Before Baz Luhrmann presented Sydney’s Coca Cola sign as a glittering icon and made it as famous as the city’s Harbour Bridge, other filmmakers had already recognised its symbolic potential: Mary Callaghan featured it in Tender Hooks (1989) as her characters drive through Kings Cross, and Angus (Ross O’Donovan) had a poster of the drink’s logo (a small homage to the sign, perhaps?), in his bedroom in Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982). These two films, celebrating Sydney’s urban and cultural makeup, are key in the history of Australian and women’s filmmaking in the 1980s, a period celebrated at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival. In addition to their location, these films are connected by the presence of Jo Kennedy, an actor who, before she was seen in Starstruck, hadn’t appeared yet on screen (it was only Armstrong’s second feature). An Australian icon herself, Jo Kennedy is even more notable in this film than the Coca Cola sign. As Helen Carter writes in her Great Directors piece in Senses of Cinema, “Armstrong seems to have a particular talent for recognising acting ability early in actors’ careers”,1 and Kennedy’s talent, clearly nurtured by Armstrong, shines brightly here.2
Starstruck: A Star Is Born
An Australian musical, Starstruck was almost too perfect as a place for Kennedy to begin her film career: its leading character is (like Kennedy herself) very much as a star, a natural talent, a fount of energy. As Jackie Mullens, an 18-year-old who works behind the bar of her mother’s pub in The Rocks and dreams of being a professional singer, Kennedy is perfect, both confident and vulnerable in her ambition. This confidence is key, because she’s part of a youth movement desperate for success, and without energy would not be able to support herself as a singer. Jackie is partly classical in her performance of stardom, but she is also disruptive with her punk aesthetic attitude and refusal to conform to expectations or follow the rules. She stands out from the crowd – and sometimes literally above the crowd, on a tightrope – on her own terms. At the time of casting, 20-year-old Kennedy was living in Melbourne, working as a waitress, and singing in a local band called Crashing Planes.3 Her energy and aptitude for public performance easily transferred to the screen.
As the opening credits roll, and the screen cuts to the film’s title – bold pinks against a black background – an image of Kennedy appears in a dress so silver that it looks designed to make the sun go blind. She’s dwarfed below magenta letters strewn across the screen to spell the title as they flash out of a hot pink neon palette, to the beat of The Swingers’ “Starstruck Overture”. As Jo Kennedy’s screen credit appears, the frame cuts to a half-completed collage of early 80s paraphernalia and some photos, showing Kennedy in various poses, her effervescence popping out of the photos and through the screen. Some appear to simply be plain photos tacked on a wall, but others are placed within another viewing mechanism, for instance on the lens of a Canon camera, or on a television screen. In this sense, already, Jackie is put on a platform, made to be looked at, before the story has even begun. This cuts to a close up of Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich, their photos collaged into a two-shot, their black and white faces filling the screen – two women of Hollywood’s Golden Age who, to varying degrees, defined their own success against a status quo. A collage of rock icon Elvis Presley cut-outs next fills the screen – and Elvis would return, via an impersonator (Frankie J Holden), in Armstrong’s later feature, High Tide (1987). A handwritten draft of lyrics for “Temper Temper” appears as the next background, and as Gillian Armstrong’s director credit takes the frame, lyrics scrawled behind it tell us a great deal about her attitude: “Look out everyone, here comes danger!”
This opening tells us that Gillian Armstrong, following her debut feature My Brilliant Career (1979), is going to be a success, and won’t let anything get in her way. The same thing, of course, goes for Jackie, and these stars of the opening montage are honoured, here, by her own attitude. It’s a movie in which Kennedy absolutely performs for the camera which moves avidly, fluidly, vibrantly as Jackie moves through interior and exterior spaces. During Jackie’s first musical performance at the Lizard Lounge, there’s a shot that follows her closely, circling around her in a sequence of movements that echo Jackie’s own. She’s performing for the bar, but Kennedy is equally apt at performing for the camera. Armstrong and Kennedy frame it so that Jackie’s talent comes across as natural and instinctive, while she’s inexperienced at doing what others say – Jackie’s appearance on live television is a failure, with much of her energy lost in confused direction, her spontaneous performance smothered by restriction of performing for the camera.
In another impromptu performance, Jackie and her band (properly declaring this as an Australian musical with their name The Wombats) perform “Body and Soul” (written by Split Enz star Tim Finn4) on the bar top of the Harbourview Pub while her mother, Pearl (Margo Lee) is out of town. The interior of the pub is painted with a simple likeness of the Harbour Bridge, and there’s another small figurine of it at the bar, so her performance becomes almost at one with the city. The establishment is full of casual pub clientele – locals layabouts that slug beer – who become a lively chorus line. Jackie’s boyfriend, the band’s guitarist Robbie (Ned Lander), acts as her support. Later, Angus spots her rehearsing with the band, on the roof of the pub, as his train emerges from a tunnel and crosses the bridge, the water below creating a picturesque scene. Armstrong finds music and rhythm everywhere, even from this distance, when there is no sound to accompany it.
Adding to the pop references that inform the film’s tone, there is a calendar in Jackie’s bedroom featuring one of Marilyn Monroe’s famous nude photographs that adorns her wall. She wears a turquoise mint blue barmaid outfit that echoes 1950s diners and old Hollywood movies – that at the time may have also had a reference point in television’s Happy Days, and from today’s perspective, recall the outfits of the staff at the RR Diner in the Twin Peaks universe. Like the images in the opening credits, these references call on an earlier type of star, one celebrated by a particular kind of fan appreciation, of one adored, whose style was coveted. “They’re not looking at you, it’s me! I’ve got that certain kind of animal presence,” Jackie says to Angus, as they walk down a busy street, Jackie’s new bright red-dyed spiked up-do attracting attention.
