Sue Milliken, Selective memory: A life in film (Review)
Funny how things go sometimes. I may not have read Sue Milliken’s memoir, Selective memory, had the publisher, Hybrid Publishers, not noticed my rather particular interest in film via my recent review of Margaret Rose Stringer’s And then like my dreams. I’m glad they did because this book took me down memory lane …
Sue Milliken is a name well-known to me through my career as a librarian-archivist working with film and television. Her career as a film producer started in the same decade, 1970s, that my career started (albeit mine towards the end of the decade). Consequently, I enjoyed her memoir. She writes in her author’s note at the beginning that she had intermittently kept a diary, that
as the dramas around me escalated, I found myself given to recording the day’s events. They form the basis for this work.
She acknowledges that other participants “may have widely varying memories and opinions of the same events”. This is obvious, really, but probably a wise point to make when writing about an industry high in emotion and ego. Never hurts to cover yourself! And Milliken, while I suspect she has been quite circumspect in places, is rather honest in this book. She’s not afraid to let her feelings be known about certain people, such as the former wife of Barry Humphries, Diane Milstead. Diane and I, she writes, “quickly grew to loathe each other”. Admittedly, they were working on a disastrous film, Les Patterson Saves the World. How, she asks, “do you tell the funniest man in Australia that he’s not funny?” They tried, she says, and some changes were made, but “the train had left the station and we were along for the ride”. There are many such moments in the book. One that made me laugh relates to her decision to not let on to a large group of her peers that her current production, Total Recall, was going belly-up:
Anything was preferable to telling 200 industry schadenfreudeists at the conference, here are the sets but the movie has just been cancelled.
Australian director Bruce Beresford, who has made three films with Milliken, writes in the introduction that this is “a forthright and witty account”. He’s right about that.
Milliken tells her story pretty much chronologically, and focuses primarily on her work, with occasional references to her personal life. I must say that, being a typical voyeuristic reader, I’m usually interested in people’s lives, but the snippets included here sometimes felt like items from the cutting room floor. That is, they seemed to be just popped in, perhaps because that’s how they appeared in her diaries, or perhaps because they showed that she did have a life too! I enjoyed it all, but in terms of coherence, I’m not sure these little asides were necessary. What was necessary, though, was her insider’s insight into some of the most important decades in Australia’s film history.
Her main role in the industry has been as a producer; she has produced many major Australian feature films, including The Fringe-dwellers, Black Robe, Sirens, Paradise Road. However, Milliken has also worked as a film guarantor and a film censor, and held significant positions in the industry such as Chair of the Australian Film Commission, a board member of ScreenWest, and president of the Screen Producers’ Association of Australia. As you can imagine there’s a lot of politics behind these organisations, and she has many times been at the centre of them. She chronicles it all clearly but lightly, not bogging us down in excessive detail, but getting the salient points across.
But now, I’m going to go subjective, and pick out a few points in the book that have particular interest for me. The first relates to the film, The Fringe Dwellers (1987). Adapted from a novel by Nene Gare, it’s about an indigenous Australian family living on the fringe of an Australian country town. It was a moving and confronting movie, but of course it was made by white Australians from a book by a white Australian. Having recently discussed this contentious issue in a post, I was not surprised to read that there was criticism “from young Aboriginal activists who disapproved of white filmmakers telling a story about Aboriginal people, and of the story itself which was written by a white writer”. Milliken agrees that they had a point, though she also notes the positive aspects of the process – work for indigenous Australians, and increased understanding of indigenous issues for her, the cast and crew (and, hopefully, for the audiences). In 2008, Milliken was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for, among other things, support and encouragement of indigenous filmmakers. This is not to ignore the problem, but it indicates goodwill and intentions on Milliken’s part.
Another relates to Paradise Road (1997), the film of which she’s the most proud. I smiled when she discussed the casting. Its ensemble cast includes many significant actors such as Glenn Close and Frances McDormand. I happened at the time to know a good friend of the director, Bruce Beresford, and this friend and I were chuffed that Beresford (who, I believe, was also chuffed) had managed to get Jennifer Ehle for the cast. Ehle was, of course, the gorgeous Lizzie Bennet in the famous Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice (1995). It’s always bothered me that Ehle has never got the recognition she deserved for that role, all because of the fawning, which I totally understand mind you, over Firth. Anyhow, what amused me was that while my colleague and I were thrilled about Ehle, Milliken was fighting to get another, still largely unknown, actor for the film – Cate Blanchett! It was, I gather, her first feature film.
The third film I want to mention is one that hasn’t been made, The Women in Black, from the book by Madeleine St John (my review). As I’ve mentioned before, Bruce Beresford was very taken with the book and wanted to make the movie. It was Milliken he approached. She agreed that it would “make a charming film” and writes “we set about acquiring the rights”. At the completion of Paradise Road, it became the film she most wanted to do but financing “proved elusive”. It is apparently still proving to be so!
Milliken’s memory may be selective, and she may not have told every story worth telling, but this is a good read, not just for those interested in Australian film history but for anyone interested how films are made, particularly from a producer’s point of view.
(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)