June 2021

Arts & Letters

Like no actor ever: ‘My Name Is Gulpilil’

By Shane Danielsen

Molly Reynolds’s beautiful documentary is a fitting tribute to David Gulpilil, at the end of his singular life

I can’t tell you the first time I saw John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe – but I remember exactly when I first saw David Gulpilil. It was in Storm Boy, Henri Safran’s 1976 family classic, to which our fourth-grade teacher took us one weekday morning. The occasion now escapes me, though I seem to recall it was around Christmas; nor can I quite place the cinema. (Was it the Lyceum on Pitt Street?) But the shock of Gulpilil’s first appearance onscreen was unforgettable. I sobbed when Mr Percival died – unlike that wretched remake, the original Storm Boy was a terrific movie – but once that anguish faded, what lingered was mostly a kind of bewildered fascination. That Fingerbone Bill guy… who was he? Were there others like him, beyond the Sydney suburbs I knew?

I went to Kogarah Primary School in the late 1970s. There were no Indigenous kids in my class – or at the school at all, as far as I know, well-populated though it was by Greeks, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and even one lonely, anxious boy from Taiwan. The lives and struggles of our country’s original inhabitants were as remote from our experience as the reforms of Solon; the subject was never discussed or even raised. This misprision continued into high school: Australian history began in April 1770, we were informed; before that, as one of my history teachers put it, was “just a lot of savages buggerising around”.

Such, such were the joys.

It was another David Gulpilil film that helped open my eyes: his screen debut, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), which I jigged school one afternoon to catch at Dave’s Encore Cinema in the city, a rep joint in whose musty darkness I spent a good many hours throughout 1984 and ’85. Adapted from James Vance Marshall’s novel The Children, Edward Bond’s screenplay reportedly ran to just 14 pages; Roeg’s refined compositional eye and improvisational brilliance did the rest. But crucially, he also had Gulpilil, the kind of secret weapon a filmmaker dreams of: a figure of coiled energy and casual, effortless grace. Someone who commands the screen simply by the act of allowing themselves to be photographed.

David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, 67, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. He formally retired from acting two years later. But the chemo has stopped working, immunotherapy has been suspended; it’s now just a matter of time. My Name Is Gulpilil is his testament, “my story of my story”, and director Molly Reynolds opens with a quietly inspired shot of the Yolngu man today, in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, walking away from the camera down a dirt track… then turning to look back, and walking slowly towards the viewer again. Without words, it sets out the structure of the film we’re about to watch, its subject simultaneously moving forwards – towards his death, as he concedes (“It’s like, I’m walking across the desert of country, until the time comes, for me”) – and backwards, to take in the totality of his life and work.

It’s a hell of a story. Feted by critics, he dined with the Queen of England, who later introduced him to John Lennon. He also met Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, visited Hong Kong and Paris and New York, and starred in two more landmark works of the New Australian Cinema: Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan in 1976, and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave the following year. As Gulpilil’s reputation grew, his opportunities broadened: he took small roles in The Right Stuff for Philip Kaufman and Until the End of the World for Wim Wenders, played the wise fool in Crocodile Dundee, anchored the outrage of Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). He also appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, but hey, even the most enviable filmography has the occasional turd.

There were rough times, too, which to its credit this documentary doesn’t attempt to elide: periods of alcohol and drug dependence, a spell in jail for assaulting his then partner, a falling-out with his community in Ramingining, Arnhem Land. For a time he was lost, to the screen and to himself. (“I’m an alcoholic,” he declares flatly. “A drug and alcoholic.”) But somehow he turned himself around and began working wholeheartedly again – most crucially, in collaboration with Reynolds’ husband, the filmmaker Rolf de Heer, for whom he starred in The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013), which he co-wrote with the director and which rightly earned him a Best Actor award at Cannes.

As a boy, he explains, he was an innocent. “Non-drinker, non-smoker. Not even a sweet. That was me.” There’s a rueful sadness to the admission, and that prelapsarian sense of loss echoes through this film. He was 16 then, living in Arnhem Land; less than two years later he was on a plane to Heathrow, en route to Cannes, where Walkabout was screening in Competition alongside Wake in Fright – probably the best single year’s representation this country’s ever had there. Newsreel footage of him walking around London, wide-eyed and grinning in a suit and tie, is heartbreaking in the manner of old family photos. And while the tone here is not wholly melancholy – the archival material is frequently incredible, and excerpts from his one-man stage show reveal a natural gift for comedy – much of it sees the veteran actor grappling with his own mortality, attempting to manage his illness while contemplating what might lie ahead.

We find him sitting quietly in a hospital room, tethered to an IV drip, then we cut to a succession of close-ups of his face through the years: as a 14-year-old boy… at 48… at 60. Beautiful in his youth, his features have with age acquired a flinty grandeur; he looks like he’s been carved out of mahogany, the flesh and sinew pared back to some essential minimum. And then we’re back in the present once more, watching as he walks laboriously to the front of his house in Murray Bridge, in South Australia, to check the mail. (Praise must go here to Tania Nehme’s editing, which constantly finds elegant, rhyming transitions between past and present.)

Inside, he takes his medication and paints and talks. On one wall, behind him, is the Craig Ruddy portrait that won the Archibald Prize. In addition to the cancer, he’s suffering from emphysema. He huffs at a Ventolin inhaler and jokes with his carer, a long-time friend called Mary Hood. Later on, after a tearful reunion with two of his sisters, he asks them to begin preparing his funeral. By then, he looks exhausted.

We talk a lot about a national identity to our filmmaking – or at least we did, when our funding agencies still wanted to make movies and our audiences were still inclined to see them. But it’s difficult, I think, to deny that, whatever Australian Cinema might be, David Gulpilil – not “Our Nic”, or Cate – is its true and enduring face. This isn’t a sop to political correctness, or some revisionist take on history; it’s a simple statement of fact. No one else embodies Australia like him, and no one else can do what he does. Kidman and Blanchett are both accomplished actors, but they’re working within an established tradition, as they would freely admit. Gulpilil is not. He was a performer, yes, a dancer (and that physical grace, the supple ease in his own body, is the hidden thread linking all his best performances), but he had no formal training and no technique. Just instinct, nerve and presence.

“I don’t pretend,” he declares at one point. “I don’t have to go and act. I just jump in and stand there and the camera sees me.” This is a gift. It can’t be taught: you either have it or you don’t, and it can manifest in ways modest or monumental. Greta Gerwig, for example, has an extraordinary ability to appear unselfconscious in front of a camera, but she hardly dominates the screen, or shows you something you’ve never seen before. Gulpilil did. You could argue that’s because our points of reference were so limited – he was, after all, the first Indigenous Australian many of us ever saw onscreen – but in fact it’s because his were. He wasn’t remotely film-literate. He had never read a play or a novel. He didn’t yearn to become a movie star, or even really understand what that would mean. Without a map to orientate himself, without examples to emulate, he created something personal and utterly unique. Watch him in Charlie’s Country and you see the perfection of a particular thing, a mode of performance that’s at once finely calibrated and utterly intuitive and spontaneous. He’s like no one else onscreen ever – how many actors can claim that?

And unlike his more famous peers, he also stuck around, steadfastly refusing to work outside his homeland. In the process, he came to represent something greater than himself. Just as there was never an actor quite as American as Jimmy Stewart (or as British as James Mason, or as Italian as Alberto Sordi…), there’s never been as purely – one might say, as full-bloodedly – Australian an actor as Gulpilil. He and this country are, for all intents and purposes, one – something Molly Reynolds seems to acknowledge here, via a sequence of tableau shots that situate him in various unmistakably Australian landscapes: a parched paddock, a dirt highway, a billabong. Even the foyer of an old Art Deco cinema.

Soon he’ll leave us. This sad, often beautiful film is both a reminder of who he was, and a pendant to the strange and singular achievement he leaves behind. Ever mindful of his legacy, he even delivers his own epitaph, as he talks about the responsibility he felt, in his work, to represent for the wider world his people and their way of life: “Everything right, for my culture. I made it true.”

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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