Friday, June 21

The Directors: Peter Weir

It was in the late seventies that I bumped up against the Aussie film industry.  I had been and remain pretty snooty about my American films but there was room for more.  Hadn't I already seriously embraced British films well before that time and some French films too?  What I had known about Aussies focused mainly on Rod Taylor, who had become pretty identified with America, or Peter Finch, who I actually thought was British. 

I have Mel Gibson to thank for my introduction to Peter Weir.  In the beginning, I was pretty whacked on Gibson, especially in Tim but also in Mad Max (neither a Weir production).  And then Gibson went to work for Weir in 1980 in Gallipoli and my admiration for the director was born.  Throughout the entire decade this man was the brainpower behind five films that really struck my fancy.  I have paid attention to his films ever since and although he has continued to produce good work, nothing ever impressed me quite as much as those five from the 80s.

Weir, only a couple of months older than I am, got interested in the arts while attending the University of Sydney.  After graduation he hired on at a local television station and became a production assistant on a popular comedy show and soon made two experimental short films.  He then went to work for a film studio where he made documentaries. 

Film directing was his goal and his first real success came with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) which dealt with the mysterious disappearance of students from a girls' school.  It is considered certainly one of the films that helped bring worldwide attention to the burgeoning Australia film community.  American actor Richard Chamberlain was the star of Weir's next project, The Last Wave (1977) about the relationship between Aboriginals and Europeans. 

He really became Australia's renaissance man with 1981's Gallipoli.  Gibson and Mark Lee are two Aussie sprinters who are sent to fight the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey.  Weir came into his own as a master storyteller (writer and director) and giving the film an authentic feel for the period and wringing the emotions from an audience.  International fame was all his.

The following year he worked with Gibson again, this time in the exciting, highly-charged romance-drama The Year of Living Dangerously.  It concerned an idealistic Aussie reporter's risky time in politically-sensitive Indonesia during Sukarno's rule.  It was dark and glamorous with Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt along for the ever-present danger.  Hunt, by the way, would win a supporting Oscar playing a man.

His next two films, both starring Harrison Ford, are my two favorite Weir films and his first foray into American films.  Weir's films often have main characters who find themselves in situations and surroundings in which they feel alien and this certainly was a plot device in 1985s superb Witness.  It concerned a young Amish boy, expertly played by young Lucas Haas, who sees a grisly murder in Manhattan and when he returns home, he is accompanied by Ford as a NYC cop out to protect the boy and his family from thugs who are in pursuit.  I would call it a perfect film.  Weir would receive his first of four Oscar nominations for directing.

Weir used Ford in ways that no one really had before.  Away from the daring-do of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there was a depth to his acting that had previously been untapped.  In 1986s The Mosquito Coast, Ford is fed up with urban society and takes his family to some desolate Central American jungle in an effort to jump-start modernization with his inventions.  His family, locals and nature have something to say that the near-genius Ford hadn't counted on.  The actor claims it was his favorite of all his films and I can see why.  It didn't hurt that Helen Mirren played his wife and River Phoenix one of his sons.  It was not perfect but it was quite wonderful.

After breathing life into Ford's career, Weir did the same for comedian Robin Williams in 1989s Dead Poet's Society, a blockbuster of a hit about conformity, rebellion, poetry and male bonding at a New England prep school in the 1950s.  Williams was dynamite as the professor and audiences were introduced to such notable young actors as Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles.  The film would receive four Oscar nominations, one of which was for Weir's rich direction.

In the nineties, Weir brought us his first comedy, Green Card, starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie McDowall.  I don't particularly care for either of them so I passed and while it was popular with those wired for romantic comedies, it was a lesser success.  In 1993 he rounded up Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini and Oscar-nominated Rosie Perez for Fearless, about a man who thinks he's invincible after surviving an airplane crash.  It didn't acquire the numbers folks were looking for.

The Truman Show came in 1998 with Jim Carrey, another wild man comic, who would excel with a wonderfully nuanced dramatic turn under Weir's guidance.  It is a fantasy-satire about the media's control over life.  The humor is quite dark and the message driven home time and again.  It is Weir's most financially successful film to date and would garner him his third Oscar nomination and one for costar Ed Harris as well.

Weir's last Oscar nomination (and one day I hope he will parlay one of these into a win) was for 2003s ambitious Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  It is an action-adventure starring Russell Crowe as a brash captain who pushes his crew to their limits in their pursuit of a French war ship off the coast of South America.  It may be fair to say the film is one of the very best of this genre. 

Weir has worked very little in the past 10 years.  I hope that changes and he comes back with something big and wonderful that touches on or exceeds the successes he had in the 1980s.  Meanwhile, he seems to be living a quiet life in his native country.

Quiz 6

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