Back in the early ‘90s, the local film industry was on a roll. Comedies like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and Priscilla were spraying audiences with a new sense of uniquely Australian style – camp, brightly coloured and in-your-face – while Romper Stomper projected a darker side of the national psyche with equally cinematic bravura. These films gave birth to a new generation of local talent, with actors Russell Crowe, Rachel Griffiths, Guy Pearce, and Toni Collette, and directors, Baz Luhrmann and P.J. Hogan going on to successful international careers. And strangely, until recently, it was rare to see a name-check for the film that set the ball rolling: Jocelyn Moorhouse’s startlingly original Proof?
Let us blast away the cobwebs of neglect and trumpet this loud and clear: Proof remains one of the finest of all Australian films and, in many ways, an extremely influential one. Its recent restoration courtesy of The National Film And Sound Archive (helped out by a little Margaret Pomeranz-inspired crowd-funding) and key screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival have been long overdue. Starring Hugo Weaving, Genevieve Picot and Russell Crowe, the film made a considerable impact when it was released in 1991.
There had been nothing quite like it before and no other local film has since managed to mine quite such a striking mixture of accessible humour and intellect. Proof remains one of a kind: it’s an eccentric, or “quirky”, Australian film sans over-the-top gestures or Abba songs; and an art film with belly laughs. Mischievously perverse, flawlessly acted, intellectually intriguing, and masterfully controlled, Proof had its world premiere at The Cannes Film Festival, where it had the honour of opening the Director’s Fortnight section. It received a standing ovation, an official plaudit (in the form of the Golden Camera – Special Mention), and heaps of acclaim from the movie world’s top opinion-makers, before selling to territories around the globe.
If Proof were to be judged by its introduction of major new talent alone, it would stand as a significant film: Crowe and Weaving would both go on to achieve well documented global renown; producer, Lynda House, went on to make the smash hit, Muriel’s Wedding, with director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s husband, P.J Hogan; and Moorhouse herself found a foothold in Hollywood (where she worked with actors of the calibre of Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Robards on the films How To Make An American Quilt and A Thousand Acres) before returning to Australia last year to helm the local success story, The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet.
After Proof’s Australian premiere at the opening night of the 1991 Sydney Film Festival, it became a domestic box office success, with earnings of $2.1 million (to which can be added the $1 million it earned in foreign sales). It went on to dominate that year’s AFI Awards, winning prizes in six of its eight nominated categories, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor for Weaving, and Best Supporting Actor for Crowe.
The film is essentially a three-hander based around a bizarre notion: a blind man called Martin (Weaving) takes photographs that he gets others to describe in order to give him “proof” that the world he interprets through his non-seeing senses is the same as the reality experienced by everyone else. As one American critic observed, it’s a film about “epistemology” – how do we know what we know?
But arguably even more central to the film than the notion of proof is that of trust. Martin is a profoundly distrustful human being who lives alone and believes that his mother (played by Heather Mitchell in brief flashback scenes) lied to him as a child when she told him she had a terminal disease. He believes that she was punishing him, resentful of his disability, and cruelly faking her own death as a means of abandoning him. But if Martin is one twisted little puppy, then his housekeeper, Celia (Genevieve Picot), suffers from a psychopathology no less extreme. She plays pettily twisted games with Martin, such as deliberately leaving objects in his path while house cleaning – a perverse reaction to his cold and dismissive attitude towards her. We learn that despite his coldness, she is attracted to Martin, and that her feelings – brusquely unreciprocated – are scarily obsessive. Celia may not quite be an unreconstructed nut-job, but she’s certainly speeding down the highway of psychic dysfunction in the wrong direction.
Tripping innocently into this emotional minefield comes Crowe’s Andy, a happy-go-lucky dishwasher (a role inspired by Moorhouse’s brother, who had spent much time working in restaurants) who befriends Martin after the blind man accidentally injures Ugly, a beloved alley cat, behind the restaurant where Andy works.
What an unlikely pair this grumpy misanthrope and easy-going larrikin make. Andy finds Martin fascinating, particularly after observing him deliberately pouring wine over his restaurant table by “accident” to attract the attention of a waitress. Meanwhile Martin regards his new friend’s no-nonsense manner as a sign of honesty. Here at last, Martin feels, is someone who can describe the photos he habitually takes of the world around him and give him truthful descriptions of their contents.
