Career Highpoints

Illustration: Sophie Blackall

      Just as my film Love Serenade was due to be released in the U.S., I received a little flurry of attention from “over there”, the sort that could turn a girl’s head. I think when anyone makes a film they tend to hope it’s just the best thing ever, and cling tenaciously to this hope even in spite of all the evidence indicating otherwise.  In my case, the AFI Awards that year should have served as a great leveller – however I managed to interpret even the massive snubbing it received there as some kind of inverse compliment.  It was simply too clever for them!  My father backed up this view.  Only great intellectuals like the French could grasp the intricacies of a film like mine, he declared, not having actually seen my film or having ever had much time for the French up until I won the Camera D’Or.  I nodded grimly. My secret fear, of course, was that the subtitles had made the film seem a whole lot more scintillating.

    But a girl needs more than just her dad to bolster her self-esteem, and what better than a phone call from Hollywood legend and noted Lothario, Warren Beatty.  A feverish message from my agent had alerted me to the news that Warren had seen my film, and was apparently sufficiently keen on it to inquire after my telephone number that he might call me up and compliment me – would it be okay to pass on my number?  I hesitated a moment – what if he were to become a nuisance caller? – but then decided to take the risk.  Perhaps you can imagine the state of nervous dread I was in as I spent the next few days spurning invitations and hovering hopefully around the telephone. Perhaps you can also understand why I dealt a little brusquely with other callers hogging the line with their trivial, wholly unnecessary chatter.  There were moments of despair, certainly, when I thought that he might never call, but I kept my chin up by ploughing earnestly through his oeuvre on video and sure enough, my efforts were rewarded.  Early one Sunday morning, the telephone rang and there was Warren Beatty, introducing himself rather casually in those famously intimate tones that have you imagining he is perhaps just lolling about in a pair of silk pyjamas. He then went on to speak at lengthof the many things he admired about my film.

    Sadly, with the passage of time I have grown a little hazy about many of the compliments that he directed to those other than myself, but I recall that at one point he asserted, rather provocatively, that I must be “some can of peas”.  As if this wasn’t thrilling enough, the conversation then took an unusual turn. “I’m sitting there watching the film,” murmured Warren, perhaps loosening his pyjamas slightly, “and I’m asking myself, what’s this woman like?  What does she look like?  And I said to myself, I’ll bet she’s tall. And it turns out you are!”  “Yes, I am!” I gasped, wondering giddily where this could leading.  But it seems this was just his way of steering the conversation onto Germaine Greer, of all people, whom he seemed to assume I might know, or perhaps be related to, since she too is six-foot and Australian.  In fact, for one terrible instant when he confessed he hadn’t seen her in a long time, I thought he was going to get me to pass on a message to her. 

    Just at this moment, however, our conversation was interrupted by a fierce brawl that had broken out between my two small children on the lounge room floor. Downing the handset, I gathered one under each arm and stormed into the front room where my husband was grimly attempting to ignore the din.  “Do you mind,” I hissed, as I tossed them across the room at him. “I’m talking with Warren Beatty.”  A strange look clouded his face that gave me momentary pause, but I made the mental note “sort out marriage later” and hurried back to the telephone.  Warren seemed suddenly keen to wrap things up, but not before indicating that perhaps I might like to direct his next movie, and also have dinner “up at the house” next time I was in L.A.  Little knowing that I was shortly to visit the City of the Angels, and fully intended to take him up on it.

    That is to say, I got my brand-new American agents to take him up on it, since calling up celebrities to tee up dinner dates is  completely beyond me.  Not only that but they volunteered themselves as escorts, which is just as well.  We drove up into the hills to Warren’s huge Bugsy-style mansion, into whose impressive portal we were ushered by some flunky. Next thing, Warren emerges looking every inch the movie star, greets us all warmly and exclaims, after gazing at me a moment, “You’re just as I imagined." Then he was off waxing sentimental about Germaine Greer again, and telling an enthralling story of how he and Jack Nicholson had been stuck in a lift with her at a Democrat Convention years ago. Unfortunately, I missed most of what ensued as I had to explain to my agents sotto voce who Germaine Greer was, and by the time I tuned back in, Warren had concluded his tale and seemed to be hinting mistily that perhaps he of all men could have tamed her.

    Certainly a promising start to any evening, and in spite of some bad girlish simpering on my part, things seemed to be going just fine. Warren (note the free and easy use of first names) is extremely charming and urbane just as you would hope.  His wife Annette Bening was away somewhere, but he spoke of her only in the most glowing terms, and they have three delightful children who were only wheeled on in short bursts before being ferried away by nameless staff.  There were several other guests present but I seemed to be the only one drinking, and I drank freely as I remember feeling quite thirsty, possibly from jetlag. However, instead of making me enormous fun and engagingly obstreperous, the alcohol seemed only to encourage a gradual and crippling self-consciousness, a paralysing timidity. I now realise after extensive counselling that it’s simply not possible to transport a suburban mother-of-two, the social highlight of whose week is Tuesday morning Playgroup, into a room full of high-powered Hollywood folk and expect her to hold her own.  You can’t do it.  It can’t be done.  At least, not without fairly grisly results.

    Things got to the stage where if I managed to speak at all, it was only to mysteriously put my foot in it.  The comedian Garry Shandling was there, and perhaps I inadvertently offended him by telling him how much I enjoyed his old show, particularly the theme song of his old show, which I then went on to say was only ever shown on Australian TV in obscure timeslots.  This did not come out quite the way I had intended, and he did not seem to respond well. Later on, listening to him discuss his new show and wishing to make up for what may have seemed a slight, I meekly enquired as a matter of polite interest how much time he had to write each episode.  Well!  You could have cut the air with a knife.  Conversation all round the table stopped dead.  Everyone looked from me to Garry, slack-jawed with horror. Garry looked at me, looked at Warren, looked at the ceiling, looked at the floor, then slowly shook his head.  “I cant believe you just asked me that,” he said.  Whereupon Warren deftly changed the subject, everyone started talking again and I, with burning cheeks, resumed my soup.

    To this day, I still don’t understand why what I said elicited that response, but sadly the evening continued pretty much in that vein. It was soon (although perhaps not soon enough for me) time for us to leave.  However, not content with just any passing humiliation, I had to drive it that little bit further.  For I was still fondly nursing the idea that Warren wanted me to direct his next feature – after all, had he not said as much?  So just as he was hastily ushering me towards the front door, I brought the subject up since it seemed to have temporarily slipped his mind.  Warren stopped dead in his tracks.  He stared at me.  “You want to direct my next film?” he asked, in disbelief.  “You? I mean, maybe I’m too much in awe of your film, maybe I should sit down and watch it again and try to find some faults with it, but I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that you would want to direct me in a film!”

    Was he sending me up?  Was I going mad?  Was I unwittingly appearing in some kind of “TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes”?  I’ll never know.  I slunk away, tail between my legs, bewildered and mortified.  And yet it got worse.  Just as I was about to get into the car, he suddenly held out his arms wide in what I dizzily interpreted to be Warren’s way of saying “Let’s hug”.  After all, that’s what Americans do, don’t they?  In fact, that’s what I do when I want a hug from my kids – I hold out my arms wide, and they hurtle themselves in for a cuddle. So that’s what I did.  I threw myself headlong into Warren Beatty’s arms.  And just as I did, I was suddenly gripped by a terrible thought:  Warren was just stretching

Originally published in HQ Magazine March/April 1999.