Wonders from down under

Oz's acting community sends a fresh batch of talent for 2000

Over the last decade, Australian actors’ worldwide impact worldwide recalls the new wave of directing talent from Down Under in the ’70s. Just as Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce and George Miller laid the groundwork for equally audacious ’90s Aussie filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann and Stephan Elliott, so have the likes of Judy Davis and Mel Gibson paved the way for talents like Geoffrey Rush, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett to become international stars.

Australia’s contribution to world cinema, and Hollywood in particular, is a relatively recent phenomenon. There were Errol Flynn, who was born in Hobart, Tasmania, and Aussie Rod Taylor was a movie idol in the ’60s, but for the most part, prior to such 1979 films as “Mad Max” (Gibson) and “My Brilliant Career” (Davis), Australian stars were a rare breed.

Rush, the first Australian-born thesp to win a best actor Oscar (for 1996’s “Shine”) points out that when Taylor was headlining Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963, the Oz film industry “was almost completely nonexistent. There was no real breeding ground or grassroots level where people could foster their talent.”

Rush says what helped a lot was the establishment of the Australian Film Commission — founded in 1975 as the primary development agency for film and TV, and a major support group for the arts — and the attendant development of state-funded theater groups.

“From the mid-’70s onward, the whole national theatrical scene here has been much richer and more of our own voice rather than a British heritage,” Rush says.

The Australian performing arts, and cinema in particular, is a mishmash of influences. They range from the daring works staged by Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theater (which recently scored an international success with “Cloud Street”) to the splashy, big-budget musicals associated with Cameron Mackintosh. A similar spectrum differentiates the flamboyant movies of directors Luhrmann and Elliott from the more nuanced, character-driven films of Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof,” “A Thousand Acres”) and Scott Hicks (“Shine,” “Snow Falling on Cedars”), the Australian performing arts, and cinema in particular, is a mish-mash of influences.

“It’s a big smorgasbord, so everyone gets a little taste of everything rather than get a solid training in any one thing,” Rush says. “I think, mixed in with that stew, there’s a cultural, societal attitude here. We’re a nice mixture of being a very laid-back culture, but we’re also quite brazen; we get a bit feisty. I think that influences the work.”

Australians’ no-nonsense, unaffected approach to the craft often sets them apart. “L.A. Confidential” thesp describes the appeal and strength of co-stars and fellow Aussies Crowe and Guy Pierce in terms that would apply to actors like Brando, Newman and McQueen.

“There is a quality about Australians which is pretty similar to the average man, which is pretty no-nonsense, fighting, strong-willed and also an honesty. There is the expression of the little Aussie battler — the guy who no matter how many times he gets knocked down, he keeps on getting up to fight,” he says. “If you look at Australians, not just in the arts but worldwide across the board, there are a lot of high achievers. That’s got to do with the quality of feeling like the underdog.”

Blanchett, currently in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” says for a country of 20 million people, Aussie artists have shown great resolve. “I think the way we pit ourselves against the world is quite unique,” she notes. “I don’t think there’s a country where there’s a bigger land mass that’s so sparsely populated, and I think that characterizes a particular way of looking at the world.”

Blanchett, Gibson, Davis, Crowe and Frances O’Connor — who in 1999 played the headstrong, highly literate Fanny Price in “Mansfield Park” — have distinguished themselves for playing strong, often unyielding characters. Rewards and plaudits have followed.

Aside from countless Australian Film Institute awards and nominations (the Oscar equivalent Down Under), Crowe (“The Insider”), Kidman (“Eyes Wide Shut”) and O’Connor figure in this year’s Oscar race. Blanchett was nominated last year for the title role in “Elizabeth,” while compatriot Rachel Griffiths received a supporting nom for “Hilary and Jackie”; Rush won for his virtuoso turn as troubled concert pianist David Helfgott in “Shine” (and was nominated last year for his supporting turn in “Shakespeare in Love”); Gibson copped the directing Oscar for 1995’s “Braveheart,” in which he also starred; and Davis has been nominated for her work with David Lean (“A Passage to India” (1984)) and Woody Allen (“Husbands and Wives” (1922)).

Unlike the accusations of “selling out” leveled against directors like Weir, Noyce and Beresford — who went on to big Hollywood careers — Aussie actors don’t necessarily feel beholden to make films on their home continent.

“I think people are very realistic about the industry in terms of there not really being enough work (in Australia) to sustain a career to any degree,” says O’Connor, who got her start with the Melbourne Theater Co. and has been shooting “Madame Bovary” in France. “So you really have to go overseas. I want to have the best career that I can and for me, it’s really about stimulating situations.”

Adds Toni Collette (“Muriel’s Wedding”): “I think things are becoming much more globalized in general. I believe in a oneness that goes beyond my career. Unlike Hollywood, where there’s a studio system, in Australia we don’t have that. Every film is independent.”

But although the Australian film industry is very active and is being noticed, there is definitely a much larger market in America. So who are the next Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush? Rush points to Sacha Horler, who just won both supporting and lead Australian Film Institute awards for “Soft Fruit” and “Praise,” respectively. He also mentions David Wenham , with whom he has worked onstage.

“He did a brilliant film a year or so ago called ‘The Boys.’ I think he’s going to make a mark,” Rush says.

O’Connor praises the work of Heath Ledger, a Perth native who was in “10 Things I Hate About You” (1998) and will be appearing with Gibson in the upcoming “Patriot.”

Meanwhile, the international recognition Rush and others from Down Under are enjoying continues to build.

“I’m amazed even for myself in the last three or four years to see where our career paths, like Cate Blanchett and myself, have led us,” says Rush, who just finished a turn as the Marquis de Sade in “Quills” for director Philip Kaufman.

“Apart from that generation of Mel and Judy, there aren’t that many guidelines for what track you take. We’re distinctively of our own culture and yet there’s that international gene pool of people like Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette who have established themselves as really strong ensemble players in very diverse work,” he says. “They’re not just peddling themselves as a personality; they’re kind of surprising with the various dimensions they’ve got.

“Like Sacha (Horler), let’s say, is not a conventional beauty, but she’s somebody that’s like a powerhouse of so many vibrant, life-filled, sexy qualities onscreen. You’re just not sure how that’s going to be appropriated.”

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