City Homicide: articles


Actors face drama of AFI curse

IN 1988, Nadine Garner was one of our most exciting young actors, fresh from popular television roles in The Henderson Kids and House Rules, as well as movies such as Bushfire Moon and Mullaway.

Though she was appearing in The Cherry Orchard with the Melbourne Theatre Company, film was her greatest love.

"I love everything about them, the whole process of making them," she said then. Just as well, as the 17-year-old seemed destined for stardom, described as "the new Hayley Mills" and "the face of the 80s".

Then she won an Australian Film Institute award for Mullaway. Her career went downhill from there, with a few guest appearances in TV dramas and regular roles in short-lived series.

She would take six years to make another movie, having turned down the role of Gabe in Romper Stomper (1992), which instead turned Jacqueline McKenzie into the Next Big Thing.

Though Garner is now a regular in the popular City Homicide, she never became the star she seemed destined to become.

She later provided a theory for this that has become a small part of Australia's cinematic folklore: "the curse of the AFIs".

This curse seems particularly to strike in the category of best lead actress. Michelle Fawdon, Lisa Harrow and Maria Theodorakis did not go on to become household names.

After McKenzie won for Angel Baby (1997), she went on to make a few underwhelming films before moving to Hollywood to make the horror film Deep Blue Sea (where she was eaten by a shark).

Since then, her presence in movies has been all too rare.

Even Meryl Streep's stellar career temporarily came down to earth after she won for Evil Angels (1989), after a decade as America's most acclaimed actress.

Not eerie enough? OK, try this: in 1991, Sheila Florance won for A Woman's Tale. Nine days later, she was dead.

Admittedly, she was 75 and suffering from cancer.

Meanwhile, most of Australia's most successful film actresses have never won an AFI award (Miranda Otto, Radha Mitchell, Rose Byrne) or won only in other categories (Nicole Kidman, Rachel Griffiths, Naomi Watts).

Of course, winning an AFI award isn't always bad luck. Just ask Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe, among many others.

What can be said without appeal to the paranormal is that our most respected film and television awards have been a consistently bad predictor of commercial success for films and career success for actors.

Frances O'Connor, who has a shot at this year's best lead actress award for Blessed, is another good example. She lost — or perhaps escaped — in 1997 after she had, in the space of a year, starred in Kiss or Kill and given an outstanding supporting performance in Thank God He Met Lizzie. She was so good in the latter film that she was nominated for best actress, while the actual leading lady was demoted to the supporting actress category. The result was that O'Connor competed against herself for best actress, which split her vote and almost certainly prevented her from an easy win.

Upstaging the female lead is even more impressive when you consider that this was Cate Blanchett, who made do with the supporting actress award. O'Connor left empty-handed, but three years later she was working in Hollywood, with annual earnings of $7.5 million.

Pamela Rabe, who was named best actress over her, can only dream of such fortune.

Those who spoil the curse theory are Blanchett (who finally won in 2005), Judy Davis (who has won the award four times), Toni Collette, Abbie Cornish, and others whose careers blossomed after an AFI-winning performance.

The reality may be that, for all the cachet and low-budget glamour, the awards just don't make much of a difference.

"AFI award winner" doesn't have the same buzz as "Oscar winner". If you can name the film that won last year's main prize, you're doing better than many local film buffs (it was The Black Balloon).

It's hard for awards to get respect when they disagree with just about everyone else.

Davis didn't win for My Brilliant Career (1979), competing against Australian actresses, but went on to win two British BAFTA awards for the film, beating Shirley MacLaine and Streep. Young Anna Paquin wasn't even nominated for The Piano (1993) but won an Oscar. When Shirley Barrett's Love Serenade (1996) wasn't nominated for best film by the AFI but won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes festival, some industry figures called for an inquiry.

It is 50 years since the Australian Film Institute presented its first awards ceremony. Australia's film scene in 1959 was not exactly thriving. The first winner of the Golden Reel (for the best film in the open category) was The Forerunner, a cinema advertisement for Shell.

But even as Australian cinema has flourished, some of the best films have left empty-handed.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (later ranked as the greatest Australian film of the 20th century) was ignored in 1976, as The Devil's Playground won the main awards.

Crocodile Dundee (1986), our most successful film at the box office, was withdrawn because Paul Hogan was upset with the comments of some AFI members. (The judges still insisted on giving it a special award, though Hogan didn't show up to accept it.)

Babe (1995) was withdrawn by its producer, George Miller, ostensibly to give smaller films a chance.

Yet for all this, when award winners are announced this Saturday, the Australian film world will be holding its breath. The AFIs are still considered the greatest local honour for Australian films, if only because they are mostly peer-voted.

While other awards are chosen by critics (the Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards), the public (the IF Awards) or distributors (the Australian Movie Convention awards), the AFI judging panels have included many of the brightest sparks of the Australian screen, including Garner.

Whether she was trying to honour her most deserving colleagues or pass down the curse to the ones she didn't like, we can only guess.

The AFI Awards will be televised on the Nine Network on Saturday from 9.30pm.

By Mark Juddery
December 09, 2009
The Australian