Don’t f**k with #JudyDavis: @burgewords #CreatingWaves on an Australian icon

Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is an author and journalist who lives on Ngarabal country in the NSW Northern Tablelands. He has had enough of writing about marriage equality.
Michael Burge


Author, artist and journalist. Views are great from here.
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Michael Burge
Michael writes about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process at burgewords
Judy Davis at the AACTA Awards.

Judy Davis at the 2012 AACTA Awards. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

LOVE or hate Australian actress Judy Davis, chances are you’ve seen one of her acerbic, riveting, onscreen meltdowns.

I recently caught Charles Sturridge’s underrated 1991 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s debut novel Where Angels Fear to Tread on television, and was reminded what a milestone in her career this movie remains.

Already a staple in period dramas by that time, Davis had breathed life into array of heroines on the brink of brave new worlds, and had used a decidedly English voice to do so.

Her Sybilla Melvin in My Brilliant Career quite matter-of-factly asserted to her suitors that she was never going to marry. Her Adela Quested, when pressed whether Doctor Aziz had actually done anything to her within the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India eventually and quite calmly enunciated the truth.

Perhaps it was Sturridge who saw something more in the Australian actress than polite Colonial girls?

If you believe some of the hype on the internet, Judy Davis was responsible for some heinous cinema crimes.

In Where Angels Fear to Tread, Davis brought the boorish Harriet Harriton (one of Forster’s best-drawn religious nuts) to vivid life when she resists the romance of Italy and will not be broken-down by its disarming emotional freedom.

She admonishes the cheering crowd at the local opera house as “babies”; bangs-around the pensione in tears and rage; and instigates the final devastation Forster’s plot delivers to his Italian characters.

1991 became the year the Judy Davis volcano erupted.

In Impromptu, a comic romance in which she shone as the 19th Century French author George Sand (who spent much of her time in male attire), the best scenes are those in which Davis verbally explodes, elucidating what it might have felt like to be a woman in the period without the filmmaker having to resort to all the usual corset-tightening symbolism.

Her George Sand is an interrupter and a vocal acrobat, a shouter intent on getting what she wants.

The shrewish screen potential of this actress was then realised in the hands of Woody Allen, when Davis appeared in Husbands and Wives as the woman who finds true love by losing it, literally.

Famous for never really directing actors, Allen seems to have simply loaded Davis into the film cartridge, and let her pull the trigger.

Judy Davis in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry.

Judy Davis in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry.

This onscreen screaming match peaked with Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, in the iconic scene where Davis takes a gun in a cab to Allen’s apartment, and lets rip.

Through the psycho-babble and the almost blatant humour, Davis brought a genuine pathos to the character, who, as it turns out, has a point.

Judy Davis’ onscreen characterisations might have ‘exploded’ in the wake of Where Angels Fear to Tread, but widespread rumours about her off-screen abrasiveness surfaced a decade before.

If you believe some of the hype on the internet, Judy Davis was responsible for some heinous cinema crimes, such as driving River Phoenix into his untimely death on the set of Dark Blood (Phoenix’s final and only recently completed film), to ending the career of Britain’s legendary director of epic historical dramas, David Lean.

Powerful stuff for a good Catholic girl from Perth, Australia.

The truth has more to do with the media trying to find a story on Davis. At the very dawn of her career she put on a demure show for the press. Determined not to buy-into the hype of her award-winning film debut, she quietly slipped-into a number of key international screen roles, including the younger Golda Meir to Ingrid Bergman’s A Woman Called Golda.

This withdrawn approach made her fair game during David Lean’s 1984 production of A Passage to India, when stories emerged about Davis’ being ‘difficult’ to work with.

Things reportedly started on good terms. During the film’s casting, the antipodean ingenue and the lion of British cinema met before Davis was offered the role.

Apparently their conversation revolved around one of the great conundrums of 20th Century literature – the motivations of the character Adela Quested, Forster’s anti-hero who not only finds the strength to kick-up a British panic, but the courage to undo it with words alone.

