My Brilliant Career: Unapologetic Women

When I first saw My Brilliant Career, when it was released in New York in 1980, I was ignorant of director “Gill” Armstrong. I assumed she was a man, because at the time I could count the female directors I knew of on one hand (Elaine May, Agnès Varda, Lina Wertmüller, Věra Chytilová). I was wrong. Her given name was Gillian, and she was the first Australian woman to have directed a feature in forty-six years. 

I also assumed that Miles Franklin, on whose book the movie is based, was a man. Wrong again. I ordered the novel and discovered that he was a she, born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. By then, it was dawning on me that the gender of the novelist and the filmmaker might have something to do with how different the movie looked and felt.

I had initially attributed the film’s difference to its Australianness—the guttural giggles of kookaburras that you hear and the sheer variety of vegetation that you see seemed exotic to me at the time. What I came to understand, though, was that it was the involvement of three startling women that set this movie apart: the ones behind the source novel, the film, and its central performance. That actor was Judy Davis. It was just the second film for the twenty-four-year-old graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, where she had studied alongside Mel Gibson and drawn attention by playing Juliet to his Romeo onstage.

If a classic is a work of art that can speak across centuries, then Franklin’s book richly deserves the designation. The author’s slangy, semiautobiographical debut novel saw light in 1901, the year she turned twenty-two. “Her evocation of the bush, its sounds and smells, helped make My Brilliant Career a best seller at home and a small sensation abroad,” wrote Jennifer Byrne in her introduction to the 2012 edition of the book. In all, Franklin wrote eight novels under her own name, wrote six more under a pseudonym, and established her country’s premier literary prize.

Armstrong’s splendid screen adaptation, her own feature debut, hit screens in 1979, when the director was twenty-eight. It was a movie where the woman was the action hero and the man the eye candy. As for Davis, playing that lead, carrying the movie was a considerable leap from her 1977 screen debut in a minor role as a winsome runaway in High Rolling in a Hot Corvette. It is fitting that this film about a teenage girl with a distinctly original voice was given life by three female artists successfully finding their own voices.

By now, both book and movie have become part of Australian identity. The novel came out the year the six British colonies of the island continent were unified into a commonwealth, the movie at the crest of cinema’s Australian New Wave. This renaissance was the result of the establishment of the Australia Film Development Corporation in 1970 and the corporation’s investment in a film school, production fund, and distribution network to seed, cultivate, and circulate the country’s movies. Armstrong was in the first graduating class of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and, along with Bruce Beresford, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, and Peter Weir, emerged in the seventies as one of the leading figures of the new cinema.

The movement introduced foreigners to the ferociously beautiful terrain of Australia and to the fearless characters it bred. These defining figures ranged from the real-life Jimmy Governor, who inspired the indigenous outlaw of Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978); the fictional Mad Max, the eponymous hero of Miller’s 1979 postapocalyptic film; and the quasi-fictional Sybylla Melvyn, the delightful, determined, and mercurial heroine of My Brilliant Career. 

“Whether they live in 1897 or 1987, the women Armstrong creates on-screen all seem contemporary—a claim I can’t make about any other filmmaker.”

Armstrong has long been acclaimed for her period dramas—besides My Brilliant Career, there are Mrs. Soffel (1984), Little Women (1994), Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Charlotte Gray (2001), and Death Defying Acts (2007). Increasingly, she is also celebrated for her absorbing portraits of contemporary women, such as Starstruck (1982), High Tide (1987), and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). But whether they live in 1897 or 1987, the women Armstrong creates on-screen all seem contemporary—a claim I can’t make about any other filmmaker.

In addition to her features, Armstrong also has had an extensive career in documentary, including making a five-part series that tracks three fourteen-year-old girls into adulthood, and Women He’s Undressed (2015), a lively profile of the Australian-born Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly—possibly the only male central character in an Armstrong film. Her eye for talent is keen. Many of those she cast early in their careers—Davis, Sam Neill (also in My Brilliant Career), Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Nicole Kidman (in the 1983 music video for the song “Bop Girl”)—have become global stars.

