b. 1940, Paddington, Sydney, Australia

That we would see in letters five feet high
His name one day spread shining in the gloom
Preceded with the words ‘Directed by’ –
To doubt that prospect there was never room.
He had the screenplay ready in the womb.
He was (he’ll know I say it without unction)
By nature built for one creative function.

– Clive James on Bruce Beresford1 

I didn’t make it into Halliwell’s cinema directory until I’d directed 15 films and had two Academy Award nominations. Yet he had Icelandic directors listed who had done one movie.

– Bruce Beresford2

Very nice of the SMH to note the bad reviews for my film. Did they do the same for Fred (Schepisi) on Mr Baseball and Peter (Weir) on Fearless? Why am I singled out!

– Bruce Beresford to Sue Milliken3

The above quotations point to the double bind regarding the career and reputation of Bruce Beresford, an Australian director who was instrumental in the Australian New Wave in both its tackier and more prestigious offerings, who continues to make films both locally and abroad, and who has directed Oscar-winning and/or nominated features and performances. On the one hand, as his own assessments indicate, the label of “auteur” eludes Beresford, despite helming a number of critical, commercial, and cult successes. Like Rodney Dangerfield’s put-upon everyman, he “don’t get no respect,” especially compared to some of his Antipodean contemporaries with fewer screen credits: where the abovementioned Weir and Schepisi, or indeed George Miller and Gillian Armstrong, are lauded as auteurs, the “journeyman” label dogs Beresford, and he has experienced more professional valleys. On the other hand, he has experienced some spectacular, undeniable professional peaks, and as Clive James’ admiring poem highlights, Beresford is an innate storyteller born for the craft: like Steven Spielberg, Beresford was bowled over by movies at early age, and made his first 8mm home movie aged 12.4

Beresford has adapted the work of Australian playwright David Williamson twice, in Don’s Party (Bruce Beresford, 1977)—his critical breakthrough, which won him a Best Director gong at that year’s Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards—and The Club (Bruce Beresford, 1980). Beresford says of Williamson, “I am continually astonished at the range of subject matter—friendships, love affairs, business, law, sports, politics—and the insight, humour and depth with which every topic is handled.”5 The admiration expressed for Williamson’s breadth of subject matter could be said of Beresford’s own diverse, at times eclectic filmography. Beresford has straddled various genres with more dexterity than most Australian directors, tackling comedies, thrillers, war films, character dramas, romantic comedies, Biblical epics, and so on. He showcased this affinity for genre-hopping as early as Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (Bruce Beresford, 1974), dabbling in genres like schlock horror, espionage thriller, musical, and kung fu action film, preceding later Australian films that would dabble singularly in these genres like The Man from Hong Kong (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1975), Thirst (Rod Hardy, 1979), and Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982). Between 1972 and 1981, in addition to the abovementioned Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Don’s Party, and The Club, Beresford helmed The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Bruce Beresford, 1972), The Getting of Wisdom (Bruce Beresford, 1978), Money Movers (Bruce Beresford, 1978), Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980), and Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981). Among post-New Wave Australian directorial careers, this string of films is unrivalled in its volume and variety.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie

In the years since, Beresford has accrued a further 29 directing credits on films, telemovies, miniseries, and a segment of the anthology film Aria (Robert Altman et al., 1987) alongside Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Nicolas Roeg, and others. While some of those films are forgettable—and others forgotten, due to varying commercial performances and degrees of home video and streaming availability—Beresford has made a number of great films at home—The Fringe Dwellers (Bruce Beresford, 1986), Ladies in Black (Bruce Beresford, 2018)—and abroad—Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983), Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989), Mister Johnson (Bruce Beresford, 1990)—and between—international co-productions Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), Paradise Road (Bruce Beresford, 1997), and Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, 2009). He has directed a Best Picture Oscar winner in Driving Miss Daisy, a nominee in Tender Mercies—for which he was also nominated as Best Director—as well as Oscar-winning performances—Robert Duvall, Jessica Tandy—and Oscar-nominated performances—Sissy Spacek, Tess Harper, Morgan Freeman, Dan Aykroyd.

