My Brilliant Career Review
Goulborn, New South Wales, the 1890s. Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is a young girl growing up on her parents’ drought-stricken farm. Strongly idealistic and wanting more from life than just a husband, Sybylla goes to stay with her grandmother (Aileen Britton) and her unmarried aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes). With Helen’s encouragement, Sybylla pursues her interest in music and books. Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb) is attracted to Sybylla though she thinks he’s an idiot and much prefers Harry Beecham (Sam Neill)...
My Brilliant Career, released in 1979, was a particular landmark of The Australian Film Revival of the 1970s. Gillian Armstrong (credited here as Gill Armstrong), born in 1950 in Melbourne, was part of the second wave of directors during that decade. She began as a stage costume designer, but took a film course at College. In her final year she met Fred Schepisi, who offered her a job at his commercials company, The Film House. This led to Armstrong enrolling at the newly-created Australian Film, Radio and Television School (AFTRS), and was among its first graduates. She worked as Schepisi’s assistant on his episode of Libido, and as art director on Promised Woman and The Removalists. She made her own documentaries and short films, including the award-winning The Singer and the Dancer.Armstrong caught the attention of Margaret Fink, who had produced The Removalists, and who had long wanted to make a film of Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career.
It’s often the case that first novels display a definite streak of autobiography, and it’s not hard to see that in My Brilliant Career. While not always the most smoothly-written of novels, it goes a long way on its central character and her voice, unapologetically aware of her abilities and determined to achieve her goals. Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born in 1879, the oldest of seven children, and grew up on her father’s cattle station in New South Wales and from age ten at a “selection” (a small smallholding). She loved music and wanted to be a singer, but family circumstances ruled this out. She began to write and one of the first results, at sixteen, was My Brilliant Career, in her words “conceived and tossed off in a matter of weeks”.
This was the mid-1890s, a time when much artistic activity was concerned with a new nationalism, a defining of what it was to be Australian as the six states moved towards federation, which happened in 1901. Franklin was not the only person to feel that much of this new Australian writing, novels and poetry both, was promoting a very male view of the young country, one defined by the bush and the Outback rather than by cities, by a distrust of authority and a code of mateship. One of those writers was Henry Lawson, who read her novel when Franklin submitted it to the weekly magazine The Bulletin. He recognised straight away that the author was a woman, though she was using the pseudonym of Miles Franklin.
Lawson suggested that Franklin submit the novel to his publishers in Edinburgh, and it was accepted and published in 1901, with Lawson providing a preface. The novel brought Franklin fame, but she was uncomfortable with suggestions that it was simply her own autobiography, and she withdrew it from publication. It remained out of print until 1965. Franklin wrote other novels, including a sequel, My Career Goes Bung (1946), and an autobiography which was published after her death in 1954. The Miles Franklin Literary Award, bequeathed in her will and inaugurated in 1957, is one of Australia’s most prestigious.
My Brilliant Career is not only a film about a woman, it was made by several women. Of the nine crew members listed in the opening credits (oddly, the cast are all listed at the end), fully six are female: not just Fink and Armstrong, but scriptwriter Eleanor Witcombe, production designer Luciana Arrighi, costume designer Anna Senior and associate producer and production supervisor Jane Scott. The only Y-chromosome-bearers listed are cinematographer Don McAlpine, editor Nicholas Beauman and composer Nathan Waks (with large chunks of Schumann’s piano music). Women had written, produced and designed films before, but having one direct was certainly novel to many in Australia. One precedent was Paulette McDonagh, who made four films with her two sisters, beginning in late silent days and ending with the now-lost Two Minutes Silence (1933).
Many people have incorrectly cited My Brilliant Career as the first Australian feature film directed by a woman since then, but in fact it was preceded by the 1975 16mm-shot feature The Golden Cage, directed by Ayten Kuyululu, and also, if you count a 52-minute film as a feature, The Singer and the Dancer. Carrie Rickey, in the essay included with this disc, says that Armstrong was the first Australian woman to direct a feature film since Paulette McDonagh, which is strictly correct, as Kuyululu was a Turkish migrant. However, My Brilliant Career is the first Australian film directed by a woman in both 35mm and colour. (One other woman directed a feature in Australia in the 1970s: Linda Blagg, with the 16mm-shot Just Out of Reach, also released in 1979 and also featuring Sam Neill.)
In the opening scene, Sybylla stands in the doorway of her rundown family house, book in hand and announces: “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.” Sybylla is a thoroughly engaging heroine, wilful and spirited. She thinks she is ugly - and others are quick to confirm this - though it takes a special man to sense her beauty. Although she is capable of love - with Sam Neill at his most handsome and definitely shot with a heterosexual female gaze - she is also a heroine who values her independence. We begin with Sybylla in that doorway, and we end with her silhouetted against a fence against a sunset. This is her story, to be taken on its own terms or not at all.
What this doesn’t convey is how entertaining My Brilliant Career is. Witcombe’s screenplay is full of witty lines, and due to the efforts of McAlpine, Arrighi and Senior the film is a delight to look at. But the film is dominated by a performance by Judy Davis that made her a star. She had recently graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), where she had been a notable Juliet playing opposite fellow student Mel Gibson as Romeo. My Brilliant Career was her second film. However, not many people had seen the pretty negligible High Rolling.
Armstrong has said that it was important that a woman make this film. Some queried the casting of Judy Davis as Sybylla, as too good-looking for the role. Yet, Armstrong says, that’s a misunderstanding. Teenage girls tear themselves down all the time, and just because Sybylla says she is ugly, which she does many times in the novel, that doesn’t mean she is. Take, for example, a film from two years earlier, The Getting of Wisdom, from the 1910 novel by Henry Handel Richardson. That was also a film with a teenage heroine (similar to Sybylla in quite a few ways) based on a novel by a woman writing under a male name, and also one written by Eleanor Witcombe, photographed by Don McAlpine and costume-designed by Anna Senior. However, this film was directed by a man, Bruce Beresford, a passion project of his. While I’m not going to suggest that only women can make films about women, and only male directors ones about men, it’s undeniable that The Getting of Wisdom is well-meaning (as are Beresford’s other films with female leads – Puberty Blues and The Fringe Dwellers among them), but lacks something that is in My Brilliant Career.
Armstrong’s film has more of an edge, feels more personal. It premiered in competition at Cannes in 1979 and was released in Australian cinemas in August the same year. At the time, there was the start of a reaction against the type of film that this (and Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Getting of Wisdom) were beginning to represent in Australian cinema. As the stereotype went, they were overly-respectable costume dramas from literary sources that played mainly in arthouses, and what Australia should be making were genre films that would sell to commercial audiences abroad. Hence the straw-man arguments that some fans of what’s now call Ozploitation come up with. That’s always been an unfair argument: there are certainly bland and uninspired historical literary adaptations, but My Brilliant Career isn’t one of them. It deserves its classic status, forty years later.
Nominated for eleven Australian Film Institute Awards (now the AACTA Awards), My Brilliant Career won six: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Direction, Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design. Judy Davis lost Best Actress, losing to Michele Fawdon for Cathy’s Child, which is not a judgement that posterity has endorsed. Davis did win two BAFTAs (Best Actress and Best Newcomer) and Anna Senior was Oscar-nominated.