This is the central mystery of the entire story – what actually happens when Doctor Aziz leads Miss Quested to the higher Marabar Caves, alone?

Forster was no help to the filmmakers, having long refused to answer readers’ questions about the incident in the cave. Did Aziz follow her? Was there a rape? If so, was it their Indian guide? In the original novel this crucial scene was not written.

But a literary conundrum was not going to be good enough when adapting the work for the screen.

Lean and Davis concurred that Miss Quested, attracted to the vibrant Doctor Aziz, while faced with the reality of her impending, loveless marriage, just “freaks out”.

This early agreement was all well and good, but on location in India relations quickly soured.

According to Gene D. Phillips in his Lean biography Beyond the Epic (2006), Davis levelled the F-word at the director, and she hit a sore point when blaming his decade-long hiatus from filmmaking for his inability to direct. They argued over costuming choices, Davis’ character’s motivations, and endured the shoot in a state of barely concealed loathing for one another.

Later studio work in London was reportedly the exact opposite, so was India to blame?

Judy Davis in A Passage to India.

Judy Davis in A Passage to India.

Not entirely. With other key female contributors to the movie – production executive Verity Lambert, writer Santha Rama Rau, and film editor Eunice Mountjoy – Lean had notable work-related clashes on A Passage to India.

Peggy Ashcroft (who played the role of Mrs Moore) later observed that Lean behaved autocratically, particularly with younger cast members, noting that he “bulldozed Judy”.

This confirms Davis’ account of a level of bullying on the set.

Perhaps the two were always destined to clash, given their age difference and the vastly different styles of their eras?

Lean’s palette was the vast landscape, in which humans were secondary, subject to the kind of symbolism which Davis escaped from in Impromptu.

Instead of symbolism, he got a living, breathing woman to work with, and Davis probably put him into a British panic of his own.

Davis’ job was to bring life to a character who does something reprehensible without actually doing much at all, and with barely a scripted line to assist her.

Faced with inhabiting Miss Quested’s great self-confrontation, Davis possibly needed more support than Lean was capable of giving.

Phillips sums-up his generally even-handed account of the myths surrounding the production of A Passage to India with an unkind (and under-researched, considering he was writing in 2006) parting shot aimed at Davis – “For the record, when word got back to Hollywood that Davis had told off the likes of David Lean on the set more than once, directors were wary of hiring her. So she returned to Australia.”

His last line suggests Davis had to endure some kind of penance by returning to the thriving Australian film industry, where she headed-up High Tide in the role of a prodigal mother, which won her America’s National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actress in 1988.

Hollywood wasn’t as frightened-off by Judy Davis as Lean’s biographer assumed. From 1991 she became first port of call for filmmakers seeking female anti-heroes, from David Cronenberg to The Coen Brothers, and Woody Allen remains a regular collaborator.

‘Old Hollywood’ came knocking in the form of Lorna Luft, daughter of no less than Judy Garland (another great film-set clasher from way back), when casting for Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. The 2001 role eclipsed all others Davis had tackled before.

Judy Davis earns hero status from this writer because she remains a very Australian actor who slipped under the radar into the international film industry, and she’s willing to say “don’t f**k with me” where her work is concerned. Haven’t we all wanted to do that.

Judy Davis is currently filming a new Australian production – The Dressmaker – in Melbourne. This article first appeared on Michael’s blog.

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  1. <

    Judy Davis has worked with the best..

    A fine Australian product.

  2. Yep, she’s great and I would love it if Fred Schepisi would turn my book, She is Heavy – She’s my Mother, into a film and cast Davis as my mother. Oooh yes, she’d nail it.

  3. whatismore says:

    Enjoyable article -thanks. Judy Davis did it for me in Winter of Our Dreams

  4. MIL’s wonderful hair dresser.. back in the day, Double Bay, always amused at her walking her (cattle?) dog… on a leash made of old rope… ((-:
    Great review… thank you.