It’s my contention that one of the big problems of the Australian film industry is too many people don’t understand what constitutes a film star. The term “star” gets flung about with great abandon and winds up over-used and distorted.
Entire books have been written on the concept of movie stardom but I think Ken G Hall had it best when he referred to movie stars being people who were actually worth something at the box office, i.e. actors who helped draw a significant number of people into theatres by virtue of their presence alone.
The Australian film industry is so small that the most successful movie stars are ones who have made their names in other mediums – usually theatre, radio, and/or TV. They develop popularity there, transfer to film, and their public follows them. It is possible to be a film-only star, it is just extremely difficult.
I thought I’d run through a list of actors who I consider to have been genuine stars – plus a few others who were sometimes described as such, but aren’t, really.
* Nellie Stewart – she’s little remembered today but in her day was an internationally famous stage actor and singer. Her most popular role was the title part in Sweet Nell of Old Drury and repeating it onscreen helped turn that film into a monster hit.
*Snowy Baker – one of the most renowned sportsmen of his era, Baker represented his country in swimming, boxing, rugby, diving, etc etc before trying his hand at the movies. He stuck to action/adventure tales (five in all) most of which appear to have been greeted with public enthusiasm. Baker has a clear claim on the title of Australia’s first action movie star.
*Lottie Lyell – she was often described as Australia’s first film star and certainly played the lead role in a number of popular movies: The Fatal Wedding, Margaret Catchpole, The Sentimental Bloke, etc. Her contribution to Australian cinema was immense, as an actor, director, writer, editor and producer. However, I would hesitate to classify her as an out-an-out star – she lacked a defined screen persona, she was too versatile, too under publicised. She didn’t have a great stage reputation, her name was given respectful but not prominent billing in advertisements; even her death was not overly publicised, which you assume it would have been for someone so young. I don’t get the impression from reading about this time that Lottie Lyell was a genuine box office draw. Maybe if she’d specialised in more of the one kind of role or genre, eg. the squatter’s daughter – but she didn’t. I feel Lyell was more a respected leading lady and filmmaker. Still, a giant of our industry.
*Arthur Tauchert – a vaudevillian who became nationally famous after being cast in the role of a lifetime, The Sentimental Bloke. This led to Tauchert playing the lead in a number of other movies which put him in similar parts, kind of Australia’s Wallace Beery. One contemporary account described him as the biggest box office star in Australia in the 1920s. I think he has more claim to being a genuine draw than Lyell, if only because he tended to play the same kind of role – a lovable knockabout – so audiences knew what they were getting with him. A modern day equivalent would be Michael Caton.
*Alfred Rolfe and Lily Dampier – a married couple who played opposite each other on stage many times, usually in support of Alfred Dampier, Lily’s father. They recreated their stage roles in several movies, including Captain Midnight and Captain Starlight, and thus received prominent billing – especially Lily – but I would not count them as stars.
Sound Era Until the Revival
*George Wallace – one of the most popular theatre performers of his day, Wallace brought his audience with him to the cinemas for several movies in the thirties. The first ones, by FW Thring, weren’t very good but still made money; the later ones from Ken G Hall, were better and also lucrative. Eventually, Wallace grew old, and his later appearances in Rats of Tobruk and Wherever She Goes are sad rather than funny, but in his heyday he was the biggest thing in Australian films.
See a copy of His Royal Highness here: https://archive.org/details/HisRoyalHighness
*Bert Bailey – his films were even more popular than Wallace’s, though his range was narrower – people were only interested in Bailey if he played Dad Rudd. The result were four highly popular films which cashed in on the years Bailey spent playing Rudd on stage around the country. Bailey did have a stab at a non-Dad Rudd role in South West Pacific but it was still pretty Rudd-esque. He was a genuine box office draw, in the way no other actor who played the role (and there’s been a few) have been.
*Cecil Kellaway – Kellaway was a popular theatre star who appeared in three Australian films, two of which were specifically constructed as a vehicle for him: It Isn’t Done and Mr Chedworth Steps Out. He was a little battler type, less broad than Wallace, quieter than Bailey, more dramatic. A minor star with a less strongly defined public persona it was still there (dim, decent, a father) and he appears to have been a box office draw.
A clip from It Isn’t Done: https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/it-isnt-done/clip1/
*Pat Hanna – like Wallace, Bailey and Kellaway, Hanna spent years and years plugging away at his act on stage, which meant there was a ready-made audience for his first features. Hanna’s three movies were not massive successes, but his popularity saw them perform well enough and he clearly constituted a genuine draw at the box office.
