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.”
“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.”