Some years ago, when this writer worked as a media officer for the National Film and Sound Archive, a proposal was made to add a new category to the Australian Film Awards: the Hall of Fame. This was intended to honour John Heyer, director of the important documentary The Back of Beyond. The proposal was endorsed with gusto by various Archive execs — to do otherwise would be to discredit Heyer’s work — but not by a humble publicist like me. The Australian Film Awards already included one lifetime achievement award (the Raymond Longford Award), and another for special achievement (the Byron Kennedy Award). Awards are supposed to credit exceptional work, not increase in number so that everyone gets one.
For whatever reason, the campaign to introduce yet another Australian film trophy was shelved, and Heyer (who died a few years later) remains one of Australia’s few significant filmmakers who never won anything. When The Back of Beyond was made in 1954, there were no Australian Film Awards. Indeed, there were precious few award-worthy Australian films.
Sadly, in most years, that’s probably still the case.
For an awards show that aspires to reward greatness, the AACTA Awards (as the Australian Film Institute Awards are now called) have often struggled to get noticed. One of the low moments of their 54-year history occurred in 2002, when no television network would broadcast them except Channel Ten. True, on some years they haven’t even been televised, but this time the deal was perhaps even worse: move them from November to December (non-ratings period), late at night, following reruns of ancient James Bond classics. Also, unlike most movie award shows, present the best director and best film awards first so that nobody has to sit through the rest. Rarely has any programming decision so clearly announced: ‘Nobody wants to watch this!’
The nadir, however, was perhaps in 2004, such a slow year for Australian cinema that one film, Somersault, won everything — a total of 13 awards. Publicists and showbiz reporters tried a positive spin — ‘Somersault breaks the record!’ — but nobody was fooled. Well, nobody except a few film journalists. Some people are easy.
This is meant to be Australia’s answer to Oscars night, a showcase of stars and fashions. Over the years, the awards have tried many things to make us love them. The introduction of the Global Achievement Award (later the International Award) allowed them to honour Australians in Hollywood who no longer make enough movies in Australia. Geoffrey Rush and Russell Crowe have taken their turns hosting the event (it’s Russell Crowe this year). The Australian Film Institute even renamed the awards the ‘Lovelies’, after silent movie star Louise Lovely — an appellation that lasted only one ceremony before being quietly dropped. The lady never liked her name (which wasn’t real, oddly enough); 80 years later, many in the industry felt the same way.
Last year, the awards were rebranded, changing their name (from the AFI Awards to the AACTAs), their dates (so that they’re held in January, closer to the Oscars and most other award shows) and their design (so that the rectangular Pyrex trophies were replaced with a lighter, snazzier statuette that could poke someone’s eye out). They even found an excuse to give something to Meryl Streep. (Streep, who had already won an AFI Award back in 1989 for her Lindy Chamberlain impersonation, was very gracious, as if it actually meant something to her. Man, that woman can act!) In fact, the star quality of the event, held at the Sydney Opera House, was impressively high.
The ‘second annual’ AACTA Awards, to be held at Sydney’s Star Event Centre on 28/30 January, faces the usual challenge. For all the glamour, is there enough to celebrate in Australian cinema? At the Toronto Film Festival in September, the beloved Jacki Weaver (promoting US film Silver Linings Playbook) sweetly described the Aussie film scene as a ‘cottage industry’. True enough, it is a small scene, better known as an assembly line of top-class actors, directors and technicians. Popular movies? Not so much.
Nonetheless, this year there are a few reasons to celebrate Australian film. Audiences loved The Sapphires, and critics even more so. It was a buzz at Cannes, and among a handful of films to win a standing ovation from the notoriously tough Toronto festival crowd. Will it win the AACTA for best film? Almost certainly.
Cate Shortland, writer-director of Somersault, now faces greater competition for her latest film, Lore (which is even better than Somersault, but won’t win because, quite simply, it’s less fun than The Sapphires). There’s also Wish You Were Here, The King is Dead, Mental, Dead Europe, Burning Man, Not Suitable for Children… OK, they won’t all win (and some haven’t even been nominated), but it’s a particularly good time to celebrate Australian film.
The truly redundant international awards will return, now awarded to whichever Hollywood actors are willing to show up and add their star power to the night. More important, however, are the television awards, which take up nearly half the categories, suggesting that the AACTAs are more like the Baftas or the Golden Globes than the Oscars. At their best, our recent films have been admirable, but our television productions have been remarkable. The Sapphires did excellent box-office, but its audiences were nothing compared with those of Howzat! or one of Channel Ten’s few bright spots of the year, Underground: The Julian Assange Story.
The AACTA Awards should now stop re-inventing themselves. Their fluctuating relevance is not so much a factor of the awards themselves, but of the industry. When it goes through its stormy moments (which will continue, as in any small industry), the awards will struggle.
In the meantime, they should avoid screening on Channel Ten. If anything can make an industry feel small and insignificant, having its big awards night consigned to the graveyard shift to make way for Goldfinger is surely one of the most effective ways. Oh, and watch where you point those trophies.