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A Celebration of Wendy Hughes

an indecent obsession
Wendy Hughes in An Indecent Obsession, 1984

Philip Tyndall is a Melbourne based filmmaker. His best known film is the USA award winning Words And Silk: The Imaginary and Real Worlds of Gerald Murnane. He is also an occasional writer on film matters, and a former lecturer in Film Production at Deakin University, Melbourne.

I don't remember exactly when I first saw Wendy Hughes, or more accurately when I first became aware of Wendy Hughes as a presence on the screen. I thought I had first seen her in Lonely Hearts (1982), the AFI award-winning Best Feature film directed by Paul Cox, but I now realise she must have been in earlier Australian films, or on television without my being aware of exactly who Wendy Hughes was.

I would probably have seen her as one of the fine cast of My Brilliant Career (1980), directed by Gillian Armstrong, a film that did much to re-establish the reputation of Australian filmmaking internationally. As the concerned, caring Aunt Helen of Judy Davis' Sybilla, it was an important early step for Wendy Hughes and clearly demonstrated her compassionate side.

Before that film, Hughes had played the role of a young, enthusiastic woman involved in film production in what must surely be one of the best films ever made about the Australian film industry - Newsfront (1978) directed by Phillip Noyce. This classic piece of modern Australian cinema tells the story of the final days of the newsreel production companies that were such an important part of the Australian film-going experience. While the storyline centres on the male characters (including Bill Hunter, Brian Brown and Chris Haywood), Wendy Hughes plays Amy McKenzie convincingly. Even though her character was underdeveloped, Hughes is quietly radiant.

I realised too that I had unknowingly seen her in the commercially successful Petersen (1974), a vehicle for the then increasingly popular Jack Thompson. He plays a knockabout electrician and former footballer who as a 'mature-age' student experiences all facets of life on campus in the early 1970s. Again Hughes' character is under developed. She plays a University tutor who falls for Petersen's rough aussie charm, and they begin an affair. Unfortunately, Wendy Hughes is probably remembered more for her naked body than her acting. Nevertheless this was her first role in a feature film, and if nothing else it got her noticed.

But it wasn't long before Australian screen directors and producers saw much more in the young National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) graduate. By the early 1980s Hughes had done considerable stage work, particularly with the Melbourne Theatre Company and now she was making a definite impact on cinema screens. Not only could she play strong, confident women, with charm and grace, but she could also be fresh-faced, innocent and vulnerable. Over the next 25 years, Hughes would continue to demonstrate her versatility.

  lonely hearts
  Lonely Hearts
After the early minor film roles, it was Hughes' understated portrayal in Lonely Hearts that captivated Australian and cinema goers around the world, and in particular in the USA where the film screened for 18 months. Audiences related to the shy, demure Patricia, reaching out for a meaningful relationship with Peter, 20 years older and equally lacking in confidence (played to perfection by Norman Kaye). This small, intimate film about real people sees the couple ultimately find solace in each other. Wendy Hughes, without makeup and wearing the 'most sensible shoes she has ever worn' delivers a performance that earned her many accolades. It is no wonder she became a household name after the film. It also cemented her working relationship with Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox, renowned for his collaborative approach. This association would continue for decades to come.

Hughes and Cox would eventually make five films together, including My First Wife (1984). For her efforts Hughes received another AFI Nomination for Best Female actor. This is not surprising as she plays her role in two parts: initially, as the unfaithful wife in an unsatisfying middle-class marriage. But later, when pushed as to the reasons for her lack of intimacy by her equally unhappy husband, Hughes displays a stronger side to her character, a woman wanting and demanding something more in her life.

In 1983 Hughes took another major step forward in her career when cast as a wealthy, sophisticated socialite in Careful, He Might Hear You. This is a film of great quality. The lighting, cinematography, art direction, costumes, and direction by Carl Schultz, all combine to create a period atmosphere as good as anything from Hollywood or elsewhere. Though the film occasionally becomes a little melodramatic, Hughes plays her part as the cold-hearted aunt of the young boy 'P.S.' with distinction. There are many fine scenes and performances by Hughes in this film - none more so than opposite the boy's father, played in true larrikin fashion by John Hargreaves.

careful, he might hear you
Careful, He Might Hear You
Looking at Hughes in Careful, He Might Hear You again after so long, one must surely ask, has there ever been a more beautiful, more glamorous actress on the screen? Clearly if this film were made now, Wendy Hughes' face would grace magazine covers from Melbourne to New York and Paris. But it was not Hughes undeniable beauty that won her a long overdue award for the Best Lead Actress at the Australian Film Institute Awards - it was true recognition for her acting skills and fine performance in that role. The film did well at the Australian box office and Wendy Hughes became one of the leading actresses in the country.

The following year Hughes was cast in An Indecent Obsession. Officially she plays the role of a WW2 army nurse, in charge of six mentally disturbed soldiers on an island in the South Pacific. In reality 'Sis', as the men affectionately call her, is also mother, sister and a love interest. Hughes is highly watchable in her caring but co-dependent roles.

Through the latter part of the 1980s Hughes appeared in both Australian and American feature-films and television. In Australia she continued to please moviegoers and critics with her performances in Boundaries of the Heart (1988) and Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1989). The same year she played opposite Pierce Brosnan in The Heist for US network HBO.

From 1993 to 1995, she appeared weekly in the TV series of Banjo Patterson's The Man from Snowy River. She played an intelligent and ambitious newspaper proprietor. There were many other television appearances in both the USA and Australia, including a role as the mother of the US First Lady in the 1991 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Jackie. Locally she is probably most fondly remembered for her lead role as Kate Ferrari in the late nineties Australian TV series State Coroner.

As well as her success on television, Hughes relentlessly continued to pursue her craft both in cinema and on the stage. In 1996 she teamed again with Paul Cox as one of the ensemble cast of Lust And Revenge. In Bruce Beresford's very moving Paradise Road (1997) Hughes played one of the many women prisoners-of-war in what is a very fine cast. In the following years she played a number of consistent supporting roles including the sharply written comedy The Man Who Sued God (2001), and Caterpillar Wish (2006). More recently she appeared in the light comedy The View from Greenhaven (2008) with Chris Haywood. Hughes did her best as his uncomplaining wife in a part that offered little depth.

The young girl from the inner Melbourne suburb of Alphington, growing up near the Yarra River with its parklands, boatsheds, and the ringing sounds of bellbirds, has come a long way since she first dreamed of becoming a ballerina. For nearly four decades Wendy Hughes has acted on the stage, in television and in film. Her early screen performances, such as the shy, closeted 30 year-old Patricia in Lonely Hearts remain equally as strong as the outwardly tough, glamorous TV evangelist Gloria Daye who she plays so convincingly in Paul Cox's recent Salvation (2008), a film that features her face prominently in big close-ups, looking directly down the camera lens.

Wendy Hughes has the face of a life fully lived, but with much still to give. As an actor she has always used her face well... the mouth, the nose, the chin, and most importantly the eyes. When I think of Wendy Hughes on the screen, I think of those eyes: eyes that are soft, eyes that are strong, eyes that are vulnerable - but most of all eyes that fill the screen, drawing us in, making us believe.

© Philip Tyndall, 2009.

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