As the final climax approaches, Jackie and The Wombats orchestrate a plan to sneak in to musical performance competition on New Year’s Eve. Disguised in workman onesies, they dancing rhythmically up the steps towards the Opera House, followed by a still shot of them at a row of public phones. This sequence is clearly influenced by older musicals like the French Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967), inspired in turn by those from Hollywood’s MGM and Charles Walters, which adds even further to Kennedy’s image as a classical star. From here, Starstruck as rock musical fuses with its backstage musical influences, as artefacts of stage production assist with and become part of the putting on of performance. The band musicians co-opt the stage and begin to play “Monkey in Me”. Jackie is lowered from above on a rig display, reminiscent of Martine Carol in Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), and perhaps Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953), singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” – a film which Felicity Collins recalls in regards to Starstruck’s Busby Berkeley-inspired poolside musical number, “Tough”.5 Kennedy is, almost, a classic star in lights. In this fantasy world of Starstruck, the crowd is won over by an unlikely Sydney singer who gets a really lucky break – but who possibly has, as Jackie says, that little something extra.
From the Spotlight to the Subcultural Fringe in Tender Hooks (Mary Callaghan, 1989)
It’s a style entirely different to her performance, at the end of the decade, in Mary Callaghan’s feature film debut, Tender Hooks. While Jo Kennedy gets to sing in both, Mitch (Kennedy) only sings briefly in the later film, a few bars here and there. It’s her friend, Gaye (Anna Phillips), who worships the classic stars, who has Marilyn Monroe posters in her room and images on her clothing. There’s no Hollywood paraphernalia in Mitch’s room; only a pet tortoise, named Gary, after Gary Glitter.6 As Callaghan said at the time, Mitch is “on the fringe of the sub-culture…still evaluating, feeling her way”.7 And while she’s learning about life, she’s also confident, assured. A motorbike rider (in Starstruck, Jackie rides a scooter), in the opening scene Mitch collects her bike from amongst a group of muscled bikie men. The men seem disgruntled at this smaller woman, comfortable presenting herself to the world, not shying away from sight.
Mitch falls in love with Rex – played by Nique Needles, more familiar today for his performance as Michael Hutchence’s bandmate in Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986) – a petty criminal who seems to be constantly letting her down, and is always rude to her friends. Frustrated by his attitude, she tells him, “There’s a thin line between charisma and bullshit.” Kennedy said of acting in the role that she had to tread a precarious line, making her seem neither like a victim, nor someone too headstrong.8 She is, rather, someone who is living, sharing her love with the world, and finding where she belongs. And we see all this in Kennedy’s face; the enthusiasm, the disappointment, the indecision, and the eventual resolve in the final scene, as she walks through Sydney traffic and on to an unknown future that is entirely her own.
In interviews such as the one mentioned above, it’s clear that Kennedy was aware of the power of a role such as that of Mitch, and its nuanced view of life, one which led to an ending much harder than the utopian musical ideal of the Starstruck success story. Starstruck is, to Kennedy, a “fantasy” film.9 Tender Hooks has a much stronger tie to dramatic reality, and Callaghan attempts to explore some of the grittiness of being an adult. Mitch is frustrated by Rex’s attitude and in some ways held back by him, but she is also very much aware of their sexual and emotional connection. Mitch is, for a few months, a prison widow, a term used wryly by a woman she meets at a bus stop outside the prison. But her dedication to Rex, and her conflicted feelings about their situation, finally ends when the two simply part ways in what Susan Dermody describes as an “understatedly moving scene”.10 That’s true of Kennedy, here and in Starstruck – she has a “chaotic energy”11 that enlivens her characters.
After winning the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for Wrong World (Ian Pringle, 1985), Kennedy was nominated for an AFI Award for her performance in Tender Hooks, and for another in 2000, for her performance in Waiting at the Royal (Glenda Hambly), her second last performance before Mallboy (Vincent Giarrusso, 2001). Of working with Armstrong early in her career, Kennedy said, “It was fantastic working with a woman and we built up a real rapport.”12 This reflection is suggestive of the significance of women directors, and highlights their importance in telling women’s stories, and in shaping women’s careers. In these two performances, the way Jo Kennedy holds herself and expresses her body language is mirrored somewhat by her speech, which is in turns gentle, quiet, hesitant, and self-assured. She is cautiously determined, but even as her voice falters, the honesty of her characters come through – these are frank explorations of young women in Australia.
This article was written with the use of archival material sourced from the Australian Film Institute Research Centre.
- Helen Carter, “Gillian Armstrong,” Senses of Cinema, 22 (October 2002), http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/armstrong/\ ↩
- Although both Kennedy, and Ross O’Donovan who played her fourteen-year-old cousin Angus, have long moved on from their acting careers. ↩
- “Starstruck,” Movie News 18:2 (May/June 1982): p. 44 ↩
- For a taste, the music video is available to view online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXNp4NqmjwQ ↩
- Felicity Collins, The Films of Gillian Armstrong (Victoria: Australian Teachers of Media, 1999), p. 34. ↩
- Being the 1980s, before Glitter’s conviction for egregious sex offences, he was a glam rock icon. ↩
- Quote taken from interview with Mary Callaghan from the Tender Hooks press kit from Ronin Films, reproduced in this dossier. ↩
- Susan Charlton, “Caught in the tender trap”, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 24 1989: p. 47. ↩
- Margaret Rice, “A star rises from the end of audition lines,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 1 1982: p. 15 ↩
- Susan Dermody, “Part III: The Company of Eccentrics,” Media Information Australia 50 (November 1988): p. 148. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Margaret Rice, “A star rises from the end of audition lines.” ↩