Australian actors have been making their mark in Hollywood since the earliest days of cinema right up until the present day. What is it that distinguishes Aussie actors and has helped them to flourish in the US? Tony Knight, who was head of drama at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts for 25 year, will be delivering two talks on The Evolution of the Australian Actor and The Rise of the Australian Actor in Hollywood.
One of the earliest international Australian screen stars, Knight says, was Annette Kellermann. She gained fame as a teenage swimmer and diver, designed her own one-piece swimsuit and had her own swimwear line. She moved to Britain and then the US where she was making films before World War I and, Knight says, became the first star to do a nude scene in the now-lost film A Daughter of the Gods (1916).
Physicality and courage on screen were two notable attributes of Kellermann that would continue among a number of other Australian actors, including Errol Flynn, whose screen debut in Australia as Fletcher Christian in 1933's In the Wake of the Bounty soon led to a major Hollywood career, Rod Taylor, Dame Judith Anderson, and Peter Finch, who rose to prominence from the 1930s through to the 1950s.
"Finch kept coming back to Australia, he was in The Shiralee and A Town Like Alice, British films made in Australia."
With the advent of the Australian film renaissance a new crop of actors rose to prominence including the American-born Mel Gibson whose action-packed Mad Max 2, retitled The Road Warrior in the US shot him to prominence there: he would later follow in Flynn's footsteps and star a retelling of the Bounty story.
Paul Hogan provided a relatable fish-out-of-water story for Americans to relate to with Crocodile Dundee and The Man from Snowy River felt like an Australian western, giving a familiar genre a novel setting for US audiences (with an American star, Kirk Douglas, in the cast).
Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career and Helen Morse in Caddie helped show Australian women as feisty, independent, and smart. Later, Knight says, people in Hollywood would use two Australian women to illustrate a perceived difference in audience-drawing power (money, ultimately, being more important than any consideration of talent).
"They will say Nicole Kidman is a movie star and Cate Blanchett is an actress."
But with her campy performance in the recent Thor: Ragnarok movie, a box office hit, Blanchett's commercial stocks may be rising. And this underlines a point about Australian actors, Knight says, that goes all the way back to Kellermann: a willingness to take chances on screen.
The Original Mermaid (G, 2003), a documentary on Kellermann, will be on January 17 at 3pm with the biopic Million Dollar Mermaid (PG, 1952) at 4pm at the National Film and Sound Archive ($10/$8). The Evolution of the Australian Actor talk will be at the archive on January 18 at 3pm (free, bookings essential) followed at 4pm by Captain Blood (1935, G, tickets $10, $8). The Rise of the Australian Actor in Hollywood talk will be on at the National Portrait Gallery on January 20 at 2pm (free, portrait.gov.au). For bookings and more information visit nfa.gov.au.