Mao’s Last Dancer

The deficit portrait of Beresford, as intimated above, paints him as a solid journeyman at best. This piece argues that Beresford belongs in the Great Directors canon for a variety of reasons. In addition to his malleability across genres, he is a masterful functional storyteller: whilst there are some bad Beresford films, there are no badly directed Beresford films. He is a savvy adapter of material, with his functional storytelling approach working in service of playwrights and novelists. And some auteurist traits are exhibited in his work in casting—notable regulars including Jack Thompson, Edward Woodward, Pierce Brosnan, Morgan Freeman, and Bruce Greenwood—and recurring collaborators, along with frequent thematic preoccupations with and gravitation to stories about culture clashes, fish out of water narratives, the abuse of power, and faith, its affordances & limitations. And for a director originally known for rowdy entertainments like the Barry McKenzie films and Don’s Party—whose most renowned work, Breaker Morant, is largely male-fronted—he has directed a significant number of women-centred productions with compelling female leads: The Getting of Wisdom, Puberty Blues, Crimes of the Heart (Bruce Beresford, 1986), The Fringe Dwellers, Driving Miss Daisy, Last Dance (Bruce Beresford, 1996), Paradise Road, Double Jeopardy (Bruce Beresford, 1999), and most recently Ladies in Black.

Puberty Blues Poster

There is something to be said for the role of momentum when it comes to cementing a director’s reputation: see for example, among recent auteur success stories, Christopher Nolan’s ascent from Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) to The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) and Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) via Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002), Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), and The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006). I argue there is an incredible one-two-three punch in Beresford’s career, one of the very best of late 20th century cinema: Driving Miss Daisy, Mister Johnson, and Black Robe.  But while Driving Miss Daisy was a major commercial success and scored the Academy Award for Best Picture—albeit without a Best Director nomination for Beresford—there was no ripple effect on those later films. Mister Johnson was, Beresford notes, “seen by no-one” despite being “the best reviewed film I ever made by far,”6 and Black Robe, despite wide acclaim, made only a minor dent in the public consciousness. This piece focuses on those three tremendous films, along with Breaker Morant, arguably his very best. Three of these Beresford himself rates among his best: Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy, and Black Robe.7

Breaker Morant 

As mentioned above, a number of Beresford’s overseas films are not readily available in either streaming or physical form. However, his Australian output from 1972–1981 is widely accessible thanks to companies like Umbrella Entertainment. Beresford’s most acclaimed film from this period, Breaker Morant, is arguably the jewel in the crown of his career. It scored Beresford a second AFI Best Director award, a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination—alongside credited co-screenwriters Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens—and is one of two Beresford films canonised in the Criterion Collection, alongside Mister Johnson. The film presents the court martial of soldier Harry ‘The Breaker’ Morant (Edward Woodward) and his accomplices Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) for war crimes committed during the Second Anglo-Boer War. The film pieces together past events through flashback and elucidates the British military echelon’s complicity in these acts. 

It is hard to avoid superlatives when writing about Breaker Morant, especially within the word count constraints imposed by a larger career portrait such as this; for a more focused discussion of the film, I would point you to my piece commemorating its 40th anniversary, published at The Curb.8 The film is thematically textured and rich in its depiction of culture clash and abuse of power, and nuanced in its treatment of the subject and character, especially in comparison to its engaging but one-dimensional stage source, Kenneth G. Ross’s Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts. Beresford’s classical and unobtrusive directing style give the film a timeless quality, especially compared to other heavily timestamped Australian films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The late Pauline Kael was not a fan of Beresford, accusing him of being “the most academic of directors. There is a certain gloomy, clumsy fidelity in his work. The sheer lack of imagination is perhaps his greatest weapon”. Yet those academic qualities—professionalism, rigour, detachment, precision—contribute to the film’s timeless quality, and give the film’s climax—Morant and Handcock’s execution, performed with emotionless military ritual—its particular, peculiar frisson.  

Some actors have criticised Beresford’s directorial approach. Notably, Jessica Lange reported that she “had difficulties with Beresford [on Crimes of the Heart] … He didn’t give us any direction.”9 In contrast, Richard Gere, title star of King David (Bruce Beresford, 1985), called Beresford “the best director I have ever worked with.”10 Watching Breaker Morant, it is evident that Beresford is a consummate actor’s director, his unobtrusive visual style giving space to showcase career-best performances from Jack Thompson (as Morant’s defence attorney), Woodward, Brown, Fitz-Gerald, and Rod Mullinar (as Morant’s prosecutor), among others. Thompson and Brown would be awarded with Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Actor and Supporting Actor respectively, and the former was awarded at Cannes for his work. 

