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My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career(1979)

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IIn 1979 an Australian export, George Miller's Mad Max, made a huge splash on the international movie-going scene. But a much quieter picture, Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, also helped put Australia on the filmmaking map that year, and you could argue that, as much fun as Mad Max and its sequels may be, Armstrong's debut feature has aged more gracefully. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by an independent-minded woman author named Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career tells the story of a headstrong young woman named Sybylla (played by the extraordinary Judy Davis, in her debut role), living in the Australian outback just before the turn of the 20th Century. Sybylla is the daughter of an impoverished farmer, but she yearns for something more - chiefly, a life shaped by meaningful work - and even when she gets a chance at finding true love with a handsome, well-heeled property owner (played by an almost criminally charming Sam Neill), she's not sure love fits into her plans. Sybylla first needs to find out who she is, and to take a stab at getting what she wants out of life.

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,
Australian Film Database,
Australian Film Commission,

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My Brilliant Career (1979)

At the forefront of feminist filmmaking as well as the new wave of films from Australia is 1979's My Brilliant Career, from the book by Sarah Miles Franklin, who in 1901 was compelled to publish using her 'male' middle name. Director Gillian Armstrong's film introduced actors Judy Davis and Sam Neill to American audiences, who loved the period setting in New South Wales. Davis is Sybylla Melvyn, a poor rural teenager who tries the patience of the kindly relatives that take her in to help her find a suitable marriage match - the only realistic alternative being work as a servant. When an annoying, lovesick cousin presents her with a fistful of posies, she tosses them aside and goes back to her book. The rebellious Sybylla persists in un-ladylike behavior. She repeatedly snubs the honest advances of the highly desirable landowner Harry Grubb (Neill), much to his confusion. The film adaptation makes Harry more attractive in order to emphasize that Sybylla wants to be an independent artist, and not an accessory in another person's life. Her determination is tested when she's forced to take a demeaning job minding grubby children on a primitive, wind-blown farm. The amusing, ironic My Brilliant Career garnered many international awards, with Judy Davis the big winner. Critic Stanley Kaufmann noted that Ms. Davis combined the best of Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, "but with real fire."

By Glenn Erickson

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