Wednesday, 25 May 2011


Whenever film critics seemed to 'discover' Australian cinema, Bill Hunter always seemed to be right there in the middle of the films they were discovering. He was, in some ways, the Australian everyman; the guy who could play the everyday Aussie and bring out all his virtues and some of his weaknesses too, and do it convincingly. He's also, to me, the kind of guy who, were he not on the wrong side of the world, would have made a great Scandinavian detective. The Aussie cinema boom that received the most attention was the early and mid 1990s, with the success of films like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel's Wedding, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in all of which Hunter played a major part. In fact, his performance in Priscilla, as Bob, does to Guy Pearce, Terrence Stamp, and Hugo Weaving exactly what Jack Nicholson did to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

But an earlier explosion in Aussie cinema began in the mid-70s, and although Hunter's success in Peter Weir's Gallipoli was widely noted, his best work, to me, was two movies he made with Philip Noyce: Heatwave (1982) with Judy Davis and Chris Haywood, which to me is a seriously underrated thriller, and one of my favourite 'small' movies of all-time, Newsfront (1978).

Hunter gives a standout performance as a newsreel cameraman who refuses to bend with the times and sell out to television. Noyce does a brilliant job of mixing in years of post-war Aussie history and the conflict between Hunter (as Len Maguire) and Gerard Kennedy as his more adaptable brother. Haywood is there too, as his assistant. It's about changing times in Australia, and in the news industry, and it ends with Hunter and his newsfilm camera being the only person covering the infamous USSR vs Hungary water-polo match at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a match which took place after the Russians had put down the Hungarian uprising. But what it's really about is staying true to old-fashioned ideals, to a sense of Australian mateyness which seemed to be fast disappearing, if it had really existed when it mattered, which may have been the point of Gallipoli too.

Part of the reason I was drawn to the film was that I was working at the time for UPITN, a television newsfilm agency, which had evolved from Fox Movietone news (in fact, just two weeks ago, Reece Schoenfeld, who had started with Movietone, headed UPITN, and left to found CNN for Ted Turner, died, and I couldn't get British papers interested--but he personified the same news ethos that Hunter does in Newsfront) and we covered the world on 16mm film, which was shipped to London, edited, scripted, and then shipped (and later satellited) around the world. I was doing the scripting and the sending, and I could empathise with Hunter's predicament, trying to hang onto news values in a faster-moving world that wants more entertainment. Sound familiar today? It's a fine film, and I recommend it without reservations.

Looking through his credits I see a couple of television mini-series that interest me, a 2000 remake of On The Beach, in which Hunter plays the PM, and 1995's Blue Murder, an Aussie police thriller. I'll look forward to catching up with Bill Hunter.

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