Driving Miss Daisy

As alluded to above, one of Beresford’s characteristics—and I would argue strengths—as a director is his aesthetic unobtrusiveness, particularly in his adaptation of books and plays to screen. Notable among his adaptations, Beresford has steered to screen the David Williamson plays Don’s Party and The Club, the abovementioned Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts—significantly substantiated with material from Kit Denton’s book The Breaker and Beresford’s own research—and two Pulitzer Prize winning dramas in Crimes of the Heart and Driving Miss Daisy. In addition to those stage adaptations, from literature Beresford has adapted The Getting of Wisdom, Puberty Blues, Mister Johnson, Black Robe, Mao’s Last Dancer, and Ladies in Black. Beresford’s own style does not get in the way of the material; rather, he translates material with as much clarity as possible, finding ways to amplify what is already on the page. 

However, it is this unobtrusiveness that also renders Beresford invisible as an auteur compared to contemporaries with more marked authorial signatures such as Peter Weir or George Miller. Whilst nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Tender Mercies, Beresford was not nominated for Driving Miss Daisy, a film that won Best Picture. Nominated in his place that year were Weir for Dead Poet’s Society (Peter Weir, 1989), Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Jim Sheridan, and victor Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), all directors with overt—and in some cases clobbering—visual styles. Oscar host Billy Crystal would dub Driving Miss Daisy “The picture that apparently directed itself.”11

Driving Miss Daisy

Easy jokes aside, the film—about the friendship sparked between an elder Jewish woman (Jessica Tandy) and her black chauffer (Morgan Freeman) over a twenty year period coinciding with the civil rights movement—is efficiently and intelligently directed by Beresford. As illustrated in Peter Coleman’s book on the filmmaker, after pinning down script Beresford “preplans and storyboards the entire film from beginning to end, working closely with the production designer and the cinematographer … The film is, in effect, edited as or even before it is shot”. As the director observes, “You can have a fine script with excellent dialogue performed by super actors, but if it is photographed from the wrong angle it will not work.”12 This approach gives Beresford’s films their clarity, tightness, and economy of storytelling, all qualities evident in Driving Miss Daisy. And whilst undeniably sentimental and syrupy, this tone is in service of the source material; in contrast, the abovementioned Breaker Morant and the next two films discussed derive power precisely from their lack of sentimentality. 

Mister Johnson

Oscar success is rarely based solely on the merits of the winning film itself, and more often propelled by a network of promotional machinery. As case in point is Driving Miss Daisy, which Beresford calls “the only film I’ve done which had first class promotion and advertising all the way through … It’s far from being the best film I’ve done, but just look at the result.”13 A contrasting case in point: Mister Johnson, Beresford’s highly praised follow-up which did not win awards or enjoy robust box office, and the film remains little-known despite its deserved place in the Criterion Collection. Beresford himself notes that it was “the best reviewed film I ever made by far, and seen by no-one.”14

Set in British-ruled Nigeria in 1923, the film depicts magistrate Harry Rudbeck’s (Pierce Brosnan) efforts overseeing the construction of a road. Rudbeck is assisted by Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi), a local with the boon of British education and civic responsibility. Yet Johnson does not fit neatly into either culture: his tragic flaw and ultimate downfall. The fish out of water is a common trope across Beresford’s work, evident in Breaker Morant—where the British-born Morant fits in with neither the British military echelon or his fellow Australian soldiers—and here in the beautifully realised and performed character of Johnson. Johnson is a liminal figure striving to reinvent himself as a “civilised” gentleman and ingratiate himself with the British. By virtue of race Johnson is incapable of doing so, but he is also too British for his fellow Nigerians; he straddles both camps and belongs to neither, yet maintains a perennially upbeat disposition in the face of complications. 

