Gillian Armstrong


Director

About

Also Known As
Gill Armstrong, Gillian May Armstrong
Birth Place
Australia
Born
December 18, 1950

Biography

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 Car...

Family & Companions

John Pffefer
Companion
Editor. Father of her two daughters.

Biography

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.

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

love, lust & lies (2010)
Director
Death Defying Acts (2008)
Director
Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006)
Director
Charlotte Gray (2001)
Director
Oscar and Lucinda (1997)
Director
Not Fourteen Again (1996)
Director
Little Women (1994)
Director
The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)
Director
Fires Within (1991)
Director
Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces (1988)
Director
High Tide (1987)
Director
Mrs. Soffel (1984)
Director
Not Just a Pretty Face (1983)
Director
Starstruck (1982)
Director
A Busy Kind of Bloke (1980)
Director
Touch Wood (1980)
Director
Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (1980)
Director
My Brilliant Career (1979)
Director
The Singer and the Dancer (1976)
Director
Smokes and Lollies (1975)
Director
Gretel (1974)
Director
One Hundred a Day (1973)
Director
Satdee Night (1973)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)
Herself
Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (1980)
Interviewer
A Busy Kind of Bloke (1980)
Herself
Smokes and Lollies (1975)
Interviewer
Promised Woman (1974)
Nurse

Writer (Feature Film)

love, lust & lies (2010)
Screenplay
Not Fourteen Again (1996)
Screenwriter
Not Just a Pretty Face (1983)
Screenwriter
Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (1980)
Screenwriter
Touch Wood (1980)
Screenwriter
A Busy Kind of Bloke (1980)
Screenplay
The Singer and the Dancer (1976)
Screenplay
Smokes and Lollies (1975)
Screenwriter
Gretel (1974)
Screenwriter

Producer (Feature Film)

love, lust & lies (2010)
Producer
Not Fourteen Again (1996)
Producer
Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces (1988)
Producer
Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (1980)
Co-Producer
The Singer and the Dancer (1976)
Producer

Music (Feature Film)

Starstruck (1982)
Music Selection

Art Director (Feature Film)

The Trespassers (1976)
Art Direction
Promised Woman (1974)
Art Direction

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)
Other
Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces (1988)
Other

Director (Special)

Bob Dylan in Concert (1986)
Director

Producer (Special)

Bob Dylan in Concert (1986)
Producer

Life Events

1971

Debut as director, producer and screenwriter, 8-minute short, "Roof Needs Mowing"

1971

Made three short films while in school (including "Gretel")

1972

Worked as an editor for Kingcroft Productions

1974

First credit as art director, "Promised Woman" (also first film appearance, played a nurse)

1975

Shot documentary "Smoke and Lollies"

1976

First documentary as producer, "The Singer and the Dancer" (also director)

1978

Feature directorial debut, "My Brilliant Career", starring Judy Davis; became the first woman in 50 years to direct a feature in Australia

1980

Wrote, directed and produced the documentary "Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better", a sequel to "Smoke and Lollies"

1984

First Hollywood feature, "Mrs. Soffel"

1986

US TV directing and producing debut, "Bob Dylan in Concert" for HBO

1987

Reunited with Judy Davis on "High Tide"

1988

Completed third installment of documentary begun in 1975 following the lives of three teenage girls, "Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces"

1991

Removed her name from "Fires Within" when MGM edited the film

1994

Helmed the remake of "Little Women"

1996

"Not Fourteen Again", a feature version of her documentaries that followed three women from their teens to adulthood released in Australia

1997

Directed the adaptation of Peter Carey's award-winning novel "Oscar and Lucinda"

Photo Collections

The Harder They Come - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for the cult film The Harder They Come (1972), starring Jimmy Cliff. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.

Videos

Movie Clip

Harder They Come, The (1972) - Open, Bus Crash Ivan (Jimmy Cliff, Jamaican-born and raised but by this time a successful UK-based recording artist) is introduced on a bus ride into Kingston in director Perry Henzell's ambitious opening to The Harder They Come, 1972, with Cliff's hit "You Can Get It If You Really Want" as background.
Harder They Come, The - Pressure Drop Turncoat Jose (Carl Bradshaw) is pursuing his former friend, our hero, Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) through the slums of Kingston, with Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" in the background in The Harder They Come, 1972.
Harder They Come, The (1972) - Don't Joke With Your Life Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) races from crime to punishment after he attempts to collect a bicycle in a brutal sequence on Jamaican justice, from director Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come, 1972.
Harder They Come, The (1972) - Sweet And Dandy Country boy Ivan (Jimmy Cliff), taking work in Kingston as a delivery man, happens in on Toots and the Maytals' recording of "Sweet and Dandy," and schedules his own date with producer Hylton (Bobby Charlton) in The Harder They Come, 1972.
Harder They Come, The (9172) - Title Song, Recording Inspired after being unjustly tortured by crooked Jamaican authorities, Jimmy Cliff as hero Ivan appears in this famous scene depicting the recording of the title song, Cliff's own composition, in what became in effect a worldwide hit music video, from The Harder They Come, 1972.
My Brilliant Career (1979) - Mrs. Bossier's Granddaughter The first shot with green vegetation as Sybylla (Judy Davis), sent from her parents' droughted outback farm, is greeted by Frank (Robert Grubb) then her grandmother and aunt (Aileen Britton, Wendy Hughes), in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, 1979, from the autobiographical novel by Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin.
My Brilliant Career (1979) - Dear Fellow Countrymen The still-startling opening, to director Gillian Armstrong's first feature and Judy Davis' first film, set in 1897 Australia from the acclaimed novel by Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, 1979, also starring Sam Neill.
My Brilliant Career (1979) - You'll Have Me Sacked Sybylla (Judy Davis), visiting her grandmother, aunt and uncle (Aileen Britton, Wendy Hughes, Peter Whitford) in 1901 Australia, has her head plausibly turned by a handsome neighbor (Sam Neill), not realizing he's a childhood friend, Robert Grubb as the less interesting Frank, in Gillian Armstrong's international hit My Brilliant Career, 1979.
Little Women (1994) - I'm Hopelessly Flawed Now working as a governess in New York and fresh off another publisher’s rejection of her stories, Jo March (Winona Ryder) collides with fellow boarding-house resident, Gabriel Byrne as German immigrant philosopher Friedrich Bhaer, a propitious moment, as in the Louisa May Alcott novel, in Little Women, 1994.
Little Women (1994) - We've Been Expectorating You! With Winona Ryder narrating as Jo March, and language, including from young Amy (Kirsten Dunst), straight from the Louisa May Alcott novel, director Gillian Armstrong begins her widely praised adaptation, with Trini Alvarado as Meg, Claire Danes as Meg, and Susan Sarandon as Marmee, in Little Women, 1994.
Little Women (1994) - I Never Know The Rules Evading a less interesting beau, Winona Ryder as Jo March at a society party in Civil War-era Concord, Mass., bumps (as will be her habit) into Christian Bale, as “Laurie,” the handsome, mysterious and affluent new neighbor who has fascinated her and her sisters, including Meg (Trini Alvarado), in director Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women, 1994.
Little Women (1994) - The Most Elegant Family In Concord Reading together from magazine serials, using their adopted performance names, in what they consider the “March Family Theater,” sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy (Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst) speculate about the future and their new neighbor (Christian Bale), in Little Women, 1994.

Trailer

Family

Billie Pffefer
Daughter
Born c. 1985.

Companions

John Pffefer
Companion
Editor. Father of her two daughters.

Bibliography