Discover more from Quibblers & Scribblers
Blanchett, Kidman, Robbie: Three Aspects of the Australian Auntie Mame
The scion of fierce Melburnian women tries to express how Australian mothers are different from the rest, and finds a truth about himself in the process.
Welcome to the first Q&S Scribble, the less-serious, more-anecdotal counterpoint to the weekly Quibble, intended to celebrate the arts, entertainment, and storytelling in all its forms.
All good things come in threes, as they say: This is the second of three posts that have ‘three’ in the title, for no reason that I can of, but I’ll take all the good I can get.
I’m following Substack’s advice to the letter, which means I’m spending much less time posting exhaustively on Facebook, and finding my way on Twitter instead. I’m also meant to push paid subscriptions whenever I can, so please consider supporting my attempt to get a broader, different view out there by upgrading your free subscription. Thanks!
NEVER CALL HER “GRANDMA”
For much of my adult life, I’ve explained that I come from “a long line of Australian Auntie Mames”: strong, forthright, bright, effortlessly glamorous women who set their own course through life, with little regard for what others think. They’ve no need for feminism; it’s over-egging the pudding.
Much of their way of being has to do with Scottish culture. As an observer noted about our kind in the Americas in the 18th century, women worked alongside men, and were treated equally in all ways. I can’t imagine a Highland woman in a corset sitting in a parlor obsessing over rank and marriage with Jane Austen. The hardships of Australia in its earliest days added an extra regal steeliness to my matrilineal side, to a degree that I’ve never encountered in another culture, not even in Texas.
I’ve long struggled to express what it’s like as an American to have “an Aussie mum.” It’s hard to choose which anecdotes out of a multitude best illustrate an archetype that Anglo-Celtic Australians themselves are unaware of — it’s simply who they are as individuals among similar women. Movies are always the most effective way for a filmmaker to illustrate his point, however impressionistically. Let me try that way.
I spent the summer of 1988 at my mother’s summer cottage Upstate New York, in the hills overlooking the Hudson Valley, impatiently awaiting my marching orders to return to India for the start of my first feature film as screenwriter. I’d only finished the first draft two months before; I was too inexperienced to realize that a film of that size going into production within six months of it being written was unheard of, unless it was the sequel to a sleeper hit like Crocodile Dundee was in the summer of ‘86, the movie that introduced Australia to the American general public, who in that era were even more sheltered from, and incurious about, the rest of the world than they are now.
Crocodile Dundee II was rolling out across the nation that summer. Despite having been rushed into production to take advantage of the original’s monster success, it was that rare thing that all studios hoped for: a sequel that was better than the original. Terrible impressions of Paul Hogan’s broad accent abounded; worse, Americans now pictured Australians as being redneck crocodile hunters. The first Outback restaurant was launched that year.
Iris, a woman who put the ‘grand’ back in ‘grandmother’ like few others, was staying with me in the house, sitting out the Antipodean winter on her way back to Melbourne after living in England for longer than she cared to. Following her second divorce in the mid-70s, Iris first moved to Rome to be near Mum, then to England after we returned to New York in ‘79, occupying the apartment next door to my late grandfather Archie’s second wife, Freddie. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to have Archie’s widow and haughty ex-wife, an Australian version of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, to effectively live as roommates is anyone’s guess. The “forbidden to forbid” 70s and 80s were quirky that way.
The more England-influenced Melburnians like Iris belonged to a generation who spoke in a “cultivated” Received Pronunciation-derived accent, the least-common of the three main types of Australian accent, the other two being general/standard and broad. Mum’s generation, which came of age in the late 50s and 60s, were the first of her class to say “bugger the pommy bullshit,” and adopt the more-patriotic Standard accent.
Iris met Archie, a professional gambler and general playboy, when she was a “mannequin” model walking the floors of George’s Department Store in the latest couture from Paris. A demimonde flapper by night, her day job required her to perform the perfect Melburnian socialite, behavioral conditioning that never left her. Her grandkids were forbidden to call her “grandma”; she resented growing old, never a kind experience for uncommonly good-looking people. Two well-done facelifts were a testament to her struggle with her self-image in old age.
