Bruce Beresford

Bruce Beresford

Beresford convinced the Commission that economic success was far more important than cultural prestige during the incipient stage of their venture and secured backing for his first feature, "The Adventures of Barry McKenzie" (1972). Co-written with star Barry Humphries, who had created the character in a comic strip in the British satirical magazine PRIVATE EYE, the film presented a gross caricature of a beer-swilling, sex-crazed Aussie innocent on his first visit to England, accompanied by his very proper Aunt Edna (Humphries in drag). A shot in the arm to the fledgling industry, it pigeonholed Beresford as "that lout who makes those low comedies," and he turned to TV to rehabilitate his image, beginning his love affair with historical drama. He directed two feature-length films, "Poor Fella Me" (1973, which he also scripted), about the destruction of the Aboriginal culture at the hands of the white man, and "The Wreck of the Batavia" (1974), telling the story of a religious fanatic's murderous control over a shipload of castaways on the West Australian coast in 1629. After the broad strokes of the sequel "Barry McKenzie Holds His Own" (1974) and the even more disreputable "Side by Side" (1975), Beresford got his first chance to adapt a successful stage play to the screen. Though five other directors had passed on "Don's Party" (1976), assessing the material as hopelessly stage bound, he recognized the virtue in not opening up David Williamson's play. The grim comedy-drama about a group of chums whose friendly veneer vanishes in the drunken wake that ensues after national election results run counter to expectations was a big box office success, "The Getting of Wisdom" (1977) brought more attention outside Australia, displaying his sure handling of actors and confident recreation of the stuffy world of Victorian Melbourne, but he faltered with "The Money Movers" (1978), a caper film which failed commercially, despite a cast peopled with many popular Australian TV actors. Inspired by Kenneth Ross' play about the turn-of-the-century cause celebre once dubbed Britain's Dreyfus Case, Beresford brought his own meticulous research to "Breaker Morant" (1980), which became the greatest box-office success in the history of the Australian cinema (to that time) and earned the Australian Film Institute's Best Film award and an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (to which the director had contributed). The powerful account of a true incident of sanctioned murder during the Boer War evoked memories of My Lai, not to mention Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (1957), and though the three individuals tried for their atrocities were clearly guilty, the film also made it abundantly clear that they were "Scapegoats of Empire," the title of an account written by George Witton, the only one of the three to escape the firing squad. 1980 also saw him team with Williamson again, adapting his play "The Club" about the power struggles within a major Australian soccer team. Reversing his "hands off" approach applied to "Don's Party," he attempted to expand "The Club," but most critics felt his tampering dissipated the dramatic power of the play. The enormous success of "Breaker Morant" brought Beresford many offers to direct in the United States, and he finally settled on "Tender Mercies" (1982), a subtle, superbly realized drama scripted by Horton Foote, the first of several projects which would immerse him in the culture of the American South. Robert Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar as an alcoholic country singer who finds the inspiration to put his life back together when he meets an attractive young widow and her little boy, and Beresford garnered an Academy Award nomination for his directing. After returning to Australia to helm "The Fringe Dwellers," a study of the racism confronting aborigines, he found much less success with his second US offering, the vapid, large-scale rendering of the life of "King David" (both 1985), though critics noted his attempt to infuse life into the moribund genre of religious spectacle without praising the effort. He fared better with the much smaller-scaled "Crimes of the Heart" (1986), adapted from the play by Beth Henley and featuring fine performances from Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek as three slightly off-center Southern sisters. Following the uninspired action romance "Her Alibi," Beresford was back in top form with the Oscar-winning (Best Picture) adaptation of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Driving Miss Daisy" (both 1989), scripted by the playwright. A sensitive portrait of an aging Southern woman (Jessica Tandy in an Oscar-winning turn) and her gently wise black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman), it raked in a ton of money on its small investment and reinforced the director's reputation for eliciting superb performances in intense, small-scale drama. Amazingly, the Academy failed to recognize Beresford with an Oscar nod, perhaps under the mistaken assumption that the movie directed itself. Refusing to go Hollywood, he next helmed "Mr. Johnson" (1990), an adaptation of a Joyce Carey novel set in 1923 Africa, which drew on his own experience of Africa during the 60s, and followed with the haunting, graphically violent "Black Robe" (1991), a much more realistic depiction of Indian life than "Dances with Wolves" (1990). Set in mid-17th Century Canada and devoid of revisionist apologies, "Black Robe" told the bleak story of the first contact of the Huron Indians with the Jesuit missionaries who would ultimately betray them to their enemies. Beresford attempted to recreate the depth and intimacy of his best work with the "Daisy" producing team of Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck in "Rich in Love" (1993) but didn't quite succeed in weaving another evocative Southern tale, though there were many fine moments and great performances by the likes of Albert Finney and Kathryn Erbe in the leading femme role. He continued his interest in the clash between "native" cultures and the forces of "civilization" that invade them in a more satirical vein with "A Good Man in Africa" (1994), combining sexual intrigue and political corruption, but to mixed reviews. He also helmed that year's well-made, but lackluster thriller "Silent Fall," featuring Richard Dreyfuss as a psychiatrist working with an autistic child who witnessed a murder. Though his next venture, "Last Dance" (1996), suffered by comparison with the similarly-themed "Dead Man Walking" from the year before, it boasted a strong central performance by Sharon Stone in the deglamorized role of convicted murderess and represented the director's best outing in awhile. Hearing a tape recording of a musical choir recreating a concert that took place in a Japanese prison camp for women during World War II gave Beresford the idea for "Paradise Road" (1997), which he wrote as well as directed. This lushly-filmed, true account of a group of European women who formed a choir to cope with their confinement was certainly inspiring and its performances moving but lacked the bite and requisite story arc to make a completely satisfying movie. Beresford then returned to the land of the thriller for "Double Jeopardy" (1999), a movie as full of holes as Swiss cheese, which despite its deficiencies took in more than $65 million in its first three weeks. A patch-work pastiche packaged as a quasi-remake of "The Fugitive" (complete with arguably Tommy Lee Jones' best work since that pic), it was not one of the director's better efforts, but its well-acted hokum (particularly the fierce turn by star Ashley Judd) appeased the bottom line and left Beresford free to flex his artistic muscles helming productions of operas like "The Crucible" (1999, based on the Arthur Miller play) and "Rigoletto" (2000).