Directed By: Gillian Armstrong
Starring: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes
Tag line: "Sometimes it is the things that bind us, that truly set us free"
Trivia: This film's director, producers, scriptwriter, first billed actor, production designer, costume designer, production supervisor, bookkeeper and accountant were all women
Director Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 drama / romance My Brilliant Career has quite a bit going for it. Based on a 1901 novel of the same name by Miles Franklin, it’s a beautifully-realized period piece with gorgeous cinematography and a top-notch supporting cast. But forget all that, because what makes the film so damn appealing is the career-defining performance delivered by its star Judy Davis, who, in every moment, conjures up an energy that practically leaps off the screen into your lap.
It’s the kind of work that usually nets an actress gobs of year-end awards, a la Charlize Theron’s turn in 2003’s Monster (winner of 17 awards, including an Oscar and Golden Globe) or Helen Mirren in 2005’s The Queen (aside from walking off with the “Big 5”, i.e. Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild, Dame Mirren took home 24 other awards from film festivals and critic circles the world over). While I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Miss Davis’ work in My Brilliant Career with that of either Theron’s or Mirren’s, she's strong enough to at least warrant a mention alongside them.
So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Judy Davis did not receive similar accolades for her portrayal of a headstrong Australian girl at the turn of the 20th century, struggling to find her place in this world. In fact, she won only two awards for My Brilliant Career (both were BAFTAs, for Best lead Actress and Most Outstanding Newcomer. Yes, it was her first starring role in a motion picture, which makes her performance that much more impressive).
Most amazing of all, though, is that she was even snubbed in her own country! My Brilliant Career was the recipient of six Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography, but the top actress nod went to someone else (specifically, Michele Fawdon for Cathy’s Child). It’s not uncommon for some year-end awards to miss the mark, but for everyone (except the British) to overlook Davis’ incredible contribution to this film is almost impossible to believe.
Precocious teenager Sybylla Melvyn (Davis) knows that her hometown, the little backwater village of Possum Gully, will never afford her the opportunity to become a famous writer, artist, or musician. So, after refusing to accept a servant’s position secured for her by her mother (Julia Blake), Sybylla is shipped off to stay with her high-society Grandmother, Miss Bossier (Aileen Britton), who lives in the prestigious town of Caddagat with Sybylla’s Aunt Helen (Wendy Hughes) and Uncle Julius (Peter Whitford).
Though her grandmother and aunt keep trying to marry her off to the boorish Frank Hawden (Robert Grubb), Sybylla is content in Caddagat, and is prepared to begin what she refers to as her “Brilliant Career”, whatever it may be. But a chance meeting with Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a wealthy young entrepreneur who lives with his Aunt Gussie (Patricia Kennedy), throws a new wrinkle into the fabric of Sybylla’s life, one she was ill-prepared to deal with: Love.
Can Sybylla suppress these new feelings and continue her “career”, or will romance win out in the end?
It’s quite possible that Davis’ awards chances were undermined by her character’s plain, even homely, appearance (unlike the actress playing her, Sybylla is considered an “ugly duckling”). In addition, the role itself (an independent woman who vows never to marry, then meets and falls in love with a handsome man) is certainly nothing new. Yet thanks to her charisma and vitality (which is on display throughout the entire movie), Judy Davis makes us forget that we’ve seen this all a thousand times before, and like Harry Beecham, we become absolutely smitten with her. Even in those sequences where her character is down in the dumps (at the evening ball, she sulks because Harry is spending all his time talking to another woman), we’re still drawn to her energy, and can’t take our eyes off of her. As for the story, hopeless romantics may have an issue with some of its twists and turns, but that won’t prevent them (or anyone else) from admiring the hell out of this picture.
To be honest, I’ve never seen Cathy’s Child, so I’m in no position to judge who was the better Australian actress in 1979. What I will say, though, is that Miss Fawdon must have been Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Meryl Streep all rolled into one, because it would take a performance of that magnitude to convince me Judy Davis wasn’t robbed.