Illustrated Film Talks – Q&A with Adrian Wootton OBE
In a year of milestones, MIFF staging its 70th edition is just one reason for cheer! Another is the return of former London Film Festival and British Film Institute director Adrian Wootton OBE, celebrating the 10th Melbourne instalment of his illustrious Illustrated Film Talks series.
This year’s lectures, already acclaimed from outings at London’s Barbican and The National Film Theatre, celebrate the extraordinary lives and careers of four amazingly talented Hollywood legends, whose enduring iconic status transcend their various milestones: Cher (whose career clocks 60 years), Elvis (who left the building 45 years ago) and David Bowie (some 60 years after his professional debut), plus Australia’s own Baz Luhrmann (and his 30 years in film). In conversation with MIFF, Wootton offers a teaser for his upcoming talks at MIFF 70.
Baz Luhrmann has had an extraordinary career, starting with his remarkably assured debut Strictly Ballroom, which took Cannes by storm, followed by the groundbreaking Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet and the cult classic musical Moulin Rouge!. After his so-called ‘red-curtain’ trilogy came the big-budget epics Australia and The Great Gatsby, which divided audiences and critics alike. Fast-forward to 2022 and Baz is back with another divisive hit, theextravagant new biopic of The King, Elvis. What makes this director so special?
Baz Luhrmann is a unique director because of the combination of dazzling style wedded to a storytelling structure that is musical in terms of momentum, organisation and emotional atmosphere. His films are unlike anyone else’s; they create an immersive, intense, exuberant experience, and what I try to do is explain and celebrate his canon of work, revealing some of the key connections and themes within them.
Elvis reintroduced the enduring cultural relevance of The King to new audiences globally, and younger audiences, especially, are being introduced to his extensive acting career. What was Elvis’s impact on Hollywood and, more importantly, was he a good actor?
This goes to the very heart of my talk, as I recount that Elvis made movies for more than a decade (31 of them!). In that time, he broke box-office records, became the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, saved at least one studio from bankruptcy – and saved the musical itself from extinction while prefiguring MTV – and developed into a confident, naturally talented actor, who then took what he had learned into his relaunched, incendiary live-performance career.
With a career spanning 60 years, the “Goddess of Pop”, “Comeback Queen” and queer icon Cher is perhaps thought of first as a singer. But, with a Best Actress Oscar statuette for Moonstruck and three Golden Globes to her name, she is a very accomplished actor into the bargain! Apart from carrying off memorable outfits at the Oscars and never ageing, what makes Cher such a special performer, and so enduring?
Cher is a one-off with a unique voice, an extravagant sense of style and a smart, wickedly witty personality. As I describe in the talk, after honing her craft, performing style and show-business personality on successful TV shows, she worked very hard to become a real actress and benefited from working for a stream of great directors like Robert Altman, Norman Jewison and Peter Bogdanovich, and alongside very talented fellow actors like Meryl Streep, Kathy Bates, Nicolas Cage and Jack Nicholson, which helped her refine and develop her work. The result is that Cher is an immensely talented, multifaceted performer who has outlasted fads and fashions to become a genuine legend.
The final subject of your series this year is one of the most influential artists of the last century. David Bowie’s life is so remarkable in so many ways and – fittingly – after his death, he remained in the spotlight with his extraordinary posthumous album Blackstar. Besides his many monikers, albums and musical phases, he was also able to become an established actor in his own right. How was Bowie able to break through into acting regardless of his polarising musical personas?
David Bowie began to learn acting and mime performance from very early in his career, and used them to create his various live-performance and musical stage personas. Also, movies were big influences and inspirations for his songs and the various images he used to project them. But he also wanted to be a ‘straight’ dramatic actor, wherein he cast aside the layer of his rock-music mythology and was more David Jones than Ziggy Stardust. And although his mercurial and brilliant music career kept getting in the way of other endeavours, he did achieve remarkable success in theatre with Elephant Man, TV with Baal and film with Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, among others, because when he did do it, it was a serious undertaking that he was wholeheartedly committed to. That is why I believe it is a very important dimension of his remarkable body of work and, as a huge admirer of Bowie, I love to describe the history of this cinematic journey he made and the incredible stories of how he became involved in each of them.
Cher, Elvis and Bowie have featured in some iconic films over time, but for those who know them more as singers and less as actors, what films would you recommend that offer the best introductions to their talents onscreen? (And, indeed, which would offer the best preparatory viewing ahead of attending your talks!)
I have mentioned some already in the other answers above, but with Elvis’s movie career, King Creole, Blue Hawaii, Viva Las Vegas and Change of Habit show a variety of what he did, and all have got terrific musical performances. As for Cher, her first really serous movie, Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, is really wonderful, but her Oscar-winning role in Moonstruck is a must. With David Bowie, of course The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the aforementioned Baal and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence are essential – and, for musical fun, revisit Absolute Beginners.
And those needing an introduction to Baz’s extravagant cinematic stylings?
Well, all six of his films, really, but see Elvis if you haven’t already, then go back to Strictly Ballroom to see the connections from first to most recent movies. And Romeo + Juliet is another amazing film that is still one of my favourites of his work.