Australian Arts

Clive Owen

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

A time of plague makes us brood on the culture we share in the absence of personal preference. One person hungers for AFL at the MCG, another for Mahler performed by the MSO, but what they both settle for is streamer TV, the new watercooler offering of an age without much in the way of watercoolers or even offices.

By the way, in relation to the AFL virtual Grand Final that Melburnians had to see relayed from Perth it was moving in the greenery-laden private school streets of Hawthorn, where privilege might reign if any privilege was to be had, the two storey house that was totally lit from outside with two Demons scarves hung over the balcony like heraldic emblems. Nice too that Melbourne should win its first premiership since Ron Barrassi was a wonder of a ruck rover, more than 50 years ago, and his great antagonist from Footscray was that incomparable bulldog Teddy Whitten.

For baby boomers who remember them it’s inconceivable that any actor could impersonate either of them. One of the greatest performances in the history of Australian acting is Richard Roxburgh’s performance in Blue Murder as that supremely crooked copper Roger Rogerson but most of us are happy not to have intimate familiarity with the policeman who walked down both sides of the street in the service of evil.

It’s funny that it should be different in the case of Bill Clinton in Impeachment which recapitulates the relationship of the old captivator and his dealings with that young intern Monica Lewinsky, the girl he gave Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to and whom he toyed with using a cigar. You didn’t have to be especially well-connected to hear stories from women you knew who had had in their day men aplenty who worked in Washington and would tell the story of how the man from Arkansas as he walked through a room would stop just for an instant and say to them in that Southern drawl, as melodious as Elvis’s, ‘Mah dear, ya have the prettiest blue eyes ah ever saw in all my born days’.

Now he is being impersonated, with much prosthetic assistance, by that fine English actor Clive Owen and the charm – which even his antagonist Newt Gingrich said you had to detox yourself of lest you give him everything – just isn’t there.

It’s a pity because one of Clive Owen’s better performances is in Closer and it was the director of that film, Mike Nichols, who gave us the best on-screen Clinton in Primary Colours where John Travolta just summoned him up because he could do the voice.

Impeachment in which everything is a bit grey-blue and dwindled has Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky and it comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement which would be inclined to hang the old third way trickster as high as it would Jack Kennedy. Sarah Paulson, though, as Linda Tripp (not a face beloved to human memory) is wonderfully compelling.

It’s different with our own more distant history. In The Dismissal only John Stanton as Malcom Fraser got away with a contemporary portrait and that was because, like the man who destroyed Whitlam, he had in David Marr’s phrase (of Patrick White) the indomitable face of an Australian grazier. On the other hand, if you have a look at True Believers on Stan which dates from 1988 this eight-part dramatisation of the Forties and Fifties, the tumultuous period which culminated in the Split in the ALP doesn’t pose the same difficulties.

Ed Devereaux as Ben Chifley, the much-loved former engine driver who spoke of the light on the hill and Simon Chilvers as the much-loathed Doc Evatt, are playing figures a bit too remote from all but the oldest Australians and there’s a freedom that comes from that.

Devereaux (who became famous as Matt Hammond the head ranger in Skippy) and Chilvers – who could be seen a lifetime ago at the Melbourne Theatre Company and was last glimpsed looking surprisingly impressive as the old man who sleepwalks his way into King Lear in Williamson’s unloveable Dead White Males – have a fierce independent life.

Deveraux captures all of Chifley’s decency and Chilvers is alive to everything that’s delusional about Evatt’s brilliance. And it helps tremendously that the script by that loose cannon of some genius Bob Ellis together with Stephen Ramsay – and rejigged by John Lonie – is exceptionally eloquent and uncompromising. It is admittedly odd to have actors in the Eighties playing characters from the Forties saying ‘hopefully’ but you can’t complain.

John Bonney as Menzies, jowly and with sweeping black eyebrows, is instantly recognisable though that poses its own kind of problem and sometimes the conservatives speak in the Malvolio voices of people imitating a class higher than their own just as the Laborites can sound like rabble phonetically re-assembled by a mob of luvvies.

It doesn’t matter. True Believers will remind you of a history you half-know or instruct you in one you are blind to. There is plenty of attention to the strategies involved in the Communist issue, and some of the famous tearjerking moments: Chifley kneeling to pray in the Catholic church he feels has rejected him, the moment when Menzies hears of Chifley’s death, whispers the news to a white-tied Evatt and then closes the winter ball – these very dramatic moments in our history are done movingly and powerfully.

You get the strongest impression of a great political party with little sense of strategy saddled, in the case of Evatt, with a madman of the highest intelligence. But the moves and counter-moves over the Coms and the Groupers are done with a dramatic command which is rare these days.

It’s true that Archbishop Mannix, played by that lordly actor, Norman Kaye – remember him in Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers? – seems more cynical than that mountain of a man but Mannix is familiar from docos and from Brenda Niall’s superb biography.

It was hard to see why the clergy seemed always to have Irish accents but anyone who remembers from their childhood Bob Santamaria’s monologues just before World of Sport will know who John Derum is replicating.

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