Unsung Auteurs: Colin Higgins

March 30, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Australian-American Colin Higgins, who helmed 9 To 5, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and Foul Play.

In Australia, we love nothing more than celebrating the international success of our homegrown talent. If an actor books even a minor role in a TV show, they instantly become “Australia’s own” insert-name-here. When the Oscar nominations are announced, the only point of interest in the local media is whether or not there are any Aussies in amongst the bunch, even in technical fields. And if an Aussie actually wins…well, they instantly become “our” success story. All of which makes it even more unusual when an Australian talent doesn’t receive much love locally when they crack the big time overseas.

Late writer/director Colin Higgins is, surprisingly , one of our least celebrated cinematic figures. Though born in New Caledonia to an Australian mother and American father, Higgins lived on Sydney’s North Shore until 1957, and did all his schooling there, attending the upper crust GPS institution of Saint Ignatius College, Riverview. Higgins left to attend university at Stanford in the US, but surely spending your entire youth and adolescence in Australia is enough for us to lay claim to you, right? After all, Nicole Kidman was born in Hawaii and Russell Crowe is, of course, a New Zealander.

Colin Higgins

Always fascinated by the theatre, Higgins attended the famed Actors Studio and worked at ABC Television, but eventually lost faith after finding it difficult to get work, and ended up joining the US Army. Shipped off to Germany, Higgins spent most of his time there working on a military newspaper, and eventually discharged in 1965, upon which he returned to Stanford to study creative writing. While studying, Higgins got acting jobs and also wrote a few plays, some of which were performed. After graduation, Higgins worked briefly as a seaman before returning to the world of academia. He began working on a Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting at UCLA, where he made two short films, Opus One, a satire on student films, and Retreat, an anti-war statement. In one of the great career jumps of all time, Higgins’ thesis would serve as the basis for his screenplay for the 1971 black comedy Harold And Maude. After graduating, Higgins went to work as a gopher for a wealthy family in Los Angeles, where he met film producer Ed Lewis, who passed on his script for Harold And Maude to Paramount boss, Robert Evans, famed for his eye for unusual material.

Though he wanted to direct, the reins were handed to the great Hal Ashby, who turned Harold And Maude into a surprise hit and a lasting countercultural cult classic. Higgins’ warmth, wit, and love of outsiders is richly evident in this blackly comic tale of a suicidal young man (Bud Cort) who falls in love with a much, much older woman. After the success of the brilliant Harold And Maude, Higgins penned the demonic 1973 telemovie The Devil’s Daughter, before heading off to France, where he stayed for a number of years after being tapped to turn Harold And Maude into a stage play. Higgins’ next screen credit was 1976’s train-set Silver Streak, an hilariously ingenious comic thriller in which Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor kicked off their unlikely gut-busting big screen double act. The film was a big hit, and it opened the door for Higgins to finally make the move into directing.

Colin Higgins with Chevy Chase on the set of Foul Play.

Dusting off a script that he’d written some years before, Colin Higgins made his directorial debut in 1978 with the hilariously entertaining but now largely forgotten Foul Play, which teamed 1970s superstars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn to superb, enchanting effect. Funny, goofy, and charming, this Hitchcock-style mystery sees the utterly delightful Hawn as an innocent librarian who finds herself in the middle of some high-level criminal activity, which throws her into the path of Chevy Chase’s bumbling but curiously effective police detective. Boasting scene stealing support from Dudley Moore and Burgess Meredith, Foul Play is a lot of fun, and it instantly marked Colin Higgins as a sure-footed purveyor of parody, slapstick and character-driven humour.

When producers Jane Fonda and Bruce Gilbert opted to lighten up screenwriter Pat Resnick’s original script for the workplace comedy 9 To 5, they brought in Colin Higgins to both rework the material and ultimately direct it. Lightening the material but not bowdlerizing it, Higgins worked comic wonders with the project: the eventual result was a smash hit comedy, in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton’s cruelly and unfairly put-upon office workers fantasise about doing in their bullying, lecherous, horribly chauvinistic boss, played by Dabney Coleman. Funny, honest, truthful but wonderfully silly and fanciful, 9 To 5 opened up conversations about workplace behaviour, gender inequality, sexual harassment, the pay divide, and a multitude of other subjects that are still being furiously batted about today. It still stands as major piece of comic cinema today (see the new doco Still Working 9 To 5), but the larger credit for its success (perhaps appropriately) sits far more with its leading ladies than it does the man who co-wrote and directed it.

Colin Higgins with Dolly Parton on the set of 9 To 5.

Higgins struck gold again in 1982 with The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, in which he ingeniously united his 9 To 5 breakout star Dolly Parton with the great Burt Reynolds, in one of the most ideal big screen match-ups of all time. The kind of film that would never get made today, this bawdy adaptation of the popular Broadway musical follows the efforts of a Texas sheriff to keep a popular brothel open in the face of protest and outside attack. A Burt Reynolds good ol’ boy comedy with a massive dose of girl power, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas was a huge hit upon its release, with audiences lapping up its naughty humour and toe-tapping songs. A wonderful throwback to a time when cheeky envelope-pushing was par for the course, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas was further proof of Higgins’ facility for broad comedy.

Sadly, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas would be Colin Higgins’ final big screen film. He wrote and produced Shirley MacLaine’s autobiographical 1987 TV mini-series Out On A Limb before tragically passing away in 1988. Openly gay, Colin Higgins died of an AIDS-related illness at his home on August 5, 1988 at the age of just 47. The Colin Higgins Foundation was established in by Higgins following his diagnosis with HIV in 1985 to provide support for gay and transgender youth. Though the subject of a 2022 documentary (Celebrating Laughter: The Life And Films Of Colin Higgins), Colin Higgins deserves way more credit, particularly in his kinda-sorta home country of Australia. He was wonderfully adept with goofy, broad comedy (no mean feat indeed), had a keen sense of social justice, and directed three major Hollywood hits…and that is truly, truly impressive.

Still Working 9 To 5 will have its Australian premiere at The Inner West Film Festival on Sunday April 2 at Palace Cinemas Norton Street. Camille Hardman will be in attendance for a very special Q&A session after the film. For further information and ticket sales, click here.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Paul McGuigan, Rose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.