But this is all a prelude for a trial that Martin has not yet found the courage to undergo. He ultimately wants Andy to describe a photo he has kept from his childhood that, in typically perverse fashion, he believes will prove his mother was lying to him about her fatal disease. This ultimate test will finally prove to Martin that his neurosis is exactly that. But before that happens, Andy will fall victim to Celia’s devious game-playing, giving Martin cause to profoundly distrust them both.
Written over a five-year period, Moorhouse’s script began life as the blueprint for a 50-minute short film. Having graduated from the Sydney-based Australian Film, Television And Radio School (AFTRS), where she had met and teamed up with husband, P.J Hogan, Moorhouse returned to her native Melbourne to work as a TV writer. She found herself increasingly frustrated, however, by the gap between what she saw in her head and what her directors did with the material – it was often as if they just didn’t understand it. She knew that writing alone would never satisfy her, and wanted to move into directing.
“I’d always been interested in characters that were a little isolated from the rest of the world…who have a different perception of reality,” Moorhouse has said of the idea behind the film. “Someone mentioned that they met a person who was blind and who took photographs and that stayed with me. I was always looking around for movie ideas, because I love to write, and I just kept mulling it over. I first mentioned it to my husband [P.J Hogan], who is my creative collaborator, and he looked at me kind of strangely and said, ‘You’re kidding.’”
But as they talked about it further, he started to encourage her. When Moorhouse had what she thought was a final draft, she approached Film Victoria. In her sensitive eyes, the crucial pitch meeting went so disastrously that Moorhouse burst into tears as soon as she had left the room. All she could hear was, “No, we don’t want to make your 50-minute film.” In fact, the funding body had loved the idea: they only declined to back this early draft because they believed it had huge potential as a feature film. It took Hogan to convince her, later that evening, that instead of being rejected, she had scored a triumph.
Thanks to an agreement between Film Victoria and The Australian Film Commission to support talented first-time filmmakers, it became possible to raise the entire $1.1 million budget from federal and state government sources alone, with $800,000 coming from the AFC, and the rest from Film Victoria. Unlike most features, there was no prerequisite that part of the budget be raised from outside sources (usually done via pre-sales to foreign sales agents) before the film could receive backing. This was not the kind of film to readily attract commercial backing, but once completed and acclaimed at Cannes, the filmmakers were able to secure the support of major distributor Roadshow, whose backing became crucial to its local success.
As it is in any film, the casting was crucial, and here Moorhouse absolutely nailed it. Weaving, then best known for the TV mini-series, Bodyline and Bangkok Hilton, approached his role with an admirable lack of vanity. Wearing a massive chip on his shoulder like a soldier sporting his epaulettes, Martin is not an outwardly attractive character. Nonetheless, he is capable of attracting viewer sympathy; his surliness and suspicion of the world spring from a vulnerability that Weaving hints at via subtly nuanced shifts in tone.
In preparing for his role, Weaving spent time with a blind man, and became fascinated with his angry and defiant attitude. Walking through the city one day, the man told Weaving that he liked to “bust up crowds” – so the pair, both armed with white canes, set about deliberately barging into groups of people!
Weaving’s research echoed what he’d found in Moorhouse’s script, which turned upside down the usual metaphorical banalities about the blind “seeing” – ie. perceiving – more clearly than the rest of us. Martin, by contrast, struggles to build up a picture of the world and often gets it wrong.
Although Moorhouse didn’t conduct any research into blindness while writing the script, she and producer, Lynda House, did meet with sightless people before going into production. “Everything we found confirmed what she’d written, so the research didn’t change anything,” the producer recalls. What they often found was a degree of bitterness and resentment. House vividly recalls one man telling them that it would have been better to have been left to die than to be left to live blind.
For the role of Celia, Moorhouse had in mind someone with the qualities of Britain’s Glenda Jackson, best known for her ‘70s roles in Women In Love, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and A Touch Of Class. Genevieve Picot, whom Moorhouse had seen onstage, fit the bill to perfection. Like Jackson, she was hardly a classic beauty, but was nonetheless capable of projecting intense sexual needs through strength of character.
