers a full commentary on the first disc, which also contains Australian and American trailers. The grainy American preview is close to what cable TV copies of the film looked like in the 1980's; BU's handsome enhanced transfer is a pleasure to watch.
The second disc has separate interviews with Armstrong and her producer Margaret Fink, and footage of them and their star Davis at the Cannes Film Festival. Author Miles Franklin is the focus of another featurette, an extra with obvious uses in a school environment when combined with a DVD-ROM "Teacher's Study Guide." This fun and amorous film is rated "G" yet will surely set many a teenaged girl to thinking about alternatives more personally rewarding than immediately disappearing into marriage.
For more information about My Brilliant Career, visit Blue Underground. To order My Brilliant Career, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
My Brilliant Career on DVD
Dear fellow countrymen, just a few words to let you know that this story is going to be all about me. So, in answer to many requests, here is the story of my career... here is the story, of my career...my brilliant career. I make no apologies for sounding egotistical...because I am!- Sybylla
I think ugly girls should be shot at birth by their parents. It's bad enough being born a girl...but ugly and clever...- Sybylla
Oh, fancy you're clever, do you?- Aunt Gussie
I rather hope so. I'm done for if I'm not!- Sybylla
Judy Davis played her own piano solos.
cabaret backup singer
The haunting melody Judy Davis practices on the piano is from Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood".
The Country of Australia
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1980
Released in United States September 1979
Shown at New York Film Festival September 1979.
For her performance as Sybylla Melvyn, actress Judy Davis received both the Australian and British Academy's Best Actress Awards.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1980
Released in United States September 1979 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 1979.)