Our Jacki - always a class act
Giving hope to a generation of women ... Jacki Weaver. Photo: Reuters
When I was about 10 years old, I was stage- and star-struck (still am). I dreamt of being a famous actor, the adored focus of millions of eyes. Showoff? Vain? Moi? You don't know the half of it. To cater to my obsession and, no doubt, to be free of my narcissistic presence for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, my mother sent me to drama classes at a local theatre.
I was not a great success. The only two parts I remember playing were the dead daughter in a scene from Mother Courage and Her Children, in which the only skill required was the ability to lie absolutely still, and Gretel in a short adaptation of the fairytale.
One event I did enjoy was the day a young Jacki Weaver came to talk to us aspiring junior thespians about her even then fabulous career. I confess I no longer remember a word she said, but I do remember how bewitching she was, and how much every fibre of my prepubescent being longed to be her.
As time went on, I retained a special affection for Weaver and enjoyed watching her on stage and screen. In many ways, my admiration was part identification - she was small, blonde and often described as cute - and part envy. She had real acting ability, whereas it had become painfully clear even to me that I was just a showoff.
Like many, I was excited by the new wave of Australian cinema that coincided with the explosion of nationalism in the '70s. It was the era of World Series Cricket and strange bedfellows such as Kerry Packer and Gough Whitlam cocking a snook at the old post-colonial obsequiousness. Weaver was very much a part of all that. I remember her in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Caddie, even Alvin Purple. She won some acting awards (though I doubt they were for Alvin Purple) and had an interesting life that sometimes hit the headlines, but I had outgrown my adolescent obsession. I still thought highly of her as a skilful practitioner of her art, but I got caught up in my own life and thought I had moved on.
Until I saw Animal Kingdom. Like half the world, I was knocked sideways by the film, and by the utterly sinister performance of a terrifyingly cute Weaver. The film disturbed my sleep for days and there's no higher praise. Not long after I had seen the film, I happened to see the actual Ms Weaver at a party and - having had a drink or four - plucked up the courage to go over and tell her how much I had enjoyed her performance. She was warm and funny. We chatted for quite a while and I went away flushed with excitement (oh, OK, and another glass of chardonnay).
Whenever an Australian is nominated for an Oscar, I feel a sense of proprietorial pride. Why I should, I have no idea. Their triumph has absolutely nothing to do with me. Hearing an Aussie accent at the Oscar podium is more common than it used to be, but rare enough to be exciting. I guess I feel Australia - so often ignored by the rest of the world - is made visible for a moment by their success.
When Weaver was nominated for her performance in Animal Kingdom, every Australian was thrilled, but my excitement knew no bounds. I'd always admired her and had now actually talked to her - for a few minutes - once.
But my excitement was also a purer kind of admiration. Here was a woman, of a certain age, who had not sought fame as an end in itself, but had simply practised her craft to the best of her ability for decades. No doubt she had her ups and downs - I notice a 10-year gap in her film credits between 1997 and 2007, for example.
It is hard to be an actor because - unlike writers, who can write even if no one wants to read them, or artists, who can paint even if no one wants to see their creation - you have to have an audience to act. For women, it is even harder. There are many more women and girls who want to be actors than men and boys and far fewer parts written for them. And, as women age, the pickings become even scarcer. For an Australian female actor of a certain age, success - in terms of getting the parts that stretch you and allow you to fully use the acting chops you have developed during a lifetime - must sometimes seem like an impossible dream.
What I love about the late international blooming of Weaver is that it gives hope to a whole generation of women - most of whom are not actors or artists of any kind - that skill, experience, talent and just slogging on, taking whatever chances come your way, are worth it and can pay off.
Older women (rather like smaller countries) rarely see themselves in the media, and invisibility is painful. Whether she meant to or not, whether she wants to or not, Weaver's success makes many older Australian women feel visible.
And the fact she has just received her second Oscar nomination, for Silver Linings Playbook, proves it is often only a lack of opportunity that limits many lives and careers.
She didn't win her first Oscar and it is highly unlikely she'll win her second, but it doesn't matter.
If an actor's job is to represent the feelings of others authentically, then as far as older Aussie women are concerned, Jacki Weaver is at the absolute top of her game.