Australian filmmaking in the 1990s was a little quieter than the 1980s as the government pared a huge tax deduction known as Division 10BA back after nearly 10 years of investors being able to claim a 150 per cent tax deduction on investing in Australian flicks. This meant the Aussie-schlock straight-to-video film market took quite the beating.
Be that as it may and despite cuts to funding as well as a more rigorous funding process being launched through the Film Finance Corporation, the Australian film industry was still able to produce a number of gems. The decade also launched some famous cinematic careers including those of Baz Luhrmann, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Jane Campion, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Toni Collette, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett among others.
It also marked another decade where some local producers found the best way to get funding was to wrangle an international star into a role. This has always been popular in Australian film with actors such as Anthony Hopkins (Spotswood), Tom Selleck (Quigley Down Under) and even jazz great Miles Davis (Dingo) dropping into Australian films during the 90s with middling success.
While there were a few misses, the nineties saw a number of excellent Australian films released and a quite a few box office hits to follow the monster 1980s success of the Crocodile Dundee mini-franchise. Chief among these were Baz Luhrmann’s suburban dance comedy Strictly Ballroom and Stephan Elliott’s gender bender, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert although they were dwarfed by the monster hit Babe which told the story of a little pig who wanted to become a sheep dog.
Babe had an all-star Aussie cast playing most of the talking farmyard animals although the lead human role went to American actor James Cromwell who did a fantastic job. The film also garnered a slew of Oscar nominations and was a worldwide smash.
Also garnering plenty of Oscar nominations was Jane Campion’s The Piano. While not strictly an Australian film as it was filmed in New Zealand by a New Zealander and starred two New Zealanders (Anna Paquin and Sam Neill) as well as two Americans (Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel), it did receive a lot of Australian funding.
Australia seems to occasionally like stealing the Kiwi’s thunder and The Piano was a classic example especially after it picked up the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as three Academy Awards including Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin) and Best Screenplay for director Jane Campion.
Closer to home and actually completely Australian (although Sir John Gielgud, Armin Mueller Stahl and Lynn Redgrave appear) was Shine, directed by Scott Hicks and starring Geoffrey Rush as troubled and parental bullied pianist David Helfgott. Rush picked up the Best Actor Academy Award gong and the film was nominated for six others as well as being a favourite on the festival circuit.
Other popular Australian movies from the 1990s included Muriel’s Wedding directed by P.J. Hogan and starring Toni Collette as well as the sequel to Babe titled Babe: Pig in the City; Two Hands starring Heath Ledger and the first films with Hugh Jackman - including Paperback Hero and Erskineville Kings.
There were great independent efforts such as Death in Brunswick with Sam Neill, Idiot Box starring Ben Mendelsohn, who has carved out a niche as a Hollywood bad guy most recently, and underrated classics such as Ana Kokkinos’s Head On as well as the film which put Russell Crowe on the road to stardom, Romper Stomper.
Then there was Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda with Cate Blanchett as well as Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road also with Cate Blanchett. For Armstrong and Beresford, both those films were homecomings of sorts after spending time in the United States. Both had initially made names for themselves in Australia during the local industry’s 1970s heyday.
Beresford, who has directed Hollywood hits such as Double Jeopardy with Tommy Lee-Jones as well as Oscar winners such as Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy is one of a number of Australian directors and stars who primarily worked internationally during the 1990s.
For example, directors such as Peter Weir, Phil Noyce and Fred Schepisi continued to make Hollywood films as did actors such as Nicole Kidman and once was an Australian, Mel Gibson. Then there was the nation’s once favourite son-in-law, Tom Cruise – actually we’ll forget about Tom and claim another New Zealander instead, Sam Neill who mixed local and international productions throughout the decade and still does.
And that was the nineties.