When Geoffrey Rush was up for a best actor award at the Academy Awards in 1997 for his performance as a troubled concert pianist in Shine, the fellow nominees were daunting company, as they usually are. There was Ralph Fiennes (a cartologist-adventurer in The English Patient), Billy Bob Thornton (a murderer with intellectual disability in Sling Blade), Tom Cruise (a slick sports agent in Jerry Maguire) and Woody Harrelson (pornography publisher in The People vs Larry Flynt). Movie acting establishment, every one of them.
Shine had received seven Oscar nominations in all and though The English Patient won best film that year, it was Shine that people everywhere took to their hearts. For Rush, the rest is history.
It was a triumph for Australian cinema. A triumph for Rush certainly, and for the rest of the team who had the other Oscar nominations - production, direction, screenplay, editing, support performance, and composition. Nine BAFTA nominations and five Golden Globe nominations also went Shine's way, and there were many other awards. A tribute to Australia's filmmaking smarts? Absolutely, and as contemporary drama it showed people what could be made here, besides ocker comedies and colonial dramas. "It worked in every market it played in and took around $100 million at the box office worldwide," recalls Scott Hicks, the director, in our recent interview. "It formed a new beachhead for Australian film in the US…", taking around $36 million. In Australia it ran for more than a year. ''Unthinkable, unheard of these days", and to start with "it was a film nobody wanted to make".
It is 20 years since Shine was released, through Ronin Films, Canberra. To mark this anniversary, the filmmakers are gathering for events due to take place at Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive. On August 13, the team from Ronin will discuss the film's innovative release into the Australian market, and there will be a screening followed by Q&A with Geoffrey Rush, producer Jane Scott, director Scott Hicks, and writer Jan Sardi. On the following day, David Helfgott will give a concert, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3, in an arrangement for two pianos with UK pianist Rhodri Clarke. In 2017, Helfgott will be taking 'Rach 3 to Vienna, Istanbul and Berlin.
In the early 1990s, Hicks cast Rush for the role of Helfgott based on what he had seen of his work on stage. Rush was an untested screen presence, but a respected theatre actor and had only just been on screen with a couple of very small parts prior. When Rush had asked Hicks to say in just a single word what Shine was about, the director nominated ''redemption", and the actor was onboard.
Although Rush was in his mid-40s when Susan Sarandon handed the golden statuette at the Academies, there was nothing "overdue" about it. Moreover, stage to screen is not a necessarily easy or natural transition. Although he was new to the screen, Rush took almost every award possible that year, including the Boston Society of Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild awards.
Watching Shine again 20 years on is a rare pleasure. As Hicks says, "It's a story about a boy who never grew up. As David would say, 'I never grew up, I grew down!'" Rush just leaps off that trampoline and through the screen with his exuberant performance. But it's compelling at the same time, in those quiet moments, that you may need to listen closely so you catch the wit and worldplay. "Every single word of it was based on the way that David spoke," recalls Jan Sardi, the screenwriter.
Sardi must have been delighted to hear that his script was a great read, compared to other scripts that Rush received to read, that seemed to him put together like the ingredients for a recipe. Hicks had handed his original script, Flight of the Bumblebee, to screenwriter Sardi (who went on to make Mao's Last Dancer), who spent five to six years working it. "It was very important to understand David as a young boy, and the key relationship was obviously his father and those other expectations that were placed on him, which informed the journey that he took in his life."
"It's all about structure," says Sardi. In a way, a film is like a poem, as it is not possible to include everything. "It was a case of building the story, giving the audience a sense of the journey they are on, and why they were watching it."
It is surprising to realise that Geoffrey Rush is actually on screen for around half the running time of the 1.46-minute film, and yet his character is unforgettable, so commanding is his performance as the adult Helfgott, institutionalised for years until the opportunity arose for him to play piano again.
The world would see much more of Rush in the years to come, as the comic actor himself in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, as a reptilian royal fixer Walsingham in Elizabeth, as a jolly royal speech therapist in The King's Speech and, totally over the top as Captain Hector Barbarossa throughout the Pirates of the Caribbean cycle. But over the years, Rush has never failed to return to the local film industry that nurtured him, or to the Australian stage.
Yet Shine was a watershed moment for many involved. It launched the international career of the director Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedars, No Reservations) and actor Noah Taylor, who has carved something of a niche for himself in eccentric characters ever since. The performances by Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz of Helfgott as his much younger selves ought not be forgotten. As the adolescent Helfgott, Taylor provides a remarkable foundation for Rush to work with, although the young actor had no access to Helfgott as he was at that point in his life. Indeed, Taylor carries the character for most of the first half, from the point when he is identified as a musical prodigy at 14 to his breakdown in his 20s while a student at the Royal College of Music in London. In interviews, Rush has said that people tell him about scenes they recall in Shine that he himself actually wasn't in. "It was actually the other actor, a bit of an unsung hero" in the film.
The actor Armin Mueller-Stahl was also an Oscar nominee in 1997 for his support role as David's father, Peter. The characterisation of Helfgott senior, a Holocaust survivor and, from the film's perspective, an overbearing and destructive presence in his son's life, prompted refutations by other members of the Helfgott family.
Be that as it may, Shine is the astonishing story of a man brought to his knees by mental breakdown, but subsequently able to find his music again, and joy, expression and fulfilment in his later years, during his marriage to Gillian, an astrologer (played by Lynne Redgrave).
In some ways, the struggle within David Helfgott seems to be represented by the contrasting moods and levels of difficulty in Mozart and Rachmaninoff, his music teacher's choice versus what his father wanted him to play - the light and the dark. Was it difficult, given the sad and difficult places Helfgott travelled through during his life, to make Shine a life-affirming story?
"In some ways, the responsibility of all art is to give hope," says Sardi. And for Hicks, "the whole point of the story was the light at the end of the tunnel. That's the nature of drama really. To feel the power of the highs, you have to experience the lows."
There will be three events at the National Film and Sound Archive in August to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Shine. On Saturday August 13, there will be discussion by the Ronin team about the film's release into the Australian market, and a screening followed by Q&A with the filmmakers, including Geoffrey Rush and Scott Hicks. David Helfgott and Rhodri Clarke will give a concert on Sunday August 14.