A clip from Diggers: https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/diggers/clip1/
*Chips Rafferty – a gangly type who seemed destined for a career as comic relief support until thrust into the lead of The Overlanders, subsequently put under contract to Ealing Studios. Any lasting box office pull this, and Bush Christmas, gave Rafferty was undermined by miscasting in Eureka Stockade and failure of Bitter Springs. Still, Rafferty had enough of a name to raise money to make his own movies in the 1950s, which exploited his persona – The Phantom Stockman, King of the Coral Sea, Walk into Paradise – and were reasonably successful. He then stopped playing to his strengths and the films failed – in particular he should’ve played the lead in Dust in the Sun. Rafferty was unlikely to ever be a convincing romantic lead and he was hampered by opportunities at the time, but you get the sense he could’ve been a bigger star if handled better – he would’ve been great as a comic lead, and an action hero. Still, he was definitely the closest thing we had to a home-grown movie star in the fifties.
A clip of him and Grant Taylor: https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/forty-thousand-horsemen/clip1/
*Roy Rene – his one film is regarded as a failure, Strike Me Lucky, but Rene’s tremendous stage popularity initially brought in sizeable audiences. It was a shame Ken G Hall never had another go at making a Rene vehicle because I think he, of all filmmakers, could have eventually cracked it, and Rene’s later success on radio proved his appeal had “legs”. Admittedly this doesn’t change the fact that Strike Me Lucky is hard to sit through.
A clip from Strike Me Lucky: https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/strike-me-lucky/clip3/
*Shirley Ann Richards – she got a lot of publicity as a star, including being put under long term contract, but she wasn’t. She almost always played the ingenue, rarely driving the plot and mostly being called upon to flirt with the leading man. Her best part, in Dad and Dave Come to Town, was a support role. She was delightful, charming, pretty and talented but she never got the chance to carry a movie. (NB This applied in Hollywood as well.) ‘The One That Got Away’ for me was 100,000 Cobbers – a terrific short and it’s a shame that it wasn’t expanded into a feature with Richards pairing marvelously with Grant Taylor.
*Grant Taylor – a dazzling star debut in Forty Thousand Horseman meant Taylor really should have inherited Snowy Baker’s mantle as local action star. And war time meant his persona – the cocky, brave digger – should have been showcased in a number of films. But feature production almost ceased altogether, and Taylor only starred in a few other movies. He still had charisma in 100,000 Cobbers and Rats of Tobruk but he aged rapidly (he was fond of a drink) and his time as a cinematic leading man was really over by the 1940s. Taylor was really the forerunner of the tough Aussie star that would later be picked up by Rod Taylor, Mel, Bryan, etc and it’s a real shame that he didn’t get to make as many star vehicles as, say George Wallace, because I think they would’ve done well.
*Peter Finch – an unusual case. During his Australian years I got the impression everyone respected Finch’s talent as an actor, which saw him play numerous lead roles in radio, film and stage… but he was never that popular with the public. He was a “prestige star”, say, like Cate Blanchett would be later. However, when he began starring in British films in the 1950s, there was a period where he seemed to have genuine pull at the box office, making some popularity lists – in particular starring in some Australian themed works: A Town Like Alice, The Shiralee, Robbery Under Arms. So, while he wasn’t a genuine film star in Australia, he was playing Australian roles in Britain.
Peter Finch in Dad and Dave Come to Town: https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/dad-and-dave-come-to-town/clip1/
The early years of the revival (1970s-1990s)
*Jack Thompson – In the late 1970s, Ken G Hall declared that Thompson was the one actor whose name actually meant something at the box office in Australian cinema, and there was something to it, his hits including Petersen, and Sunday Too Far Away. These were star vehicles, as was the less popular Scobie Malone, pushing an image of Thompson – tough, ocker, sexy – that had been developed on TV in Spyforce, very much in the vein of Grant Taylor. Thompson did not follow this up though, and quickly went into character/support parts, though often in quality works – Caddie, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Breaker Morant, The Man from Snowy River. The one film to be built around his persona, The Journalist, was a disaster. Was the Australian film industry of the 1970s capable of supporting “Jack Thompson, star”? Could a real impresario like, say, Ken G Hall, have made it work? Was Thompson even interested? His career, and persona, remains an under-studied topic in Australian cinema. I will say this – every role Bryan Brown played in the 1980s feels as though it was written with Jack Thompson in mind.
