Nationality: Australian. Born: Melbourne, 18 December 1950. Education: Swinburne College, studied filmmaking at Melbourne and Australian Film and Television School, Sydney. Family: Married, one daughter. Career: Worked as production assistant, editor, art director, and assistant designer, and directed several short films, 1970s; directed her first feature, My Brilliant Career, 1979; directed her first American film, Mrs. Soffel, 1984; returned to Australia to direct High Tide, 1987; has since made films both in Australia and the United States; also director of documentaries and commercials. Awards: Best Short Fiction Film Sydney International Film Festival,
for The Singer and the Dancer, 1976; British Critics' Award and Best Film and Best Director, Australian Film Institute Awards, for My Brilliant Career, 1979; Women in Film Award, 1995. Agent: Judy Scott-Fox, William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Films as Director:
Old Man and Dog (short)
Roof Needs Mowing (short)
Gretel; Satdee Night; One Hundred a Day (shorts)
Smokes and Lollies (doc)
The Singer and the Dancer (+ pr, sc)
My Brilliant Career
Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (doc) (+ pr); Touch Wood (doc)
Having a Go (doc)
Bingo, Bridesmaids, and Braces (+ pr)
The Last Days of Chez Nous
Not Fourteen Again ( + sc)
Oscar and Lucinda
By ARMSTRONG: articles—
Interviews in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1974, March-April 1979, October 1992.
Films in Review (New York), June-July 1983.
Interview in Encore (Manly, New South Wales), 31 January 1985.
"Gillian Armstrong Returns to Eden," an interview with A. Grieve, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), May 1987.
Interview in Encore (Manly, New South Wales), 29 September 1988.
"Homeward Bound," an interview with Mark Mordue, in Sight andSound (London),Autumn 1989.
"The Last Days of Chez Nous," an interview with Rolando Caputo, in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy), October 1992.
"Lib berate," an interview with Colette Maude, in Time Out (London), 17 February 1993.
"Little Women," an interview with Margaret Smith and Emma Coller, in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy), March 1994.
"What Are You Girls Going to Do?," an interview, in Sight andSound (London), April 1995.
"The Brilliant Career of Gillian Armstrong," an interview with Mary Hardesty, in DGA (Los Angeles), September-October 1995.
"Little Women," an interview with Mary Colbert, in Filmnews, April 1995.
On ARMSTRONG: books—
Tulloch, John, Australian Cinema: Industry, Narrative, and Meaning, Sydney and London, 1982.
McFarlane, Brian, Words and Images: Australian Novels into Films, Richmond, Victoria, 1983.
Mathews, Sue, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five AustralianDirectors, Ringwood, Victoria, 1984.
Hall, Sandra, Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema inReview, Adelaide, 1985.
Moran, Albert, and Tom O'Regan, editors, An Australian FilmReader, Sydney, 1985.
McFarlane, Brian, Australian Cinema 1970–85, London, 1987.
Collins, Felicity, The Films of Gillian Armstrong, St. Kilda, Victoria, Australia, 1999.
On ARMSTRONG: articles—
"Profile," in Time Out (London), 24 January 1980.
Rickey, C., "Where the Girls Are," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January-February 1985.
Enker, D., "Coming in from the Cold," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July 1985.
Grieve, A., "Gillian Armstrong Returns to Eden," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), May 1987.
Forsberg, M., "Partnership Swells High Tide," in The New YorkTimes, 6 March 1988.
Harker, P., "Gillian Armstrong and Three Times Three," in CinemaPapers (Melbourne), November, 1988.
Graham, N., "Directors' Pet Projects," in Premiere (New York), December 1988.
Mordue, Mark, "Homeward Bound: A Profile of Gillian Armstrong," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1989.
Urban, A.L. "The Last Days of Chez Nous," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), May 1991.
Haskell, Molly, "Wildflowers," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1993.
Dargis, M., "Her Brilliant Career," in Village Voice (New York), 2 March 1993.
Dougherty, M., "Look Homeward, Aussie," in Premiere (Boulder), May 1993.
Stratton, David, "Gillian Armstrong," in International Film Guide (London, Hollywood), 1996.
Swebster, Andy, "Filmography: Gillian Armstrong," in Premiere (New York), November 1997.
Douadi, Monia, "Portraits de femmes," in Positif (Paris), April 1999.
