by Stephen Vagg

Barry Humphries’ achievements were so many and varied over such a long period of time that biographers are hard pressed dealing with it all within the one book. That’s not going to happen here, but I thought it was worth focusing a little space on a particular aspect of Humphries’ career – being the first film star of the Australian film revival of the 1970s. And when I’m talking about “film star”, I mean a proper one – as in, someone whose presence not only shapes the film by virtue of their presence, but who also draws in paying customers because of that presence.

One doesn’t consider Barry Humphries a film star – he’s so strongly associated with the stage and television – but in the early 1970s, he headed two popular Australian films, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Bazza McKenzie Holds His Own.

Of course, Barry Crocker played the title role in both, and Crocker’s contribution is not to be underestimated, but Humphries was the bigger name at the time (as well as co-authoring both scripts). The success of these films, particularly Adventures (the first really big local hit of the 1970s) was absolutely crucial to the revived Australian industry because they proved – along with other early crowd-pleasers like The Naked Bunyip (in which Humphries also featured), Stork and Alvin Purple – that Australians would actually go see their own films. (NB this had already been proved in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, but wasn’t so much the case in the 1950s and 1960s, and so needed to be re-proved, to ensure government support). And the Bazza movies were the first films of their era where having a proper star really helped.

Looking back at the movies of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, it’s amazing (a) how many of them featured ‘stars’ and (b) how little the public seemed to care about that fact. You had Color Me Dead (Tom Tryon, Carolyn Jones, Rick Jason), The Intruder (Skippy – a global superstar at the time), It Takes All Kinds (Robert Lansing, Vera Miles, Barry Sullivan), Adam’s Woman (Beau Bridges, John Mills, Jane Merrow), That Lady from Peking (Carl Betz, Nancy Kwan, Bobby Rydell), Wake in Fright (Gary Bond, then considered the “next Peter O’Toole”), Ned Kelly (Mick Jagger), Squeeze a Flower (Walter Chiari, Dave Allen), The Nickel Queen (Googie Withers, John Laws), Sunstruck (Harry Secombe). The one exception I guess was James Mason in Age of Consent, which was popular locally – but I’m not sure audiences came for Mason, fine an actor as he was – it was more the scenery, and the racy subject matter, and a dozen other stars could have played that part as effectively.

With the Bazza films, the audiences came for Humphries and no one else could have played his part(s).

Why was he different to the other names? Why did Barry Humphries draw them in at the box office, when, say, Googie Withers, Mick Jagger, Beau Bridges or Skippy didn’t?

Three reasons, I feel:

a) He was a genuine draw on stage and television, with a strongly established persona. This separated him from second-tier names like, say, Tom Tryon, who weren’t really stars but rather “people who have starred in American films and thus are meant to be impressive”. It also covered people who were genuine stars in other mediums but who lacked a highly unique persona, like Googie Withers and Harry Secombe. With Humphries, audiences knew what they were going to get.

b) He recreated that persona on film. He didn’t “surprise the audience” by “showing off his versatility” and being cast against type – the film was constructed to use this type. I’ve discussed this before in a piece I did on Bryan Forbes’ regime at EMI Films, which featured a lot of stars playing roles different to the ones that made them stars. The main example of that happening in early revived Oz cinema was Mick Jagger in Ned Kelly. Jagger was known as a wild child rock star but in the film played Ned Kelly as this languid… uh… I’m not sure what Jagger played Kelly as, to be honest, but it was not the same guy who sang ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. The Intruders, a big screen adaptation of Skippy, made the cardinal error of barely using Skippy in the film – and as  result flopped at the box office.

c) There was a reason for seeing the film. Bruce Beresford didn’t just film a stage show with the Bazzas – they were proper movies, which moved, had heaps of stuff in them. They value-added to their source material (a comic strip) and were competent on a basic professional level. Lots of people disliked the Bazzas but if you were into that sort of humour – Barry Humphries humour – the films gave you what you want. Far too many Australian films then (and now), didn’t do this.

The three factors I listed above are, I believe, the most important things when it comes to creating a star who is a genuine draw for Australian movies at the box office – i.e. they’re true stars in other mediums, they give the public what the public has come to expect from them, and they make a proper movie. All three factors were present in the film work of Bert Bailey, George Wallace, Cecil Kellaway, Paul Hogan, Nick Giannopoulos, Mick Molloy, Jimeoin, Gina Riley and Jane Turner (and, one might add, Baz Luhrmann/Catherine Martin, who are the stars of their films more than any actor in them).

Now, smarty pants readers will no doubt be saying “What about Les Patterson Saves the World, huh, huh?” – the notorious 10BA flop which was all about Humphries.

I would argue that that movie would have been successful – had it been grounded in some kind of reality.

The stars I listed earlier all had their origins in some kind of reality with which audiences could identify – Wallace the Aussie battler, Kellaway the stressed-out dad, Molloy/Hogan the knockabout bloke, etc. Humphries’ Edna was, at one stage, very much attached to the reality of 1950s Australia. Also, she was helped in the Bazzas by the presence of Barry Crocker’s Barry McKenzie, who, while also big and cartoonish, was a recognisable type (I grew up in Brisbane – it was full of Barry McKenzies).

Bazza McKenzie Holds His Own didn’t do as well as The Adventures of Barry McKenzie – which I put down mostly to the fact that while the first film used a plot with at least some origins in true experience (i.e. an Aussie abroad in London), the second one used a plot based on the movies (i.e vampire films) and dealt with things that didn’t really have resonance with Australia (eg Transylvania). If Bazza 2 focused on, say, Bazza backpacking through Europe, I think it would’ve been just as big a hit (acknowledging that such judgements are purely speculative and impossible to prove/disprove but are still fun). Even then, Bazza 2 still did okay but it had Barry McKenzie and Edna, who still had come connection with reality.

Les Patterson Saves the World had a pure movie-movie plot, not based in any reality but rather a riff on spy movies, complete with fictitious Arabian countries recreated on the backlot a la some racist British comedy of the 1950s. Edna had left the land of verisimilitude to morph into more f a showbiz in-joke – which was admittedly still funny and worked a treat on stage and television, but not on film, as she didn’t have Barry McKenzie as an anchor. Instead, the film was driven by Sir Les Patterson, who was an even broader figure than Edna.

A question for the buffs: what if Les Patterson Saves the World had been changed into a third Barry McKenzie movie? Would it have worked? I think more people would have gone to see it; it would have seemed more real… although I’m not sure it would have been a big hit – it was still a movie-movie, about spies, gay jokes and an AIDS like virus which wasn’t really funny.

However, I do think a more grounded reunion between Barry McKenzie and Edna – a film about them, say, simply going to somewhere Aussies go and tearing up the place (Bali, Disneyland, Europe, Thailand, Hong Kong) –would’ve gone down a treat. The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert showed there was still hunger for vulgar, politically incorrect ocker comedy – Bazza 3 could have tapped into that.

Les Patterson’s failure spelled the end of Humphries’ career as a leading man, although he kept popping up in cameos (he’s very funny in Welcome to Woop Woop, above) and doing voices (eg. Finding Nemo) while maintaining his stardom on stage and television. He made a tonne of money, rubbed with the rich and famous, and had a lot of sex. It was a triumphant life and career. Still, I sense that he had another hit film or two in him with the right director (Beresford, of course, but also Stephan Elliott would have been ideal). If we want to make popular local films as opposed to showreels to get work in LA, we need to use our assets more. And Barry Humphries was one of our greatest.