*Mel Gibson – Gibson had “star” written all over him from the early days, on stage as well as the screen, and enjoyed one of the few guaranteed homegrown franchises in Mad Max. He has one of the best Aussie CVs of all time: three classics (the first two Mad Max movies, Gallipoli), some damn fine movies (The Year of Living Dangerously, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), an entirely decent weepie (Tim) and some cult faves (Summer City, Attack Force Z). Rare in that he is a film-only star too (although he appeared a lot on stage).
*Paul Hogan – an incredibly popular comedian, whose appeal saw big audiences for not just the Crocodile Dundee flicks but also later, less well remembered films, such as Lightning Jack, Strange Bedfellows and Charlie and Boots. He’s lost a lot of lustre but in the right role I think Hogan could still draw them in.
*Yahoo Serious – unlike the other comics on this list, Serious came out of nowhere with Young Einstein, but it was so successful (in part because of a massive marketing push) that for a time he was a genuine box office draw via Reckless Kelly and Mr Accident (the audiences weren’t as large as for his first film but they did come). Not prolific enough to maintain his following, though, which I feel is a shame – I wish he’d make another movie.
*Russell Crowe – Had ‘next Mel Gibson” stamped on his forehead since The Crossing, and Crowe eventually came good, but it’s useful to be reminded how many of his Aussie movies made little noise – The Crossing, Love in Limbo, Hammers over the Anvil, Heaven’s Burning. He kept getting cast because everyone knew he was going to be a star, then he was one… just in Hollywood, not here. The Water Diviner, however, has shown there is a lot of appeal left among local audiences for Rusty in the right sort of role. He’s made too many odd sort of movies for me to classify him as a definite local star though.
*Tom Burlinson – star of the two biggest hits in ‘80s Australian cinema, The Man from Snowy River and Phar Lap, showed that Aussie audiences adored Burlinson with a horse. When he strayed from this, however – Windrider, The Time Guardian – they stayed away in droves and Man from Snowy River II seemed to kill off his career as an Australian leading man. To Burlinson’s credit, he’s reinvented himself as a singer. But still, one can’t help thinking that he might have had a few more hits in him if he’d been more carefully managed – he had a boyish earnestness and likeability that surely could’ve been better exploited.
*Sigrid Thornton – there’s few more iconic images of ‘80s Australian cinema than Siggie being feisty in period costume: Man from Snowy River, All the Rivers Run. Even at her peak, however, she was wasted in girlfriend roles – Street Hero, The Lighthorsemen. Her career is a great argument that Australian cinema had even less idea what to do with female stars than male ones. It was different on TV, where Siggie at least got some of the roles she deserved, especially in Seachange. She’s still around and remains a draw on stage and the small screen.
*Graeme Blundell – his casting helped turn Alvin Purple into a box office phenomenon, becoming a temporary sex comedy star eg Pacific Banana, all those Alvin sequels… A very fine actor, he’s remained in demand, but I don’t think anyone wants to see him in a sex comedy any more.
*Bryan Brown – in the ‘80s, it was common to call Bryan Brown a film star but was he, really? People seemed to like him best in showy support roles – Breaker Morant, Two Hands, Dirty Deeds, Australia – rather than as the lead. On TV, he was a definite draw as proved by the popularity of A Town Like Alice and The Shiralee but feature films starring Brown tended to underperform at the box office – The Empty Beach, Sweet Talker, Dear Claudia, Dead Heart. An icon, absolutely, a great actor, yes, a charismatic leading man, certainly, loved in supporting roles (eg. Two Hands) yes, but a real film star…?
*Judy Davis – there was a period there in the ‘80s when Davis was a “prestige” star, someone who would ensure your film would get looked at: Winter of our Dreams, Kangaroo, Hide Tide. She’s never been hugely popular, though always respected – I wish she’d work more. Check her out sparring with Baz Luhrmann.
*Wendy Hughes – Bob Ellis once claimed he needed to cast Hughes in Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train to get it financed, such was her reputation in the 1980s. She was incredibly beautiful and talented and did appear in some hits (Careful He Might Hear You, My First Wife, Return to Eden, Lonely Hearts) and there was that late ‘80s period when it seemed she might break through internationally (she had the lead in a Hollywood film, Happy New Year) but this ended with a rash of flops: Warm Nights, Echoes of Paradise, Boundaries of the Heart, Luigi’s Ladies. Still, she remained in demand as an actor until her depressingly early death.
