Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Terrace, Parkes. Closes March 4, 2018. Daily 10am-5pm.
The world's first full-length narrative film was probably made in Australia. It was The story of the Kelly Gang (1906), and one of the world's first great film stars was the tragic Australian actress Lottie Lyell (1890-1925). This exhibition seeks to trace the history of Australian cinema, from its origins through to the present, as preserved in film stills, headshots, film scrapbooks and other movie paraphernalia.
It is a collaborative venture between the National Film and Sound Archive (with its collection of about 400,000 film stills) and the National Portrait Gallery with its professional venue and curatorial expertise. Indirectly, the exhibition is also a history of Australian photography, fashion and taste – all of these found a direct and vivid reflection in the ways in which we imagined our film stars and the manner in which the various enterprises sought to promote them to the growing audiences for film.
The exhibition is a bit of a visual overload with loose thematic categories, rather than a straight chronological romp, where blown-up poster-size images, small scrapbook samplings, digitised scrapbooks and film advertisements all vie for attention. Some films are privileged with saturation multiple inclusions, for example My Brilliant Career (1979), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Sons of Matthew (1949), while others, including what is probably Australia's greatest film of the silent era, The Sentimental Bloke (1919), are somewhat short changed. Invariably diversity swamps any sense of coherence as we are mesmerised by objects of glamour and desire. We trace history in film star pinups with the move from innocent glamour, to sex appeal through to more haunting introspective portraits exploring existential and tortured states of mind.
In an exhibition where most of the images are designed to be attention grabbing, it is difficult to isolate a stunning image from all of the other stunning images – all screaming to be noticed. Although the official media release speaks of 275 items on display, this is a conservative estimate, as some items contain hundreds of images. A few props, in the form of frocks worn on memorable occasions in certain films, add to the richness of the visual fabric presented to the public. This is an exhibition that demands several hours even for a cursory circumnavigation.
An exhibition of this nature, particularly for a domestic audience, invariably involves a nostalgic stroll through Australian cinema with reminders of many completely forgettable, wasted evenings and afternoons spent on dull and half-baked films. Also, there are brilliant reminders of unique contributions made by Australian film with such memorable characters as "Bazza" McKenzie, Alvin Purple, Mick Dundee, the Kerrigans from The Castle (1997) and the wonderful David Gulpilil. Australian film over its century-long history has consistently punched above its weight.
Despite the undisputed strength, originality and vibrancy of Australian film, from the start it has been involved in an unequal battle with Hollywood and the monopolies the US forced on the Australia film industry through its distribution networks. Australian actors, including Nicole Kidman, Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett, did go "out there" and conquer the world, but it has been difficult for major actors to remain in Australia and to survive on the home front. Pity that more federal money is not directed to fostering a domestic film industry, rather than being spent on encouraging huge budget foreign movies to be produced in this country.
Whereas most exhibition catalogues are at best a form of merchandising or at worst an expensive memento to remind you – and to demonstrate to others – that you have seen the show, at least until the coffee table needs rescuing, the Starstruck catalogue is a worthwhile publication. Along with the usual high gloss reproductions of some of the notable exhibits accompanied by their text panels, the catalogue includes a number of illuminating essays, especially ones by Karen Vickery on the history of movie headshots and by Gael Newton on the history of Australian film stills from 1906 to 2001.
Starstruck promises to be a popular Christmas show that has something for everyone from Dad and Dave (1938) to Strictly Ballroom (1992) Ten Canoes (2006) and The Dressmaker (2015). My most direct reaction on seeing this exhibition was the desire to view more Australian films and this will lead me to the National Film and Sound Archive and to their crowded program of screenings.