* * *
While women directors in film industries around the world are still seen as anomalous (if mainstream) or marginalized as avant garde, the Antipodes have been home to an impressive cadre of female filmmakers who negotiate and transcend such notions. Before the promising debuts of Ann Turner (Celia) and Jane Campion (Sweetie), Gillian Armstrong blazed a trail with My Brilliant Career, launching a brilliant career of her own as an international director. Like Turner and Campion, Armstrong makes films that resist easy categorization as either "women's films" or Australian ones. Her films mix and intermingle genres in ways that undermine and illuminate afresh, if not openly subvert, filmic conventions—as much as the films of her male compatriots, like Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, or Paul Cox. Formally, however, the pleasures of her films are traditional ones, such as sensitive and delicate cinematography, fluid editing, an evocative feel for setting and costume, and most importantly, a commitment to solid character development and acting. All in all, her work reminds one of the best of classical Hollywood cinema, and the question of whether her aim is parody or homage is often left pleasingly ambiguous.
Although Armstrong has often spoken in interviews about her discomfort at being confined to the category of woman filmmaker of women's films, and has articulated her desire to reach an audience of both genders and all nationalities, her work continually addresses sexual politics and family tensions. Escape from and struggle with traditional sex roles and the pitfalls and triumphs therein are themes frequently addressed in her films—from One Hundred a Day, her final-year project at the Australian Film and Television School, through My Brilliant Career, her first feature, to High Tide and Oscar and Lucinda. Even one of her earliest films at Swinburne College, the short Roof Needs Mowing, obliquely tackled this theme, using a typical student filmmaker's pastiche of advertising and surrealism. Like most maturing filmmakers with an eye on wider distribution, Armstrong dropped the "sur" from surrealism in her later work, so that by One Hundred a Day—an adaptation of an Alan Marshall story about a shoe-factory employee getting a back-street abortion in the 1930s—she developed a more naturalistic handling of material, while her use of soundtrack and fast editing remained highly stylized and effective.
Made on a tiny budget and heavily subsidized by the Australian Film Commission, the award-winning The Singer and the Dancer was a precocious study of the toll men take on women's lives that marked the onset of Armstrong's mature style. On the strength of this and One Hundred a Day, producer Margaret Fink offered Armstrong the direction of My Brilliant Career. Daunted at first by the scale of the project and a lack of confidence in her own abilities, she accepted because she "thought it could be bungled by a lot of men."
While The Singer and the Dancer had been chastised by feminist critics for its downbeat ending, in which the heroine returns to her philandering lover after a half-hearted escape attempt, My Brilliant Career was widely celebrated for its feminist fairy-tale story as well as its employment of women crew members. Adapted from Miles Franklin's semi-autobiographical novel, My Brilliant Career, with its turn-of-the-20th-century setting in the Australian outback, works like Jane Eyre in reverse (she does not marry him), while retaining the romantic allure of such a story and all the glossy production values of a period setting that Australian cinema had been known for up until then. Distinguished by an astonishing central performance by the then-unknown Judy Davis (fresh from playing Juliet to Mel Gibson's Romeo on the drama-school stage), the film managed to present a positive model of feminine independence without belying the time in which it was set. Like Armstrong's later Mrs. Soffel, My Brilliant Career potently evokes smothered sensuality and conveys sexual tension by small, telling details, as in the boating scene.
Sadly, few of Armstrong's later films have been awarded commensurate critical praise or been as widely successful, possibly because of her refusal to conform to expectations and churn out more upbeat costume dramas. Her next feature, Starstruck, although it too features a spunky, ambitious heroine, was a rock musical set in the present and displaying a veritable rattle bag of influences—including Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "lets-put-on-a-show" films, Richard Lester editing techniques, new wave pop videos, and even Sternberg's Blond Venus, when the heroine sheds her kangaroo suit to sing her "torch song" à la Marlene Dietrich. Despite a witty script and fine bit characters, the music is somewhat monotonous, and the film was only mildly successful.
Armstrong's first film to be financed and filmed in America was Mrs. Soffel. Based on a true story and set at the turn of the century, it delineated the tragic story of the eponymous warden's wife who falls in love with a convict, helps him escape, and finally runs off with him. The bleak, monochrome cinematography is powerfully atmospheric but was not to all reviewers' tastes, especially in America. For Armstrong, the restricted palette was quite deliberate, so that the penultimate images of blood on snow would be all the more striking and effective. A sadly underrated film, it features some unexpectedly fine performances from Diane Keaton in the title role, Mel Gibson as her paramour (a fair impersonation of young Henry Fonda), and the young Matthew Modine as his kid brother. At its best, it recalls, if not McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then at least Bonnie and Clyde. High Tide returns to Australia for its setting in a coastal caravan park, and comes up trumps as an unabashedly sentimental weepie, and none the worse for it. It features three generations of women: Lilli (Judy Davis again), backup singer to an Elvis impersonator and drifter; Ally (Claudia Karvan), the pubescent daughter she left behind; and mother-in-law Bet (Jan Adele), who vies with Lilli for Ally's affections. In terms of camera work, it is one of Armstrong's most restless films, utilizing nervous zip pans, fast tracking, and boomshots, and then resting for quiet, intense close-ups on surfboards, legs being shaved, and shower nozzles, all highly motivated by the characters' perspectives. Like Mrs. Soffel, High Tide uses colors symbolically to contrast the gentle tones of the seaside's natural landscape with the garish buildings of the town called Eden.
