Saturday, April 12, 2014

Don's Party


I was tremendously excited regarding the start of filming on my new musical spectacular, Goodfollies until I learned whom the producers had cast in certain other of the key roles. I, of course, have the leading part of Toni Soprano, lady mob boss of the New Jersey families. The producers have cast Norma Desmond as my mother, Lydia Soprano. Frankly, I thought the old biddy was still up at Atascadero and I am very suspicious that the production company is trying to draw parallels between my unfortunate episode with the Scrawcrunches and her tawdry scandal of some years ago in the name of cheap publicity. 

An even worse bit of news came with the casting of the key role of Dr. Duchess Malfi, my psychotherapist. They've had the effrontery to hire that no-talent hack, Margo Channing, for the role. It's a part that requires restraint, taste, and sophistication, talents that Margo lacks in abundance. The thought of having to be polite to her on set day after day is causing my gastrointestinal tract to go into a tap number of its own. I must lay in more Pepcid Complete. Rounding out the cast is Chris MacNeil as my consigliera, Carmela 'Pussycat' Coloratura. All I can say is she better leave that brat of hers at home. The last time I was at a party at Chris's place, little Reagan urinated all over a brand new pair of Prada open toed pumps. They were completely ruined. 

Dreading the first read through of the script in just a bit, I decided to watch a film in which even ruder people engage in bad group dynamics. I settled on the 1976 Australian film Don's Party, an early effort from director Bruce Beresford and writer David Williamson. The film, a minor sensation in its initial release due to its casual nudity and frank depiction of such time honored suburban customs as wife swapping, was one of the mid-70s films that put the Australian cinema movement on the map. Beresford went on to such films as Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. Williamson, who adapted his own stage play for the film, supplied screenplays later for Gallipoli, Phar Lap and The Year of Living Dangerously. 

The year is 1969. It is election night with the Australian Liberal and Labor parties duking it out for control of parliament. Don Henderson (John Hargreaves), a thirtyish suburban Sydneyite, is a self styled pseudo-intellectual and political dabbler. He's getting bored with his wife (Jeanie Drynan), his small child and his enclosed life. To spice things up a bit, he decides to throw a party to watch the election returns and let his more liberal friends kick back a bit. The party begins. The booze begins to flow. As the inhibitions fall, the various guests begin to fight over politics, world views, and sexual mores. The more adventurous begin casual and empty sexual liaisons. There's a skinny dipping raid on the neighbor's pool, impromptu soccer matches, shouting, tears, and general bad behavior. As the sun comes up, people pass out, Don sits alone in his wreck of a house, numbed by his life. 

The frank dialogue and situations must have seemed shocking and risqué to audiences of the original stage piece and when the film was first released, a decades ago. Society, having sat through much more explicit plots and situations on the average daytime drama, talk show, and evening newscast of late, has changed and what was once cutting edge, now seems like a quaint sociological case study. I kept expecting Jane Goodall to provide a voice over narration - "See how the alpha male approaches the female in her natural habitat and attempts to draw her attention to his sexual prowess". The film can no longer titillate and, without that, it no longer seems capable of amusing. Watching it is like being trapped at a cocktail party full of highly unpleasant people with no end in sight. The film's ninety minutes feel closer to three hours. Imagine, if you will, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a cast of twelve crossed with the key party scene in The Ice Storm and then up the snooze factor by a couple of orders of magnitude. 

Despite the films current lack of appeal, it's filled with good performances, even if it does feel like filmed drama school improv exercises. John Hargreaves, as Don, provides a physical and emotional anchor for the film. Hargreaves (who died in 1996), was of the same generation of Australian leading men as Mel Gibson, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. Despite talent and looks matching theirs, he never took the networking and games playing of Hollywood seriously enough to be a success on their level. It's a pity. The Australian actors who people the cast, mainly stalwart Sydney stage actors or supporting film players elucidate character firmly in brief scenes and moments. Harold Hopkins and Pat Bishop, in particular, shine. 

The DVD is a bare bones release. It contains the film in full screen. There are no extras other than filmographies for principal cast and crew. The colors are faded and muted in many scenes, I'm not sure if this is the transfer or if this is due to the age of the film. 

This film may be of interest to those who wish to study the evolution of the Australian film industry in the 1970s. Otherwise, I'd give it a miss unless your goal in life is to see a lot of overweight middle aged Australian actors without their clothes on. 

Group nudity from male cast. Occasional nudity from female cast. Beer drinking. Gratuitous urination in bushes. Enraged dentist. Unfunny duck hunting joke. Gratuitous Australian Prime Minister. Over dressed host. Bikini underwear. 

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