An incident that highlights another struggle that Australians Iris’ ilk had when traveling abroad occurred when she and I were on our weekly grocery run for essentials at the local supermarket. Iris insisted on paying at checkout, which was just as well because I barely had cigarette money. She took out American Express Travelers Cheques, a form of currency the lone cashier had never seen before; they were common in the years before credit cards became ubiquitous. That required a trip to the manager’s office for assistance on how to handle them. By the time the cashier had figured it out, the checkout line was half a dozen impatient customers deep, mostly rustic townies straight out of Deliverance.
“Can I see your ID, please?”
“What?” Iris asked me.
“She’d like to see your passport,” I said. After rummaging in her handbag, Iris retrieved the little book emblazoned with an emu and a kangaroo. Expecting a driver’s license, the cashier’s alarmed expression expressed how uncomfortable she was even toughing such an august document — international travel wasn’t something the vast majority of Americans so much as considered at the time.
“Oh!” she said. “Australia!”
Murmurs of approval and understanding shot through the checkout line and dissipated irritation. “Crocodile Dundee!” someone exclaimed.
Iris whipped around and barked, “I beg your pardon!”
That sparked an awkward few seconds while I mollified her, “They don’t understand the difference.” I resisted explaining to the checkout line that Paul Hogan was an “Occa Aussie” from the Outback, but there was no way of saying “He’s the equivalent of a total redneck hick,” without offending them; the Catskills are an extension of the Appalachians, after all, and it was obvious that we lived in one of the three Parks, Gilded Age summer colonies that were fashionable before bathing suits, tanning, and sea air pulled New Yorkers out to the Hamptons.
I’m my mother’s Australian child, the one she raised on regular morsels of Australian arts and culture, reading the same children’s books she read as a child: Cuddlepot and Snugglepie, The Magic Pudding, and so forth. I’m also the only one of my siblings with dual citizenship; she was still Australian at the time of my birth, after which she became a naturalized American.
I also lived in Melbourne for a year just after I turned twenty. Mum bought me a one-way ticket and made me work my way back. I thought it would be a cinch; I didn’t realize that it was a common ruse employed by the British upper classes to make men of their sons, usually by sending them Down Under to shear sheep. I was spared that, despite the fact that Iris’ side of the family owned and operated a sizable sheep station in Victoria, as they do to this day. I ended up waiting tables in a culture that didn’t tip — getting home again was no cinch.
All of which is to say that I view all things Australian from a somewhat native point of view.
I don’t recall exactly which YouTube clip I watched that introduced me to Margot Robbie’s accent. I almost fell under my desk laughing in surprise at how delightfully broad her accent was — true Crocodile Dundee right there, and then some.
“I’ll say,” Iris’ ghost sniffs.
I vaguely knew that Robbie was Australian, but I never imagined that an otherworldly beauty with such delicate features was actually a rough-and-tumble cowgirl. I’d assumed she was either a Melburnian or a Sydneysider, like Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman, respectively. From that moment on, I haven’t been able to watch Robbie in anything without smiling in recollection at her real accent; the thoroughness and believability with which she covers it to play Americans is admirable, and a testament to what a fine performer she is.
Her choice of mainly lower-class, often-criminal roles indicates that she’s refreshingly self-aware and unashamed of her Occa-ness: Robbie pushed us into changing long-entrenched biases, to be compassionate of Tonya Harding’s struggles; her Harley Quinn has always been a delight, even if movies the character appeared in weren’t; however miscast she was in Babylon, her Nellie Leroy taken by itself is the definition of a bravura performance — the problem is she looked nothing like a silent-movie star.
Neither Blanchett nor Kidman, as cosmopolitan Australians, would take those roles. As with Robbie, I can’t watch anything they’re in without being mindful that they’re covering their true Australian accents, however softened those accents might be. But all filmmakers watch movies somewhat aware of how they were made, rarely as immersed as most viewers are. Our opinions shouldn’t matter.
To Australians there are considerable differences between Melbourne and Sydney that are almost impossible to parse for non-Australians. It’s almost exactly like non-Californians not seeing much of a difference between Angeleños and San Franciscans. Thems are fighting words, though, especially in San Francisco.
There’s an old saying that explains the distinct cultures of Australian cities:
In Perth they ask, “Where are you from?”
In Adelaide they ask, “What church do you go to?”
In Sydney they ask, “What work do you do?”
In Melbourne they ask, “Where did you go to school?
In Brisbane they ask, “What’ll you have?”