Armstrong wears her feminist credentials lightly, never on her sleeve. Nevertheless, her early fiction films can be seen as charting over the years the trajectory of the women's movement: My Brilliant Career celebrated women's independence, as Sybylla rejects the roles of wife and mother; Mrs. Soffel reopens negotiations with men (with tragic results); and, finally, High Tide returns to the rejected motherhood role, with all its attendant joys and anxieties.
Fires Within, Armstrong's first 1990s release, is a well-meaning but insipid tale of a Cuban political prisoner and his encounter with his family in Miami. A fiasco, Armstrong lost control of the project during post-production. The filmmaker bounced back strongly, however, with two impressive films centering on the relationships between female siblings. The Last Days of Chez Nous, which Armstrong directed back in Australia, is a thoughtful, well-acted drama focusing on the emotional plight of a pair of sisters. One (Lisa Harrow) is a bossy, fortysomething writer, and the other (Kerry Fox) has just emerged from an unhappy love affair. The scenario centers on events that take place after the latter becomes romantically involved with the former's husband (Bruno Ganz). The film's major strength is the depth and richness of its female characters. Its theme, consistent with Armstrong's best previous work, is the utter necessity of women's self-sufficiency.
Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott's venerable 1868 novel of four devoted sisters coming of age in Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, was Armstrong's first successful American-made film. It may be linked to My Brilliant Career as a story of feminine independence set in a previous era. Alcott's book had been filmed a number of times before: a silent version, made in 1918; most enjoyably by George Cukor, with Katharine Hepburn, in 1933; far less successfully, with a young Elizabeth Taylor (among others), in 1949; and in a made-for-TV movie in 1978. Armstrong's version is every bit as fine as the Cukor-Hepburn classic. Her cast is just about perfect, with Wynona Ryder deservedly earning an Academy Award nomination as the headstrong Jo March. Ryder is ably supported by Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Samantha Mathis, and Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon offers her usual solid performance as Marmee, the March girls' mother. If the film has one fault, it is the contemporary-sounding feminist rhetoric that Marmee spouts: the dialogue is completely out of sync with the spirit and reality of the times. But this is just a quibble. This new Little Women is a fine film, at once literate and extremely enjoyable.
In her next film, Oscar and Lucinda, Armstrong contrasts a strong feminist heroine and a hero who is "sensitive" to the point of being effeminate. The film is a Victorian-era romantic adventure, and the title characters are shy, guilt-ridden Oscar Hopkins (Ralph Fiennes) and intensely strong-willed Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett). The two are soul mates who share an obsession with gambling, and their natures do not allow them to assume the accepted, traditional male and female societal roles.
The first section of the film charts the parallel stories of Oscar and Lucinda, and how they evolve as individuals. Lucinda is oblivious to what others think of her as she expresses herself—and she even boldly dresses in pants. Oscar, meanwhile, suffers a traumatic childhood and remains estranged from his father. Approximately 40 minutes into the story the characters meet, and quickly discover that they are kindred spirits. Lucinda's sense of independence does impact positively on Oscar, but not enough to allow him to free himself from his mental shackles. A childhood shock has made Oscar fearful of water, and his religious upbringing forces him to equate pleasure with sin. So it is not without irony that he is fated to drown while trapped inside a church that has been made of glass; the structure is set on a raft that had been floating down a river.
Armstrong fills Oscar and Lucinda with a strong sense of the opposing forces that prevent the characters from adding to the foundation of their relationship. Guilt, fear, and the constraints of religion are what imprison Oscar; they are contrasted to the spirit, individuality, and freedom that personify Lucinda. By depicting Oscar as incorrigibly ineffectual, Armstrong's purpose is neither to lampoon masculinity nor to cram the film with one-dimensional feminist ire. Instead, she lucidly points out how a male-female relationship is hollow (if not altogether doomed) if both participants fail to connect on equal terms. The twist of the story is that, here, the male is submissive while the female is aggressive.
—Leslie Felperin, updated by Rob Edelman