Monday, May 23, 2011

"Now There's a Gentleman": RIP Bill Hunter

Not many actors' deaths can be followed by statements like "it's the end of an era", but Bill Hunter is most certainly one whose career can stand up to such statements. It's hard to find a more iconic Australian actor than Bill Hunter, a man whose resume reads like a role call of some of the greatest films this nation has ever produced. With his booming voice, imposing figure and assortment of beards and moustaches, he lent himself to portraying the sort of cops, soldiers and larrikin characters that he so frequently played. Throughout roles in Australia (2008), Backroads (1977), Crackerjack (2002), Gallipoli (1981, AFI Award winner), Heatwave (1982), In Search of Anna (1978), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992, AFI Award nominee), Mad Dog Morgan (1976, AFI Award nominee), The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Road to Nhill (1997), The Square (2008) and Tom White (2003), amongst many other films and acclaimed TV work, he proved to be the sort of actor that even those who can't find a nice word to say about Australian cinema could agree was a legend of the field.

Philip Noyce, who directed Hunter in Heatwave and the towering Newsfront, recently described him as defining the Australian male identity of the twentieth century. Not only that, his work ethic typified the idea of the working Aussie actor. Unafraid to take a role in anything, including films from first time directors (Philip Noyce, Stephan Elliot, Alkinos Tsilimidos, PJ Hogan, Baz Luhrmann) and television series of questionable quality. To show how much he continued to work up until his death at age 71, Hunter has three movies set for release over the next year: Red Dog, The Wedding Party and The Cup, in which he plays famed horse riding coach Bart Cummings in what I can foresee as nabbing him his seventh and final AFI Award nomination. His identifiable voice was also always in high demand, having provided vocal duties on Finding Nemo (2003), The Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole (2010) and television commercial work that, in a sad twist of the knife, I have seen several times since his passing on Saturday night.

Bill Hunter filming The Cup in 2010

For a man that resembled the rough and burly look with a love for beer that Australians were typically known for, it is surprising then to note the three film that introduced Hunter a new generation of film lovers. I distinctly remember seeing Hunter for the first time in the unofficial camp-campier-campiest trilogy of Australian films from the early 1990s; Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel's Wedding (1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), the latter two duel-handedly reviving the public's obsession with ABBA, so he has that to be proud of! As the grotesquely villainous "Bill Heslop" and "Barnie Fife" in PJ Hogan's Muriel's Weddding and Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom, his authoritative presence was a much needed jolt to films that were overflowing with young and first timer talent.

Strictly Ballroom | Muriel's Wedding (with Toni Collette)
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

However, personally, it was his role as the lovable outback mechanic "Bob" in Priscilla that is the most startling of his career. It can't be stated enough that in 1994 Bill Hunter - the Bill Hunter - played a man who falls in love with a transgendered woman. I rewatched Stephan Elliot's brilliant comedy last night and it continues to make me, quite literally, laugh and cry through the whole gamut of emotions. Hunter and Terrence Stamp's "Bernadette" are the heart of the movie, if you will, and their final scene where we realise they might in fact attempt to give a relationship a go is a real heartbreaker. As Bernedette says, a real gentleman is hard to find, and she found one!

I love The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so much that I routinely label it my favourite Australian film ever made. However, if I had to pick the best? Well, I'm not sure I could go past another Bill Hunter film, Newsfront (1978). A movie that is routinely cited as one of the, if not the, greatest Australian film ever made really is just superb in every way. Hunter's performance, for which he won the AFI Award for lead actor, is just one part of it.

Bill Hunter and Chris Haywood in Newsfront

Hunter was an actor of such status that many on Twitter called for the Australian film industry to be cancelled since his presence was pretty much mandatory. Joking or not, the industry will obviously keep chugging along, but Hunter's passing will leave a sad hole in it and one that won't be replaced. RIP.


Richard said...

Glenn, this is just beautiful. You really established who Bill Hunter was and what he meant to Australian cinema. I saw Priscilla for the first last month and I loved it, absolutely loved it, and Im a guy. I saw him live at a Sydney production for Priscilla and when he came on stage the whole place cheered. He is such a beloved icon and he will truly be missed. Newsfront is on dvd at my uni and I'll definately watch it.

kerry hodge said...

bill was the best mate i have ever had in life he looked after me when i lost my son he bought me a new guitar when i had mine stolen and we sat together out side the sir john young hotel in sydney for about 4 months having a chat and telling each other a joke or two what a top top man r.i.p old bill