As Andy, the third part of the triangle, Russell Crowe proved a revelation, giving the kind of performance all too easily underrated because it doesn’t look like a performance at all. It may seem incredible now, but Crowe’s casting was far from a foregone conclusion, since another actor had also been in serious contention for the role. House recalls that Peter Sainsbury, then second in charge at the AFC, held serious doubts about Crowe’s suitability, largely on account of his sex appeal, which Sainsbury believed flew in the face of the character’s insecurity about his looks.
At the time of casting, the New Zealand-born Crowe had just made his big screen debut in George Ogilvie’s teen drama, The Crossing. This had yet to be released, but House recalls someone who had seen an advance screening urging the Proof team that they “have to see this guy.” After watching him in a stage production, Moorhouse was impressed, but it was only when she put Crowe together with Weaving for a screen test and witnessed the chemistry between them that she was convinced.
Given the success of this early collaboration, it’s ironic that the collapse of Moorhouse’s 2005 adaptation of Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus (which was to shoot in Australia) was due to raging arguments over the script. One media report suggested that bitter enmity between Moorhouse and Crowe had begun on the set of Proof, where Moorhouse had allegedly reprimanded Crowe for being too forceful in his love scene with Picot, who’d felt scared. House recalls, “I don’t think Russell Crowe clashed [with Moorhouse] any more than any actor would fight for their role.” House also points out that Crowe had later flown to Cannes to help promote Proof at his own expense and had stayed in Moorhouse and Hogan’s apartment where “they got on really well.”
If Crowe fought for his conception of the role, it fits with what we know about his behaviour on sets. House recalls the future star being “incredibly committed” during the shoot, which extended to “dressing” his character’s car for a pivotal scene at a drive-in, down to the last detail, such as providing the plastic dinosaur for the dashboard and even cassettes for the glovebox, though the latter play no role in the film!
Ironically, the Cannes breakthrough nearly didn’t happen at all. When festival advisor, Pierre Rissient, never noted for his diplomacy, visited Australia to view the latest local titles for potential inclusion, he made his dislike of the film brutally clear. It was a major blow to the team.
After the rejection, Moorhouse kept on reworking the film, cutting back scenes and losing others entirely. Importantly, she also lightened the ending. In the original version, Martin had found his distrust of his mother to be well-founded – a bleak conclusion that the new ending reversed. Crucially, she also added more humour. In this, she was egged on by her husband, who had already come on board as a script editor. “That’s where P. J’s wickedness and sense of humour entered into it,” says House, citing the hilarious drive-in gag where Martin innocently incites a violent reaction from a thug by holding up a multi-pack of condoms to the car window. “It wasn’t that P.J alone came up with this; it’s more the way they work. Together they do their very best work,” the producer says, fondly recalling being in her office and hearing the pair laugh uproariously after they’d just come up with this scene together.
The changes helped to increase the team’s confidence in the film, and after a suggestion from the film’s international sales agent, they decided to submit it to Director’s Fortnight, an autonomously-run Cannes section that shelters beneath the festival’s official umbrella. This strategy paid off when the film was invited to screen in the section’s highly visible opening night slot, where the word quickly spread, and the following screenings were packed. Distribution deals were signed in a frenzy, with the successful Korean bidder even turning up with a suitcase full of cash! It took a little while longer to secure an all-important US distribution deal, with New Line eventually winning the contract.
Despite all the hoop-la, Proof sadly failed to attract the Oscar or Golden Globe nominations that can push a small, independent movie from the sidelines into the mainstream and it failed to ignite at the international box office. House believes that its UK and US releases were badly affected by two extraneous factors – an IRA bombing campaign broke out just as the film was released to glowing reviews, and in its first two weeks of limited release in Los Angeles, one of the two cinemas screening the film was burnt down in the Rodney King riots.
Meanwhile in France and Germany, the film suffered from being given a “wide” release, a strategy that usually only works for blockbusters. In Australia, however, Roadshow boss, Alan Finney, had carefully nurtured the film by starting with a very limited release and only adding more cinemas as word got out.
