The Aussies Take Hollywood
Clifton, Tony, Horn, John, Newsweek International
They are, after all, officially known as the awards of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But when the Oscars are presented Sunday, many of the tearful acceptance speeches could have a distinct Australian twang. Twenty-one Australians have been nominated for prizes, from best-acting candidates Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman to more-anonymous toilers in makeup, special effects, sound and other categories. Less than 40 years ago, an Australian film industry barely existed. But as Baz Luhrmann, the Aussie director of "Moulin Rouge" (nominated for eight Oscars), told NEWSWEEK, "Right now, you could cast a movie only with Australians, and you'd have the top stars in the world."
It's a tantalizing prospect: a film featuring Oscar winners like Mel Gibson, Crowe and Geoffrey Rush--along with muscular young hunks Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman and Eric Bana--playing against female leads Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis and the newest girl on Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts. And there is no shortage of Down Under-trained, Hollywood-hardened heavyweights to direct them: Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Philip Noyce, Jane Campion and Luhrmann.
What is it about the Aussies that so captivates Hollywood? For one thing, they've got that healthy, Outback-reared, flesh-and-blood lustiness that American stars had before they started dieting. "It's really strange in Hollywood today," says Noyce, who directed "Clear and Present Danger" and "Patriot Games." "If you call in locals to cast any sort of action movie, you get what looks like the result of some weird experiment in eugenics. For generations, small-town beauty queens and kings have been coming to Hollywood to make it in the movies. They've inbred and now you get a whole set of these slender, pretty clones with perfect teeth and hair who have been brought up on tofu and egg-white omelets."
But good looks alone do not make a star. Directors and producers like Australians because they've been so well trained. By the time they get to Hollywood, they can do dozens of accents, learned from the extensive sound libraries at drama schools. They have an excellent work ethic: they arrive on time, they know their lines and they do their jobs with no fuss. "In Hollywood there'll always be a few dollars more if you run over budget," says Noyce. "In Australian film, the money's so tight that everybody knows they have to do their job within time and budget, or the project dies." And then there is the Australian sensibility; Luhrmann says Aussie actors have a "fearlessness" about taking on challenges. Crowe's early roles, for instance, included a gay man and a vicious Nazi skinhead. "You think, 'What have I got to lose?' " says Luhrmann. Kidman agrees. "You are isolated down there in Australia," she says. "But that's what makes Australians fresh. We have that perspective on the world, we're pragmatic and tremendously multicultural and very outward-looking. We have that dry sense of humor the rest of the world seems to enjoy."
At this point, to quell howls of international protest, it should be noted that "Australians" in the film business are not as purely Aussie bred as kangaroos and wombats. In a country of migrants, Crowe and Campion were born in New Zealand, Gibson in the United States, Watts and Guy Pearce in England, Kidman, improbably, in Hawaii (where her father was posted as an academic); Blanchett's father was a Texan Army officer. Yet all trained in Australia, and are products of a system that seems to turn out a continuous stream of talent. Hollywood is infested with Aussies, and to prove their infinite flexibility they are now playing even the most quintessential American television roles: Simon Baker and Portia DeRossi play lawyers on "The Guardian" and "Ally McBeal," and Rachel Griffiths plays a troubled Californian massage therapist on the highly acclaimed HBO series "Six Feet Under."
It wasn't always that way. Film in Australia grew up with the country. …