Something In The Air: articles

In the presence of Kateness

Before Nicole and Cate, there was Kate. With Judy Davis, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver and Wendy Hughes, Kate Fitzpatrick was one of Australia’s best-known actors of the 1970s and 1980s. Film, theatre, television she slipped from one role to the next, fell in and out of love with some high-profile partners, lived overseas, starred in a Hollywood movie and, 10 years ago, gave birth to her son, Joseph. And now she is living in a quiet bayside Melbourne suburb, where the neighbors know her as Joe’s mum, Kate, and not the glamor queen from the Harbor City.

Aged 53 and a regular in the ABC’s respected weekly drama Something in the Air, Kate Fitzpatrick still has great presence. In the days of Morse, Hughes et al a time when Hollywood had no interest in Australian actors Fitzpatrick had a worldly poise. Her clipped tones the result of an Adelaide childhood and a convent education suggested an international accent. She wore lots of make-up and had thick, blonde hair. She was witty, extremely articulate and, in a country deprived of celebrities, she was the nearest thing we had to a studio star.

Now, Fitzpatrick is older, wiser and, because of a recent failed court action in which she tried to sue a former lover over a property claim, she is poorer. But you sense, also, Kate Fitzpatrick has never been more content. She shares her bayside rental with her son, her mother, Dawn, and Stella, the pug. They have a garden, which Kate has kept in peak condition despite the hot summer. Their bookcases groan under the weight of hardback books that reflect her eclectic interests Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, The Andy Warhol Diaries, A Life of Collette, Macoboy’s Roses, and cricket umpire Dickie Bird’s autobiography. It is the perfect picture of life in the ‘burbs.

And here, serving lunch at her kitchen table and waving a butter knife around, is Kate Fitzpatrick, telling the story of the time she was in Italy and a friend asked if she would like to visit the set of Godfather III. At one point of the tour, she leaned against a chair which had “Al Pacino” written on the back, and preparing for a scene, not far from where she stood, was the Ocar winner himself.

Did you introduce yourself? “No,” says Fitzpatrick, hiding her head, “I was about eight months pregnant and I didn’t want to be introduced as this fat actress from Australia. I was too embarrassed.”

Early newspaper cuttings of Kate Fitzpatrick’s career are enough to make the feminist’s blood boil. Here is a woman who a psychiatrist once described to her late father as having an IQ in the Mensa league, and yet she was consistently defined by her beauty. “Blonde hair exploding round her face,” said The Herald in 1980, on the eve of Fitzpatrick’s Melbourne debut in David Williamson’s (then new) play, Celluloid Heroes. “To look at, this maiden would bowl most men over,” wrote The Sun in November 1983, when Fitzpatrick did a commentary stint with Channel 9’s Test cricket team. (She is a fanatical cricket follower.) “The blonde shapely Kate”, “the attractive Kate” they are recurring phrases in her file, although the “buxom blonde” pigeon-holing doesn’t always work in an actress’s favor. Would her repertoire of roles have been more diverse if, say, Kate had no chest, dark hair and a gamin shape?

“She has looks and she flaunted it, and it told against her, but she also benefited from it,” playwright Louis Nowra told The Australian a few years ago. “I think we kind of boxed Kate and categorised her and, in a funny kind of way, she categorised herself.”

Says Fitzpatrick, “Rex (Cramphorn) and Jim (Sharman) were the only two directors who cast me against type, and it was in these plays that I apparently did my best work. There were many roles I would be automatically passed over, and in television particularly I never had a chance to play an ordinary person. I was always being cast as a rich person, or a socialite, or a glamorous sort.”

And if she had played one of those “ordinary” roles like, say, the characters Paul Cox created for Wendy Hughes? “It would have transformed my career, I think. If I’d played those sort of characters, it would have taken me into other areas, rather than so often being so easily dismissed.”

Middle age offers Kate Fitzpatrick new acting possibilities, although the “no good parts for women over 40” is a favorite theme of hers, and in the past she has been critical of the Australian television industry for not embracing older female characters in the way the British industry has. During a Radio National interview with Geraldine Doogue last year, Kate Fitzpatrick said local producers were reluctant to craft a series around a gritty, flawed DCI like Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect. “I’ve got a terrific part at the minute, thanks to Mr (Roger) Simpson and (Roger) Le Mesurier (producers of Something In the Air), but it’s rare,” she told Doogue. “If she (Helen Mirren) was living in this country, she’d be tearing her hair out. I think Jane Tennyson would not be available to her.”

