Family & Companions
A gifted and award-winning filmmaker from Australia, Gillian Armstrong first garnered attention with her debut feature, "My Brilliant Career" (1979), which helped propel her to international recognition. The film's release gave Armstrong the distinction of being the first woman to helm a feature-length movie in her homeland in almost 50 years. Coupled with the themes of "My Brilliant Career," she was threatened from the outset with being pigeonholed as a so-called feminist director, a tag that Armstrong vehemently refused to accept. Meanwhile, she built on her success with the light and frothy "Starstruck" (1982) and the true-to-life "Mrs. Soffel" (1984), both of which allowed her to explore female protagonists striking out on their own, albeit in vastly different situations. Not strictly a narrative filmmaker, Armstrong helmed the occasional documentary, starting with "Smokes and Lollies" (1975), which focused on three working-class adolescents' dreams and aspirations. She returned to the same subjects over the ensuing decades, with Armstrong exploring them as they grew into adults and had teenage children of their own. But narrative filmmaking remained her main focus. She had one of her greatest critical successes with a rich and compelling remake of "Little Women" (1994), which she followed with well-crafted films like "Oscar and Lucinda" (1997) and "Charlotte Gray" (2001). Though often denying any favoritism toward period films focused on independent female protagonists, there was no doubt that Armstrong was a great practitioner of those exact kinds of films.
Armstrong was born on Dec. 18, 1950 in Melbourne and raised in nearby Mitcham by her father, Raleigh, a real estate agent and amateur photographer, and her mother, Patricia, a primary school teacher. It was in her father's dark room that the 10-year-old Armstrong first developed a passion for images. Armstrong began her film studies at Swinburne Technical College, where she took part in various aspects of filmmaking, ranging from designing costumes to assisting director Fred Schepisi on his segment of the anthology film, "Libido" (1973). She also stepped behind the camera as a director, making her debut with an eight-minute short called "Roof Needs Mowing" (1971). After briefly working as an editor for Kingcroft Productions, Armstrong earned a scholarship to the Australian Film Television and Radio School, where she was one of the first 12 students ever enrolled at the school. She graduated in 1973 alongside noted filmmakers Phillip Noyce and Chris Noonan. Supporting herself as a waitress, Armstrong managed to complete three short films, including "Gretel" (1973), a 27-minute work adapted from a Hal Porter short story that was tapped as Australia's official entry at the Grenoble International Festival of Short Films.
In 1975, Armstrong made "Smoke and Lollies," the first of four documentary films that scrutinized the lives of three working-class Australian girls as they matured from teenagers to young women. Following the 54-minute short "The Singer and the Dancer" (1976), she revisited the three working-class teenagers with "Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better" (1980). Meanwhile, Armstrong became the first Australian woman in 46 years to direct a feature film when she made "My Brilliant Career" (1980), a period drama about a strong-willed woman (Judy Davis) who shocks her family by eschewing a marriage proposal from a wealthy man (Sam Neill) in order to pursue a writing career. The adaptation of Miles Franklin's novel helped propel both Armstrong and Davis onto the international stage, while earning numerous awards, including an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Director. The director followed with "Starstruck" (1982), a musical that followed a barmaid (Jo Kennedy) who dreams of being a singing star while trying to win a contest that will help keep her family's bar open for business. The film maintained the momentum she started with "My Brilliant Career."
Armstrong went on to direct her first American film, the underrated "Mrs. Soffel" (1984), which told the based-on-fact tale of the wife (Diane Keaton) of a prison warden (Edward Herrmann), who leaves her family to run off with an escaped murderer (Mel Gibson) at the turn-of-the-20th-century. Turning to music performance, she put together footage of Bob Dylan's 1986 concerts in Sydney, Australia for "Bob Dylan in Concert" (HBO, 1986). Staying in her native country, Armstrong reunited with her "Brilliant Career" star Judy Davis on "High Tide" (1987), a character study of a chance encounter between a rootless singer and the daughter (Claudia Karvan) she gave up for adoption. She had her third go-round with the three working-class girls, catching up with them at 26 years old for "Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces" (1988). Armstrong documented the lives of these women with precision and care, allowing each to emerge as a personality as the years went on. The director had a disaster on her hands with her next American film, "Fires Within" (1991), a romantic drama starring Jimmy Smits and Greta Scacchi that was entirely recut by MGM, leading Armstrong to take her name off the film and retreat to Australia for her next movie.
Shot on a low budget, Armstrong's next film, "The Last Days of Chez Nous" (1992), examined the relationship between sisters (Lisa Harrow and Kerry Fox), and the effect one has on the other's family. With this work the director found herself back in form, as well as awards contention following a nomination for Best Picture at the Australian Film Institute Awards. Armstrong perhaps had her greatest success with her remake of the classic "Little Women" (1994), which proved to be a natural fit for the director. Her version of the Louisa May Alcott novel presented a wider social and cultural context than earlier versions, borrowing details from Alcott's personal life to flesh out the subtexts of class and gender in 19th Century New England that were only previously alluded to in the book. The result was an intelligent and well-acted portrait of a family struggling to remain strong in the face of numerous tragedies. For a fourth time, Armstrong assembled the three women from "Smoke and Lollies" for "Not Fourteen Again" (1996), which looked at their lives now that they had become mothers of their own teenage daughters.
Back to narrative filmmaking, Armstrong directed "Oscar and Lucinda" (1997), a brilliantly realized adaptation of Peter Carey's award-winning novel, which focused on two eccentric dreamers who share a penchant for gambling. Like all of her work, the characterizations of the central figures were sharply drawn, but with "Oscar and Lucinda," Armstrong also demonstrated her gift for narrative. Told in flashback, the film was a love story between an English clergyman (Ralph Fiennes) and a headstrong Australian heiress (Cate Blanchett) who embark on a mission to build a glass church in the Australian Outback. She next directed Blanchett again in "Charlotte Gray" (2001), a World War II drama about a Scottish woman working as a British spy in France in order to find her lover, an RAF pilot (Rupert Penny Jones), who has gone missing. Armstrong followed with "Death Defying Acts" (2008), a docudrama about Harry Houdini, who obsesses with the afterlife following his mother's death and offers $10,000 to anyone proving spiritual contact with her. Meanwhile, she returned to the three working-class subjects from "Smokes and Lollies" one last time, interviewing the middle-aged women for "love, lust & lies" (2010), which sought an honest answer to whether or not they had fulfilled their dreams and desires.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Art Director (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Debut as director, producer and screenwriter, 8-minute short, "Roof Needs Mowing"
Made three short films while in school (including "Gretel")
Worked as an editor for Kingcroft Productions
First credit as art director, "Promised Woman" (also first film appearance, played a nurse)
Shot documentary "Smoke and Lollies"
First documentary as producer, "The Singer and the Dancer" (also director)
Feature directorial debut, "My Brilliant Career", starring Judy Davis; became the first woman in 50 years to direct a feature in Australia
Wrote, directed and produced the documentary "Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better", a sequel to "Smoke and Lollies"
First Hollywood feature, "Mrs. Soffel"
US TV directing and producing debut, "Bob Dylan in Concert" for HBO
Reunited with Judy Davis on "High Tide"
Completed third installment of documentary begun in 1975 following the lives of three teenage girls, "Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces"
Removed her name from "Fires Within" when MGM edited the film
Helmed the remake of "Little Women"
"Not Fourteen Again", a feature version of her documentaries that followed three women from their teens to adulthood released in Australia
Directed the adaptation of Peter Carey's award-winning novel "Oscar and Lucinda"