Robbie was born on a farm near Dalby, a coal mining town inland from Brisbane, Queensland, raised in an idyllic valley slightly inland from Gold Coast — not exactly Crocodile Dundee’s stomping grounds, but let’s not quibble: while Dalby’s not strictly speaking the Outback, which means the arid core of the continent, it’s commonly considered as such. If you’re from there and don’t speak with a broad accent, then you’d be considered pretentious, and there’s nothing worse in Australia; it’s a far more socially egalitarian culture than America’s. A little click surfing revealed that Robbie needed to have elocution coaching to soften her accent for a role on the long-running soap Neighbors, in which the middle-class suburban characters speak with standard Australian accents.
Here’s how to understand the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney: Stand back and look at Blanchett and Kidman side by side, the type of person they are, the roles they choose. Melburnian Blanchett has had no facework done that I can see; she’s poised, patrician, intellectual, mellifluously voiced in the same accent that Iris had: a wisp of Australian floating over Received Pronunciation. Her most recent role was the eponymous lead in Tár, as an aloof, supremely sophisticated American conductor regularly profiled in The New Yorker.
Sydneysider Kidman is, well… it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the plasticity of her face enough to look past it and focus on her performance. She’s so Hollywood that she was married to Tom Cruise; when I watch her, I’m as mindful of her movie star-ness as I am about her fake American accent. Her most recent role, as the slapstick comedian Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, was the polar opposite of the pretentious international “art monster” that Blanchett’s Tár is. Kidman was okay as Ball, a summer stock performance; Javier Bardem carried her most of the way — his Desi Arnaz was utterly convincing.
For a long time after she broke out of Australia and became one of the few bona fide movie stars in the world, Kidman spoke with more of a Standard Australian pronunciation. In these recent more-plastic, Academy of Motion Pictures years she has mufflered her enunciation to sound more like Blanchett’s, with slight American inflections that bring it in line with my mother’s accent.
Not that Kidman hasn’t done her share of art house films like Tár; in fact, they’re her strongest performances. But Blanchett does them consistently, carefully tending her legacy with more caution than Meryl Streep does. In keeping with the Millennial spirit of authenticity, Robbie takes roles that are more in line with who she is, and it works, very effectively.
Babylon was such a mess, and I loved it. I could see what Damien Chazelle was trying to do; I don’t know that any true filmmaker can fault him for the sheer scope, ambition, and depth of reverence for this maddening, overly prestigious craft of ours. But I don’t understand what was going through his mind when he cast Robbie as the female lead, Nellie Leroy. I have to assume she talked him into it; I’ve heard she’s pretty good at that, over many drinks at some posh billabong on Sunset Boulevard.
Indeed, local legend has it that you will leave Robbie so smitten that you’re convinced only she can play a role that you had someone else in mind for when you ordered the first round. You now envision the upcoming months in the trenches making the film the most fun you’ll ever have on set, even if you know from experience that is merely a sweet delusion that gets you back in that battlefield time and again, like a mother of sixteen kids, all born ten months apart, who’s so addicted to pregnancy that she forgets the torture of the last month of gestation and the life-threatening trauma of childbirth every single time.
Let’s keep the lineup of Robbie, Blanchett, and Kidman standing there while I introduce a couple more Australian actresses who aren’t quite their level of movie star, but are nonetheless representative of my undefinable point about Australian women: Melburnian Elizabeth Debicki and Sydneysider Toni Collette. Can you feel the general fearless fierceness in all of them, how distinct they are from their North American and British counterparts in English-speaking filmed content?
Now pair Debicki with Blanchett on one side, and Kidman with Collette on the other. Can you sense the difference between Melbourne and Sydney?
Now here comes Robbie — all on her own, just being her genuine, original self — doing a somersault over the other women, balancing a pint of lager without spilling a drop, beaming like Harley Quinn and yelling, “CROCODILE DUNDEEEEEEE!”
I’ve always assumed that my Australian family’s long line of Auntie Mames ended with Mum — my sister is far too much the sensible Yankee sportswoman to inherit the mantle. But a couple of weeks ago I realized that I’m the one who wears it; if you showed the Rosalind Russell version of the film to my nieces, they would agree without hesitation: “Oh, yeah. He’s definitely our Uncle Mame.”
Whaddaya reckon, Iris, old girl?
“Who are you calling old, you cheeky little bugger?”
Oh! Here it is again: