Saturday Night Spotlight #17: Gillian Armstrong

Since the late 1970s, director Gillian Armstrong (b. 1950) has been recognized internationally as the one of the most impressive directors in the film business. Her career began in the middle of the Australian New Wave (early 1970s-late 1980s) and success eventually brought her to Hollywood. For her impact in the film world Armstrong has received career-achievement awards from the Brisbane International Film Festival (Chauvel Award – 1995), the Women in Crystal Film Awards (Dorothy Arzner Directors Award – 1995), the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards (Icon Award – 1998) and the Australian Directors Guild (Outstanding Achievement Award – 2007). Although her name may not be among the most famous for most moviegoers, over the years Armstrong has shown that she can make work that ranks with the best dramas, comedies and documentaries being crafted by directors of any sex/gender.

My Brilliant Career (1979) – A romantic drama which is an adaptation (by screenwriter Eleanor Witcombe) of a 1901 novel by Miles Franklin (a woman writer who did not include her first name in publications), Armstrong’s first major feature film after working on smaller independent projects was quite the triumph, winning two BAFTAs for Judy Davis (who became a star for her performance as headstrong Sybylla Melvyn) as well as winning six awards from the Australian Film Institute, including Best Film and Best Director, and being nominated for the Oscar for Best Costume Design (by Anna Senior), the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. In addition to being the product of women storytellers, Career was funded by producer Margaret Fink and executive producer Jane Scott. The film also stars Sam Neill, who would later become a major Hollywood player with roles in films like A Cry in the Dark (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Jurassic Park (1993), as well as Wendy Hughes, whom I know best as the charming Kathleen O’Neil on the Australian TV show “The Man from Snowy River” (or, as I know it, “Snowy River: The McGregor Saga”). Judy Davis worked with Gillian Armstrong again in the film High Tide (1987), a drama which I highly recommend.

Mrs. Soffel (1984) – Combining American and Australian talents for her first Hollywood film, Armstrong pairs Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson as lovers who run off into the early-1900s wilderness after Keaton helps Gibson and his brother (Matthew Modine) break out of the jail that her husband (Edward Herrmann) is the warden of. The cast also includes Trini Alvarado, Jennifer Dundas, Harley Cross, Terry O’Quinn, Maury Chaykin and Paula Trueman (later the elderly thief Mrs. Schumacher in Dirty Dancing). Armstrong’s cinematographer and editor, Russell Boyd and Nicholas Beaumon respectively, are well-known members of the Australian filmmaking community and Beaumon in particular has worked with Armstrong throughout her history, from My Brilliant Career to her upcoming film, Women He’s Undressed.

Little Women (1994) – A warm and sweet family film, Armstrong’s retelling of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, here adapted by screenwriter Robin Swicord, stars Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst (her “Amy” character is played by Samantha Mathis after growing up) and Claire Danes as the March sisters growing up in New England during and after the Civil War. Released at Christmastime in the US, the film did very well at the box office and established Winona Ryder as a major star after she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as the independent and high-spirited Jo March. Other Oscar nominations went to the film for Costume Design (Colleen Atwood) and Original Score (Thomas Newman). Many other popular actors also appear in the film, including Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, John Neville, Susan Sarandon as the family matriarch and Mary Wickes in one of her final films, playing crabby Aunt March.

Oscar and Lucinda (1997) – Armstrong and screenwriter Laura Jones, who previously collaborated on the film High Tide, here adapt a Peter Carey novel set during the 19th century. When the lead characters meet, they both have their reasons for wanting to escape the confines of their oppressive societies (England for Oscar, who is a priest; Australia for Lucinda, who is a runaway heiress) and their shared love of gambling binds them on a decision to build a church together. Basking in the glow of Geoffrey Simpson’s lush cinematography, Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett play the title duo while Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell, Barry Otto and Linda Bassett are their co-stars and Geoffrey Rush voices the film’s narration. As had happened with earlier Armstrong films, Oscar and Lucinda received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, this time for Australian couturier Janet Patterson. In 2001, Gillian Armstrong reteamed with Cate Blanchett for another period piece, this time the World War II-era drama Charlotte Gray (2001).

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