Don’s Party (Australia 1976)

Don (John Hargreaves) is nearest to the camera, in the middle ground are Mack, Jody and Cooley and in the background Kath and Mal

Don’s Party is another example of the 1970s ‘New Australian Cinema’ or an ‘AFC’ film as Australian film studies now terms such films, referring to public funding via the Australian Film Commission and similar state funding schemes. The film is an adaptation of David Williamson’s 1971 stage play by the writer himself and it is directed by Bruce Beresford. It’s one of Williamson’s early plays. He went on to write many more and to complete several film scripts for major Australian films. Beresford began in the 1960s making short films in Australia and in the UK before directing two comedies starring Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. After Don’s Party his films became more likely to appeal to specialised audiences and eventually his critical reputation helped him move to the US where Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his performance in Beresford’s Tender Mercies in 1983.

The party, given by Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan) in their home in the North Sydney suburbs is meant to celebrate the victory of the Labour Party in the October 1969 General Election. Labour is ahead in some of the polls and Don hopes to see the end of the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’ in UK terms) government of John Gorton that in coalition with the Country Party has held power since 1949. (Ironically in the five years between the stage play and the film, Labour did get in, but then the Liberals got back in.) In 1969 Labour actually polled the most votes but the Liberals got the most seats. During the 1970s the parties were neck and neck. I think this is important as context and might explain the overall sense of frustration. This is also the period of Australian involvement in Vietnam. Two of the cast of Don’s Party are also in The Odd Angry Shot, the Vietnam film set just a few years earlier.

Although the film begins with Don and Kath voting and TV footage covering the results service, it soon becomes apparent that the election is important context but not directly part of the narrative. Much more important is the set of relationships between the guests at the party and in particular the four male friends at its centre. It is a skilfully written play/film reminiscent in some way of the plays on UK TV in the same period and I thought of Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn in terms of the embarrassment factor inherent in much of the behaviour. The film didn’t get a UK release until 1979 and I didn’t find Monthly Film Bulletin‘s review very helpful. I suspect that audience interest now is likely to be directed at the depiction of ‘useless’ Australian males. The women in the film are represented as much more sensible/serious than the men, though their behaviour is sometimes equally ‘bad’. Is this a satire on Australian masculinity? Williamson and Beresford seem most interested in the men and it is the male actors who, I think, are generally better known. Ray Barrett had a long career in the UK, mainly on TV from the 1950s, before returning to Australia in the mid 1970s. He was the older ‘mentor’ figure for Don at university, but both have ‘failed’ to live up to their dreams. Don is a teacher and an unpublished novelist. John Hargreaves is one of the two actors who later appeared in The Odd Angry Shot and the other is Graham Kennedy who plays Mack, the single man at the party having split up with his wife. Kennedy’s performance poses a problem for non-Australian viewers since although largely unknown  he was a well-known ‘personality presenter’ on Australian TV from 1959 until 1991 and sometimes called the ‘King of Australian TV’. He made two films based on David Williamson scripts – the second was The Club in 1980. In a Senses of Cinema essay, Susan Bye argues that Kennedy was such a strong TV presence that his films set up a debate about the authenticity of the characters he played. She quotes him as refuting the suggestion that he was ‘really’ the the personality he appeared to be on TV. Instead, he argued that he always played a part. That part was seemingly informed by the typed figure of the ‘larrikin’, that peculiarly Australian character of the working-class rebel. In Don’s Party, the type is doubly presented by Kennedy’s character and by the character played by Harold Hopkins, Cooley, the fourth of the central male quartet. Cooley is a womaniser and sexual athlete, a smooth lawyer who at one point refers to his Irish Catholic background. The larrikin moment for Mack is caught in his comic story (with actions) about a duck hunt. He carries his pewter beer tankard on a chain around his neck.

Mack (Graham Kennedy) tries chatting up Kerry (Candy Raymond)

The other two men are a repressed dentist and an accountant (the only man who admits to voting for the Liberals). These two men both leave the party – and leave their wives to be propositioned by Mack and Cooley. It’s not clear to me what Williamson wanted to say about the women. Ironically, the most sympathetic character in the whole narrative is Jody, the accountant’s wife played by the British-born actor Veronica Lang. She happily admits to being a Liberal, but also turns out to be the most sociable and a ‘good sport’. If there is a satire about the sexual mores of the partygoers, it’s mainly expressed through male bravado – countered by the women who meet the challenges (which are often then withdrawn). There is a fair degree of nudity, both male and female and I would argue that the film is quite confused about how it represents gender and sexual mores. What in turn this means for the representation of political ideas and social class is equally unclear. The thumbnail review in Sight and Sound (Summer 1979) suggests that it shows the ‘failure of socialism’. This seems a silly statement since there hasn’t been a socialist party in power. The characters are certainly aware of social class and political issues. Perhaps the saddest symbol of Don’s frustration is that at the end of the film he finds the sapling that he had planted in his garden the night before has been trampled down during the drunken rousing of the night before.

Overall I enjoyed watching Don’s Party. Despite the conventional nature of the drunken squabbles, much of it rings true. It carried me along and I didn’t worry too much about its stage origins.

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