Davis is arguably Armstrong’s greatest discovery of all. On the page, Sybylla is a deeply entertaining narrator. On the screen, Davis embodies the character as a force of nature. No one in the Northern Hemisphere had ever seen (or heard) the likes of this Australian Athena, a wild-haired, wild-eyed wild thing, face sprinkled with an archipelago of freckles, changeable as a kaleidoscope. Davis’s electrifying performance in My Brilliant Career laid the foundation for a career that has included memorable turns in A Passage to India (1984), Barton Fink, and Naked Lunch (both 1991), as well as the roles of George Sand (Impromptu, 1991) and that other Judy (television’s Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, 2001). She collaborated with Armstrong again in High Tide and is a mainstay of the stage in Australia.

My Brilliant Career opens in 1897, in a godforsaken place called Possum Gully. One would call it a backwater, but there’s a drought. A nervy girl, Sybylla is not yet sixteen. We first see her while a restless wind blusters across the sun-parched landscape. Equally restless, Sybylla blusters from room to room of the family shanty, declaiming her manuscript aloud: “I make no apology for being egotistical, because I am!” This unpredictable lass is the first in Armstrong’s portrait gallery of defiant women. The sorority will come to include two other writers, a punk rocker, two runaway moms, a gambler, a spy, and a sham psychic. These are women—mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, lovers, and loners—who rarely say they are sorry.

While she is a kindred spirit of Jane Austen’s shabby-genteel Elizabeth Bennet and Louisa May Alcott’s shabby-genteel Jo March (whose story Armstrong would later tell in her lovely adaptation of Little Women), Sybylla is shabbier, and much more outspoken. Only in a social emergency does she feign gentility—and typically with tongue in cheek. 

Australians have a word for someone like Sybylla: larrikin. It means a person who is impertinent or without regard for social convention. It is not that she is a stranger to decorum; it is that there is little use for it in the bush where her family lives. Sybylla explains in the book, and the audience infers from the movie, that her parents have slipped “from swelldom to peasantism.” The drought has everything to do with their economic fall. As the eldest child, Sybylla is a surrogate mother to several younger siblings, the chief milker of cows in the stable, and the one tapped to fetch her drunken father from the pub every afternoon. In such situations, decorum is the first casualty.

As Davis plays her, Sybylla has a multitude of moods that range from satirical to sullen, most of them expressed by the set of her jaw and the tension of her mouth. Likewise, her mane of thick, unruly hair is an indication of her temperament. Only rarely is it controlled into anything intentional-looking enough to be called a hairdo.

Early in the film, Sybylla’s careworn mother delivers bad news: “We can’t afford to keep you any longer. Do you think you could earn your own living?” Having so far been educated in a place where knowledge is not an asset, Sybylla dreams of a career in the arts. Music, perhaps? After all, she can plunk Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood on the piano, an upright as out of tune as the Melvyn household itself. 

Armstrong (who worked briefly as a set dresser and costumer during film school) portrays the family’s little shanty in the bush as a physical manifestation of Sybylla’s character: its exterior is a hodgepodge of corrugated iron and unfinished wood, while its interior boasts traces of a finer life—lace curtains, English wallpaper, and that damned dissonant piano. The work of production designer Luciana Arrighi (who would later collaborate on Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel and Oscar and Lucinda, and also on Sense and Sensibility and Howards End with other directors) is brilliant, as is the cinematography of Don McAlpine (who later shot Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! for his and Armstrong’s countryman Baz Luhrmann).

The suspense in an Armstrong film generally leads to a fork-in-the-road moment in which the female protagonist must choose between the path well traveled and one less taken.”

Sybylla truculently resists her mother’s pragmatic insistence that she become a servant. Deliverance comes via Grandma Bossier, the well-heeled proprietress of a verdant cattle and sheep farm poetically named Caddagat. Grandmother and Aunt Helen (the exquisite Wendy Hughes) take in the rough-hewn Sybylla, smooth out her rough edges, and give her a good polish. Their object: to marry her off so that she will no longer be a burden to her parents or other kin.