Later Years (1990s – present)
*Nick Giannopoulos – perhaps the biggest stage star in ‘90s Australia, his immensely popular Wog shows saw an impressive box office haul for the mediocre Wog Boy. As is far too common in Australian cinema, he waited too long to make a sequel, but nonetheless figures for Wog Boy 2 weren’t bad. Giannopoulos’ appeal in non-Wog roles is doubtful, though The Wannabes actually had a terrific idea, it was just terribly executed. If I ran an Aussie film studio, one of the first things I would do is see if Giannopoulos would make a third Wog Boy movie – but only if he toured the country with a stage show immediately before release and kept the budget down.
*Mick Molloy – the breakout star of The Late Show, he grew even bigger when he and Tony Martin became radio giants, then he became a film star via the cleverly crafted Crackerjack. Having established himself as a genuine box office draw, Molloy fumbled with his next two films, Bad Eggs and Boy Town, though both had good things and could (and should) have been awesome. Bad Eggs badly needed to have put Molloy opposite Tony Martin instead of the talented but little-known-outside-Melbourne-comedy-circles Bob Franklin; Boy Town didn’t live up to its concept. Molloy remains kind of well-known but is probably no longer a box office draw; a shame since he had genuine broad appeal and with careful handling, he could’ve starred in five-to-six big local comedy hits. It’s not too late to do this, by the way.
*Jimeoin – a very likeable actor with a national profile, he brought them in with The Craic but struck out with The Extra, even though it had a fantastic central idea. Jimeoin still tours heavily, keeping him in the public eye and like Molloy, I actually think people would still turn up to see him in the right vehicle.
*Paul Fenech – perennially unfashionable but he has a devoted following who have ensured decent box office figures, although they dropped off for Fat Pizza vs Housos. Fenech keeps his budgets down and his audience in mind, using live shows to supplement his filmed ones. He remains a decent draw at the local box office.
*Cate Blanchett – is Cate a film star? She’s too beloved, wins too many Oscars, is too famous, too beautiful, and has been in too many hits to not be a star. On a local level though, she seems to be the queen of expensive, critically acclaimed box office disappointments – Oscar and Lucinda, Charlotte Grey, Paradise Road, Little Fish, The Turning – which may explain why she doesn’t make too many Australian films. I do think, however, her name does guarantee at least a certain amount of audience which would qualify her as a local star…
*Hugh Jackman – it’s hard to judge Hugh Jackman as a local film star because he makes so few Australian films. His first ones, Erskineville Kings and Paperback Hero were not massive hits and since then he’s belonged to Hollywood, with the exception of Australia. I think if Hugh did make something close to home, audiences would turn up in droves, such is his popularity, but because he doesn’t, I classify him as a “maybe”.
*Shane Jacobson – became nationally famous with Kenny and has managed to sustain his appeal since then with some great choices: Charlie and Boots, Oddball. I don’t know if the words “Shane Jacobson starring in” would automatically mean a certain amount of punters turning up on that opening weekend (eg. The BBQ), but if he keeps choosing well it may do.
*Nicole Kidman – in the right role, they’ll come, as The Railway Man and Australia proved, but there is a limit, as shown in Strangerland. I know, you could say that about any star but Nickers has never been a massive draw in local films – even her classics (BMX Bandits, Dead Calm) weren’t that big. But she’s a superb actor who is normally associated with quality.
*Michael Caton – he’s not often thought of as a star, but he’s nationally known/loved and people do tend to come to his movies: The Castle, Strange Bedfellows, Last Cab to Darwin.
*Toni Collette – obviously an outstanding character actress, her limits as a box office attraction were proven by Diana and Me, Lilian’s Story, Mental. Because she’s so good and gets some great parts, she’ll stick around for a long time, and a lot of her movies do some business – eg. Japanese Story.
*Eric Bana – if there’s anyone who should come back and make a good Aussie film it’s Bana, who probably has some residual popularity here. For a while he was genuinely popular off the back of Chopper with Romulus My Father doing ok and Love the Beast performing well. Personally, I think he’s wasted doing American films, though presumably his accountant disagrees. Hopefully, The Dry will lead to more roles here.
My conclusions from the above? Australian filmmakers are probably better off getting the rights to some awesome material rather than a star – say a best selling book like Red Dog, or popular play like Last Cab to Darwin. The exception is comedy, where the popularity of a Paul Hogan or a Nick Giannopolous will help your returns. Of course I could be wrong about all of the above – like so much in the film industry, it’s just an educated guess…