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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

How Gillian Armstrong Learned To Love Classic Movies

Gillian Armstrong is an Australian director known for her Palm d’Or nominated film, My Brilliant Career with Judy Davis and Sam Neill. She’s also a fine documentary filmmaker. When I interviewed her by phone regarding her most recent work, Women He’s Undressed I asked if she had a fondness for classic films, and her answer was an emphatic, “No”. Having attended film school in the 60s the emphasis at the time was on the French New Wave, Antonioni, Fellini, and Bergman. Her greatest influences came from European cinema. The old American films were often on TV, so she had watched a bit with her “mum” from time to time, but she never appreciated them. She was of an era when the Golden Age was over, dead, and completely out of fashion. It was only due to her recent experience making a documentary on Golden Age costume designer, Orry-Kelly that she discovered what she had been missing. So, it was a great education for her to read up on, really study, and see the great movies of old time Hollywood. She finally sat down and watched Dark Victory, Jezebel and 42nd Street from beginning to end. When asked if she now has a favorite film she hesitated only briefly before enthusiastically answering.

“It’s been quite an incredible journey. I can do the college tour now on the Golden Age of Hollywood, but it was never my thing before. I do think that Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck was an amazing film. I use to hear people always [talk about] those women’s films from the 30s and 40s, and I thought, oh, yeah, yeah, but then when you see something like The Letter! Which, by the way I do think that William Wyler was such an incredible director. I mean, his opening shot, oh! And I think, what modern film would open with a major star killing a man, and then we go on the story with her where she’s lying and conning people? And yet, we’re with her the whole way. And I thought, what a contemporary role for a woman! It’s been an eye opener for me. And I noticed looking at many of the films actually how many women writers there were. All those New York playwrights that came to Hollywood at that time who had come from theater and came from a love of a really strong serious sense of storytelling with great characters, and a social agenda underneath it all. I have such huge respect for them now”.

Although Armstrong has made eleven feature films and has directed many of today’s finest talents including Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Diane Keaton, Mel Gibson, and Susan Sarandon, she keeps just as busy with documentary filmmaking. In fact, Women He’s Undressedmarks her eighth project in the format. It is her hope to keep working in both fields for as long as she can. And now that she’s discovered the works of Orry-Kelly (her fellow countryman) it is her desire to sing his praises and draw attention to his classic Hollywood work as much as she can with the beautifully crafted documentary that stands as her love-letter to both the man and the era.

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