Liberal humanist race drama is another recurring motif in Beresford’s filmography, as seen in Driving Miss Daisy. Like that film, there’s a lightness of touch to Mister Johnson. Where a director like Spielberg might have sunk the film in sap, or an Alan Parker type would have stuffed it with righteous indignation and self-importance, Beresford keeps a steady hand. Though there’s a tragic dimension to the title character, and the spectre of an inevitable and sad denouement—evocative of Breaker Morant—hangs over the story, the film never feels tragic or maudlin, and at times is joyous, much like its protagonist. In Beresford’s hands, Mister Johnson is, tonally, something of a minor miracle. 

Black Robe 

While Harry Morant calls himself a pagan, he chooses the words of Jesus Christ as his epitaph: “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household,” from the Gospel of Matthew 10:36. In a heavily secular film culture, Beresford is unique in frequently returning to Christian subject matter and stories of the faithful executed with a measure of respect: most notably King David, but also Tender Mercies, Evelyn (Bruce Beresford, 2002), and Black Robe. The latter film depicts Jesuit priest Father LaForgue (Lothaire Bluteau) and his thwarted attempts to spread the Gospel in the rugged Canada of the 1600s. LaForgue embarks on a 1500 mile journey through severe wintry terrain accompanied by Daniel (Aden Young) and a posse of Algonquin Indians headed by Chomina (August Schellenberg). They encounter opposition in the form of the violent Iriquois tribe, and LaForgue’s compassion for his resistant flock is tested.

As mentioned above, Black Robe is the third entry in what I consider one of the greatest one-two-three punches in late 20th century cinema, following Driving Miss Daisy and Mister Johnson, and should have elevated Beresford’s reputation. But only Driving Miss Daisy was a critical, commercial, and awards success, and Mister Johnson and Black Robe, despite their wide acclaim, made only minor dents in the public consciousness. Momentum comes, in part, from cohesion: where there is a clear stylistic through-line in the aforementioned professional ascent of someone like Christopher Nolan—and demographic crossover between audiences for the films peppering Nolan’s ascent to directorial superstardom—the films comprising Beresford’s one-two-three punch are disparate in style and preoccupations. As Beresford himself observed, “no-one who saw Daisy will want to see Black Robe15 despite it being “the best thing I’ve done” and a film that “will grow with the passing of time.”16

Yet those thematic motifs evident across previous and subsequent Beresford films are evident here: fish out of water tropes—LaForgue is an inexpressive, prickly character of contradictory tides, with strained compassion and increasing distaste for his immovable flock—and culture clashes—Jesuits missionaries vs. the native Iriquois—and faith, its limitations and affordances, evident in LaForgue’s conflicting feelings of conviction and defeat. Also evident is Beresford’s efficient, unobtrusive storytelling approach, seen especially in his delicate handling of potentially gruesome moments. With its impeccable craft and intelligent treatment of the material, Black Robe captures an inhospitable landscape, both environmental and spiritual. Where The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1985), released a few years earlier and similarly grappling with thwarted attempts to spread the Gospel in inhospitable locales, romanticises its protagonists—Jeremy Irons’ pure priest and Robert De Niro’s redeemed sinner—Black Robe presents, in Beresford’s characteristically straightforward, unaffected style, an unseen but unrelenting spiritual warfare between good and evil, enacted and manifested through the violent clash of cultures and beliefs. 

Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this…

Beresford is credited as screenwriter on ten of his projects. In other instances he has been an active collaborator with screenwriters, and in others a faithful steward of literary and stage sources to the screen. It seemed fitting, then, to conclude this piece highlighting his autobiographical writings: 2007’s Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do thisTrue stories from a life in the screen trade, Beresford’s published diaries chronicling his development, wheeling, and dealing on projects between completion of the telemovie And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (Bruce Beresford, 2003) and the first day of production on serviceable thriller The Contract (Bruce Beresford, 2006); 2016’s There’s a Fax From Bruce, his published correspondence with producer Sue Milliken; and the 2017 essay collection The Best Film I Never Made.17  

Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this … is the best of the three: it is self-deprecating, dry, blunt almost to a fault, and reveals Beresford to be a pragmatic, perceptive critic of both his own work and others. In chronicling his attempts to get films off the ground between And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself and The Contract, he illuminates the working class ethos and passion for directing that has led him to direct lesser films while waiting for other passion projects to bear fruit. Beresford kept multiple irons burning in the fire during this time, some of which would see fruition later (Ladies in Black), some later directed by other filmmakers (Miss Potter, Chris Noonan, 2006), and many never eventuating. On the subject of The Contract, he writes that it is “Difficult to resist as other projects don’t seem to be moving, or, if they are, it’s imperceptible. I have to earn some money and I LIKE to shoot films. Must be careful not to let my enthusiasm for shooting lead me into rash decisions. It did with Her Alibi [Bruce Beresford, 1989] and A Good Man in Africa [Bruce Beresford, 1994].18  

Beresford is an entertaining wordsmith, though readers’ enjoyment will vary, as he did not get the woke memo and is fairly relaxed about industry whistleblowing. On the subject of Ladies in Black, he speaks of meeting with the Film Finance Corporation and notes the “contempt” they held towards the project19—which fifteen years later would be profitable, acclaimed, and award-nominated—and compares one executive to a “dominatrix in an Almodovar film.”20 On meeting with Kevin Costner, he recounts that Costner “recently saw Don’s Party on TV and was very impressed. Said it was late at night and he assumed at first it was a porn movie as he’d never heard of it, or any of the actors involved.”21 He memorably bags films—calling The Night We Called It a Day (Paul Goldman, 2003) “the worst directed Australian film ever … run a close second by Dirty Deeds [David Caesar, 2002]”22—and celebrities, saving the most relish for titular “character” Josh Hartnett: “He regales me for an hour or more with a monologue extolling his total dedication as an actor and his intention to make a wonderful film. The implication seems to be that no one else involved in the project shares his seriousness of purpose. The meeting with Josh ranks fairly high in my list of tortured actor encounters.”23 There’s a Fax From Bruce also has its share of colourful cutting remarks: he advises his colleague to “Give Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [Tom Stoppard, 1990] a wide berth … Just like the play it’s an affected piece of claptrap,”24 is “tired of [cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro’s endless sunset scenes,”25 and describes Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994) as “very overlong and sentimental. It was an imitation Louis Malle film but without the panache.”26

Don’s Party

In an interview with Bret Easton Ellis, director Walter Hill says of Michael Cimino “you only need one” great film to qualify as an important director.27 Beresford, I would argue, has five great films—the four discussed above, along with Tender Mercies—and at minimum a dozen other films that are excellent, intriguing, or of cultural import. His is a career worth celebrating, and a filmography worth canonising.


  1. Peter Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart (Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1992), p. 3.
  2. Bruce Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this …True stories from a life in the screen trade (Australia: Fourth Estate, 2007), p. 61.
  3. Bruce Beresford and Sue Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce (Strawberry Hills: Currency Press, 2016), p. 136.
  4. Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart, p. 6.
  5. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 113.
  6. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 166.
  7. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 58. He includes Tender Mercies in this list, and professes a soft spot for The Getting of Wisdom.
  8. BD Kooyman, “The Gentleman’s War is Over: Breaker Morant at 40,” The Curb, March 15, 2020, https://www.thecurb.com.au/the-gentlemans-war-is-over-breaker-morant-at-40/
  9. Joe Queenan, If you’re talking to me, your career must be in trouble (Hyperion, 1994), p. 229.
  10. Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart, p. 20.
  11. Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart, p. 137.
  12. Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart, p. 19.
  13. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 35.
  14. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 166.
  15. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 34.
  16. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 50.
  17. Bruce Beresford, The Best Film I Never Made, and other stories about a life in the Arts (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017).
  18. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 111.
  19. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 152.
  20. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 153.
  21. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 195.
  22. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 99.
  23. Beresford, Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this, p. 258.
  24. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 32.
  25. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 50.
  26. Beresford and Milliken, There’s a Fax from Bruce, pp. 181-182
  27. Bret Easton Ellis and Walter Hill, “B.E.E. – Walter Hill – 5/1/17,” May 1, 2017, in Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, podcast, iTunes.

About The Author

Dr Benjamin Kooyman has worked in the field of academic language and learning support for the past decade. Prior to joining the Academic Skills team at ANU, he served as a Learning Adviser with a widening participation focus at the University of South Australia, and as an Academic Skills Adviser and Academic Integrity Officer at the Australian College of Physical Education. He has a PhD in English literature from Flinders University and has published widely in the areas of literature, film, and academic language and learning.

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