Something In The Air’s Julia Rutherford is a dream role for a 50-something actor. Wife of the local Senate member, Doug Rutherford, Julia sees herself as a leader in her country community. When the show started last year, Julia seemed to be a woman out of step with the changes in Emu Springs; her husband’s cross-dressing fetish, his desire to leave his party and stand as an independent, then her unexpected pregnancy and birth of a daughter presented Julia with new challenges. Before our eyes, she softened and became more understanding, and is now one of the series’ most popular characters.

This year, the show moved from a mid-week half-hour timeslot to Saturday nights, 7.30-8.30pm. Ratings have been solid in the mid teens although Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the football season may have an impact on the series’ growing audience.

“It deserves to do well,” she says. “It is great family viewing and the family is the audience it’s been pitched at.

“At its best, it is a very, very, very good show and can be very moving. Sometimes it can be quite confronting, it is so realistic. There is a lot of sincerity in the acting. All the cast are committed to it.”

At one point in the interview, Kate says she has no milk for coffee and will ride up to the shops to get some. The offer to drive her is knocked back “no, no. It’ll only take me a minute. You stay here and talk to Mum”, and she’s on her bike to the milkbar.

Like her daughter’s, Dawn Fitzpatrick’s is a fascinating story. An artist who combined her work with marriage to a geologist who spent a lot of time away on projects in central Australia, the couple had five children. Her husband died four years ago, and when Kate’s ABC commitments brought her to Melbourne, Dawn came, too.

We talk about her work. Dawn is modest, then points to a large framed flower painting behind me. “Kate could have been an artist. She did that when she was 14,” and I am staggered, because it is so clever.

“Yes, I did want to be an artist,” says Fitzpatrick on her return from the shop. “I was actually quite smart, and that quite clearly disappointed my father he always felt I did nothing with my brains at all. And then I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I grew this incredibly large chest overnight and that was the end of that.

“As children, we’d always drawn.” Her mother interrupts. “If I wanted to get any of my own painting done, I had to set the children up at the kitchen table with me.”

Kate continues: “See this drawing of Joe’s?” She points to a picture on the fridge, drawn by her 10-year-old son, Joe. “Well, when we were growing up, we weren’t allowed to have anything up on the fridge because Mum would rip it up or rub it out and say it wasn’t any good. And that’s how she taught us to draw.”

When she was 14, Kate Fitzpatrick won a trip to Japan. During her stay, she was invited by the Kyoto Art School to train with the other students. She declined. “In those days, I thought it meant I wouldn’t see mum or dad for three years or it might even have been a five-year course. How silly was that? I mean, I was from Adelaide and had no idea that you might be able to fly back and forth for the holidays.”

After she failed her entrance exam for an Adelaide art school (“they said I had an incorrect attitude”), Kate Fitzpatrick was encouraged to try out for NIDA. She auditioned, was accepted, and in the mid-1960s made her way to Sydney.

From the time she graduated, then started picking up roles in Sydney theatre productions, Kate Fitzpatrick left an impression on those who saw her.

“Miss Fitzpatrick, from the original production of The Legend of King O’Malley, has had her fair share of applause from local theatre,” said The National Times in 1973, “but lately she has moved on to new heights of performance.”

Her greatest role, she says, is the role of mother. A bright 10-year-old who has inherited his mother’s big eyes and his father’s continental looks, Joe is living the life of a typical suburban kid who rides to school, plays sport on weekends and struggles with his times’ tables. “It has certainly transformed me,” she says. “Love and commitment are two things I have found very difficult to handle in my life and now I do love unconditionally and I am deeply committed. And it’s wonderful.”

Fitzpatrick was living in London when she discovered she was 19 weeks pregnant. She had just recovered from major surgery following a burst appendix, and didn’t think it unusual that she was gaining weight, because she had lost so much. “I didn’t have sore tits, and I never threw up. It never occurred to me that I might be pregnant.”

Joseph’s father, who had children from previous relationships, was the first one to suggest that maybe Kate was pregnant. A doctor confirmed his suspicion.

A few weeks before the baby was due, she returned to Australia, partly because she had broken up with Joseph’s father, a French architect, and partly because she wanted to give birth in her home country.

Family support and a network of close friends supported Fitzpatrick through the early years of single parenthood. And then, in 1996, came the court case that paraded her friendships, lifestyle and love affairs and even at one point questioned her acting talent in front of Sydney society. The move to Melbourne has provided much-needed distance.

“I love Melbourne, I really do,” she says. “And Joe is very happy here. He was happy in Sydney, too he’s very good at adapting but he has actually decided he wants to stay in Melbourne and one day go to Melbourne High School.

“It just seems like a better, quieter, slightly deeper life here the ties that bind us are a bit stronger.”

Something In The Air is on the ABC, Saturdays, at 7.30pm.

By Corrie Perkin
April 22, 2001
The Age