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  • The Best Classic American Movies by Australian Directors

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    Posted on: 04/09/2015

    Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift is one of the most critically acclaimed movies to have emerged from Hollywood this year. The actor-cum-filmmaker is not the only Australian to have made a classic American movie – in fact, as critic Luke Buckmaster explains, The Gift is the latest in a long, proud and sometimes overlooked tradition.

    The ‘Aussiewood’ invasion of Australian talent into Hollywood is best-known for its famous faces – an endlessly expanding casting couch of acclaimed actors and bona-fide superstars. The likes of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett consume the lion’s share of media attention, but behind the camera talent sourced from Down Under has for a long time permeated tinsel town, the Australian work ethic famously well regarded by film studios and producers.

    Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift (now playing in cinemas) is the latest critically acclaimed American film to be directed by an Australian. A thriller about a married couple’s interactions with a socially awkward man who has a habit of arriving on their doorstep unannounced, the film is coy, compelling and full of surprising – a tightly wound exercise in subverting expectations. As one of the best reviewed studio-produced titles of the year, there is every indication The Gift will come to be discussed and debated for decades.

    The Gift Joel Edgerton BlogJoel Edgerton gets his creep on in The Gift

    Likewise, director George Miller's two hour hit of apocalytpic adrenaline, Mad Max: Fury Road, will not be soon forgotten. The US$150 million epic has been described by many reviewers as the one of the best action movies of the decade and was recently awarded best film of the year by the International Federation of Film Critics.

    Over the years several Australian filmmakers have made bona fide classic American movies, the kind of pedigree pictures embraced by audiences and critics and remembered for decades.

    Few have as many to their name as veteran Peter Weir, who emerged in the 70s directing some of the finest and most famous films of the Australian New Wave (including Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli). His early work for Hollywood studios includes the 1985 Harrison Ford thriller Witness and beloved 1989 boarding school-set drama Dead Poet’s Society.

    The latter marked a turning point in the career of Robin Williams, who was unforgettable as an inspirational think-outside-the-square teacher. Weir’s best and most original American classic also starred an actor known for comedic performances and whose larger-than-life persona suited the material to a tee.

    Dead Poets Robin Desk BlogOne of the most iconic scenes from Dead Poet's Society

    Given the nature of its premise, The Truman Show – about a man who discovers his life is a television program and everybody around him are actors – arrived at a remarkable time. The film was released in 1998, one year before a Netherlands production crew created the first incarnation of the phenomenally successful Big Brother program and two years before the first US version of Survivor. The reality TV avalanche was in the mail, but Truman got in first.

    There is much to admire in Weir’s story of an unwitting international celebrity who comes to learn the true nature of his existence. The Truman Show is moving, funny and beautifully written. Its visual makeup exists in a bubble: because the vast majority of the running time takes place in a manufactured universe, partly inspired by 50s fashion and coated with artifice, it is largely insulated from ever really showing its age.

    Truman Show BlogTruman Show

    The Academy Awards’ bias against comedy is well known, which may explain why the film failed to receive a Best Picture nomination – even if it is best, or certainly most affecting, as a work of drama. A handful of years before Truman came along another Australian filmmaker to have emerged in the 1970s directed a much more Oscar-friendly kind of production. The kind of film that might jokingly be described as “Oscarbait.”

    Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong and released in 1994, is a star-studded period piece adapted from a classic novel. Visually it is one of the director’s brightest films, a well-lit glossy style in tune with a spritely ensemble of performances from a big cast including Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale and Eric Stolz.

    Perhaps the film’s crowning achievement is that, as a literary adaptation, it also feels like a highly personal work for Armstrong, whose connections with feminism were apparent from her first feature film – 1979’s classic My Brilliant Career.

    Little Woman BlogLittle Women

    Bruce Beresford also directed a classic late 70s Australian film driven by an empowered female character: 1978’s The Getting of Wisdom. Beresford’s foray into American cinema reached a high water mark in 1989 with a beautiful drama about the relationship between an elderly woman and her driver. The cold, cranky and uppity demeanour of Jessica Tandy as the titular character in Driving Miss Daisy is perfectly contrasted with the mellowness and warmth of Morgan Freeman as Hoke, her driver and friend.

    Tandy, at age 80, became the oldest person in history to win Best Actress and the film won four out of a whopping nine nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film has wonderful grace and sensibility, juggling the story of a developing friendship with a powerful look at race relations in America. This only takes form in the second half, when the audience realise that Driving Miss Daisy is about not one set of marginalised people, but two.

    Success at awards ceremonies is far from the only indication of a longstanding and influential film. The label “classic” is associated with a wide range of productions, including youth-skewing genre pictures rarely nominated for prestigious awards.

    Driving Miss Daisy BlogDriving Miss Daisy

    Released in 2004, James Wan’s feature film debut had a killer screenplay in more than a single sense and sparked a grisly cultural phenomenon that led to six sequels in as many years. The Saw movies became increasingly forgettable, their fixation on elaborate death machines in stark contrast to the brutal simplicity of Wan’s original, which was written by and co-starring fellow RMIT graduate Leigh Whannell.

    It is a masterstroke in minimalist horror: two strangers wake up in a grimy basement shackled to the wall, informed by a cassette recording that each has until 6pm to kill the other or they face a horrible death. Danny Glover’s character, an obsessive cop, emerges via flashback. We learn he is pursuing a sadistically creative killer named Jigsaw, who went on to beceome an iconic horror movie villain.  

    Saw BlogCarey Elwes in Saw

    Wan and Whannell shopped around the screenplay in Australia but were unable to get it financed. When an LA production company expressed interest, the pair absconded to Hollywood and never returned. Wan has since directed a number of mega-hit movies including Insidious (the most profitable US film released in 2011) and Furious 7, which earlier this year sped past Avatar to set the record for the fastest time a movie has grossed US$1 billion at the worldwide box office.   

    Unlike Weir, Wan did not cut his teeth in the local industry making Australian films – he was snapped up by Hollywood before making a single one. Edgerton’s journey to the director’s chair is different again, making the transition after having built a career as a well-known actor. They weren’t the first Australians to make classic American movies and they won’t be the last. 

    Speaking of Oscar-winning Australian, discover our unsung Oscar hero Orry-Kelly in Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood and Gillian Armstrong's acclaimed Women He's Undressed.

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