Her Brilliant Career

The Mill Valley Film Festival

Australian director Gillian Armstrong was making films with independent, tough-minded female leads before the "scarcity of women directors" became a subject for festival seminars. In the mid-'70s, Armstrong was a select member of the inaugural class at the National Film and Television School in Sydney, whose graduates now include Jane Campion, Phillip Noyce, and Chris Noonan. Armstrong's first film, My Brilliant Career(1979), launched her career as well as that of its then-unknown star, Judy Davis, and was an international success.

"In Australia, I was the first woman to direct a feature in 50 years," says Armstrong. "There was extraordinary publicity about it and everyone was watching, waiting for me to fail." Though My Brilliant Career was considered radical at the time because its unconventional female protagonist refused to marry in the last reel, the film opened doors for Armstrong in Hollywood and paved the way for other female Australian directors, who paradoxically have more opportunities than their American counterparts.

"Because our industry was culturally- and arts-based rather than studio-based, it tends to be more open and less conservative," explains Armstrong. "So there was no problem about women coming in. If they had a good project and got their deal together, no one thought twice about it."

Armstrong's films High Tide (also with Judy Davis), Mrs. Soffel, Little Women, and Oscar and Lucinda challenge traditional gender roles, explore familial conflict, assert women's essential need for autonomy, and have at their centers complex women characters. And she allows that the American film industry's fixation on boys and their toys has contributed to the collapse of funding for her last couple of projects, which fell into the category of human dramas. "I'm in the Hollywood, midrange-budget, women's-films squeeze, " she says. She hopes to start shooting a script by Ron Nyswaner (Mrs. Soffel, Philadelphia) early next year; currently, she directs commercials and documentaries Down Under and shuttles back and forth between Sydney and Los Angeles.

Armstrong bristles at attempts to marginalize her as a trailblazer for women in film. "I feel that after 20 years that I should be finally talked about as a filmmaker, not as a 'woman' filmmaker," she says. "My first film happened to be about women's independence, but I am interested in many subjects. I don't want to be seen to be only focused on women."

The Gillian Armstrong Tribute will be held Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 9:30 p.m. at the Acqua Hotel, 555 Redwood Highway (off 101), Mill Valley. Call 383-5346 for more information.

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