Sybylla is not so sure she wants this kind of mate. In this, she is roughly a century ahead of her time. The assumption here—as in Armstrong’s subsequent features—is that women have the same prerogatives as men. Still, Sybylla likes to flirt and is the sort of inconsistent lass who can lead a man on while keeping him at arm’s length. 

The man in question is the fetching (and did I say rich?) Harry Beecham (Neill), he of the James Mason voice and hungry eyes that ravish Sybylla and not a few moviegoers. In 1980, I found Neill particularly attractive, and he is lovingly and lingeringly shot in this film. In other words, like the girl in most movies. In retrospect, I realize this was an early experience for me of seeing a male lust object through the eyes of a female director. In any event, never again was Neill quite so delicious, and I can say the same of Mel Gibson in Mrs. Soffel, Bruno Ganz in The Last Days of Chez Nous, and Ralph Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda.

But while there are love and romance in Armstrong’s films, romance and love are not what they are about. In her entire feature oeuvre, the only wedding I remember is that between Meg March and John Brooke in Little Women. And while there is a fabulous kiss in My Brilliant Career, the first time Harry leans in to buss Sybylla, she hits him upside the head with a riding crop.

The suspense in an Armstrong film generally leads to a fork-in-the-road moment in which the female protagonist must choose between the path well traveled and one less taken. The director dramatizes these moments of decision visually; she is a master of the extreme close-up, alert to the subtleties of mood in the faces of her actors. And she is likewise a master of mise-en-scène, of situating her characters so that the setting, lighting, decor, and costumes enlarge the viewer’s understanding of them.

On her parents’ farm, Sybylla creates the impression of a snorting bull amid Victoriana, kicking up dust with her heavy boots and wounding others with her prickly-pear demeanor. Blessedly, in Caddagat there is rain, and she blooms into an unepected beauty. In a high-angle shot that is the film’s loveliest, she dances around Grandmother’s parlor, the cabbage roses on the rug and botanical patterns of the upholstery appearing to bloom with her. At the McSwatt homestead, where she is sent to work as a governess, she tries to keep tidy and professional but eventually sinks back into squalor, as the children make her the target of their mud-ball games. She is at the crossroads: Where will she go from here?

Armstrong tells us who Sybylla is by showing her taking the lead. She asks men to dance, demands the reins of a carriage, rocks a rowboat in which she is a passenger, and commandeers a polite dinner-party conversation with a ribald joke. When someone at another dinner remarks, “I see that Furlow has bought himself a very fine bull,” Sybylla interrupts, “That should make a few cows happy.” She likes to be in control (who does not?), and every encounter she has inevitably becomes a power struggle. 

More insistently than the novel, the film takes aim at “the marriage plot,” the literary device by which narrative conflicts are effectively resolved with a wedding. Armstrong and screenwriter Eleanor Witcombe show why Sybylla may be altar-shy. Her mother and her Aunt Helen both married for love and were betrayed, by an alcoholic and a philanderer, respectively. The one companionate union in the film is the one between the “M’Swat” parents, but they are not Sybylla’s idea of role models. The film is otherwise faithful to the spirit of the novel, though it eliminates one of its heroine’s suitors and adds a satisfyingly flirtatious—and slapstick—pillow fight that, naturally, Sybylla initiates.

There is always a moment in an Armstrong picture when the heroine says something along the lines of Sybylla’s complaint here: “I can’t lose myself in somebody else’s life when I haven’t lived my own yet.” Like most of Armstrong’s films, My Brilliant Career subverts movie genres and viewer expectations. It has the meet-cute and the larkiness of a romantic comedy but ultimately reveals itself as a bildungsroman. 

Sybylla Melvyn is the prototypical Armstrong protagonist in that, while she defies the social conventions of her own time, she is in sync with independent-minded women of every era, including our own. Her spirit is tonic—and timeless. Like that of the novelist who created her, the filmmaker who put her on-screen, and the star who brought her to life there.