It’s not as though there was nothing else going on in Australian cinema in the 1970s, but the combination of period piece, eye-catching locations, literary adaptation and coming-of-age theme surely conjures up a good deal of that crucial decade. Even in that climate, though, Kevin Dobson’s The Mango Tree (1977) wasn’t very popular. It was securely set during World War One, picturesquely located in Bundaberg and surrounding cane-fields, was derived from Ronald McKie’s award-winning 1974 novel and its ostensible concern was the rites of passage undergone by young Jamie Carr.
The film version, produced by Michael Pate, former actor who had had a sturdy career as actor here and in the US, certainly looks great as the camera tracks through waving cane-fields or the dusty streets of Bundaberg. But the film, easy as it is to watch, just can’t seem to keep its mind on any one thing for long enough and this may well be because Christopher Pate, Michael’s then 25-year-old son, simply can’t command the attention needed for us to see the narrative’s grab-bag of events as contributing to his emergence from adolescence – and it doesn’t help that he looks as if he’s well past school age.
So why have I remembered this film so vividly? Essentially because it enshrines one of the most luminous performances by an actress in Australian film. She is the celebrated Irish-American Geraldine Fitzgerald, here playing Grandma Carr who has raised orphaned Jamie. The sequence of her death has stayed with me for the 30-odd years since I first saw it, and re-viewing it for this purpose I feel vindicated in my earlier judgement. Fitzgerald, long a great beauty, had been in films since the early 1930s, had done impressive and distinctive work in Hollywood without ever quite being a major film star, and had won great acclaim in the theatre in plays as diverse as Our Town and Long Day’s Journey into Night. In 1974 she had a heartbreaking few minutes in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto: had the casting director for The Mango Tree seen this and registered the capacity of this woman to imbue whatever she did with a profound sense of inner belief and truth of feeling?
Grandma Carr has become ill after helping to nurse casualties of the 1919 flu epidemic, but has recovered sufficiently to announce that she and Jamie will have a formal dinner, telling him to see to sherry and port and to open a bottle of wine. She dresses elegantly for the occasion with jewellery – silver drop earrings and pendant – setting off the high-collared black dress, and hair braided and pulled back from the face still beautiful in its seventh decade and its look of lived-in, shrewd-eyed wisdom. There is an element of tour de force as she tells a story of her past, of how a bushranger had appeared at her mother’s door with a rifle, of a man so handsome she wished she’d gone away with him, and of how he was killed the next day. The director has been wise enough to leave the camera on her for the extent of this tale and at its end, sitting upright against a vertical beam and pronouncing herself “utterly content”, she quietly dies.
The sequence lasts only a few minutes but its potency derives in part from the way it is fed by our recalling the previous episodes in which Fitzgerald has commanded the screen, not by flamboyant technique but by the quiet fullness of her understanding of this generous-spirited woman. For instance, in a brief episode with a young woman of dubious reputation, Mrs Carr’s liberality and respect for otherness are touchingly but unsentimentally rendered in Fitzgerald’s performance which is an amalgam of her uniquely throaty delivery, the calm dignity of her overall demeanour, the wise eyes and the wide, amused mouth. The film is not about her but it is she one remembers as she stamps her scenes with authority and rich humanity.