Those who have never seen the film may be wondering, from a plot description, how any of it could seem believable. Even fans must admit that its concepts skate dangerously close to obscurity and risk being more readily grasped as abstractions than instances of explainable human behaviour. Take the central conceit: that Martin, requiring someone totally trustworthy to describe his photos, chooses that person via a simple act of faith – an act that makes him vulnerable to deceit. Why would he do this, when logically all he needed to do was separately ask two unconnected people to describe the pictures’ contents? If both accounts tallied, hey presto! He would have overwhelming evidence that both were telling the truth when they described his photos. Yet so pathological is Martin‘s inward and isolated way of “seeing” the world that his failure to think logically makes perfect emotional sense.
Perhaps harder to fathom is why the significantly-named Celia (say it out loud – See-lia) harbours such a strong desire for Martin despite his lack of readily likable qualities. It’s clearly not out of any sympathy for his disability. The film, while finding a certain sympathy for Martin’s condition, is ruthlessly unsentimental about blindness. Even Weaving admits that Celia’s obsession over Martin is hard to understand, calling the script “preposterous, really.” Yet despite this, he observes, it works. “In other hands, it could have been just too preposterous, but it’s quite brilliantly held together.”
While it had the potential to boil over into gothic territory, Moorhouse’s writing and direction remain craftily restrained, and her dialogue admirably terse. The strangeness of her characters’ actions is intriguing and blackly amusing rather than alienating. We accept that Celia loves Martin because, well, human behaviour is not always explicable, and the rules of logic do not always apply.
25 years later, Proof has lost none of its potency, and remains thought–provoking and boldly original. If the film is less commonly celebrated than the quirky Aussie comedies that followed, this is no doubt due to the Australian weakness for placing large-scale commercial success above aesthetic considerations. While we like to think of ourselves as a cut above Hollywood crassness, the reality is that we too often worship box office above other forms of achievement.
Proof, however, showed that local films could be successful without costing the earth. In her detailed chapter on the film in the book, Long Shots To Favourites: Australian Cinema Successes In The ‘90s, Mary Ann Read cites it as “a copybook example for those who advocate low budget production as the best way to make commercially viable Australian films.”
Weaving doesn’t mince words when he calls Proof a “landmark.” With its bold conception and droll wit, the film captured a new mood, showing that Australian film could be small-scale, contemporary, urban, sophisticated and smart. It was not, of course, the first film to do this, but, with perfect timing, it arrived at a point when these qualities were sorely needed. Weaving notes that apart from being set in the modern world, it was strikingly different for being “set in a largely interior world of psychological complexity and cruelty and black humour.”
House says that its example “inspired people – it made people think that success was possible. We had done it on a tiny budget and no-one in the cast was very well known.” She also thinks that it helped strengthen the agencies that had backed it, noting that its primary backer, the Australian Film Commission, had its funding increased after the success of Proof and Romper Stomper “because suddenly the government could see the success that local films were having.”
For Crowe, the film was a major career breakthrough, directly influencing writer-director, Geoffrey Wright, to offer him the lead as a Neo-Nazi skinhead in Romper Stomper, the role that would bring him widespread international acclaim and become his Hollywood calling card. Wright kept telling Crowe that he had already committed to another actor as the Romper Stomper lead, but Crowe wouldn’t give up, repeatedly phoning the director to get him to change his mind. Wright then turned the tables and called Crowe. After seeing Proof, he had finally changed his mind. Wright had been particularly impressed with the scene where Andy and Martin get into a scrap with a group of toughs at the drive-in (Daniel Pollock, who played their main opponent, would go on to be cast as Crowe’s Romper Stomper offsider before tragically dying shortly after filming was completed). Wright recalled that Crowe’s Andy had been the “most menacing gentle dishwasher I’d ever seen. Right after I’d seen Proof, I called my producers and said, ‘We may have our boy.’”
Until her recent triumph with The Dressmaker, you could have been forgiven for wondering whatever happened to Jocelyn Moorhouse. New York Times critic, Elvis Mitchell, even asked exactly that question many years ago, concluding that her career trajectory “seems to prove that the American mainstream movie establishment has no place for a woman capable of such beguiling and spare work.”
After the success of Muriel’s Wedding, Moorhouse and Hogan moved to LA where they built a new life. Despite the stellar casts of Moorhouse’s second and third features, How To Make An American Quilt and A Thousand Acres, both were soft-edged US productions that seem to be from a different director entirely, lacking Proof’s astringent wit and contempt for sentiment. The tart, pithy, and utterly bewitching The Dressmaker finally proved, however, that Proof was certainly no one-off fluke…