New Australian Directors of the 1980s – The Arty-Types vs The Crowd-Pleasers

This post looks at the careers and films of Australian directors who made their first big impact in the 1980s: Ray Lawrence, George T. Miller, Paul Cox, Yahoo Serious, John Duigan (who had made good films in the 70s but made his most successful films in the 80s and 90s), Simon Wincer, Nadia Tass,  Charles Schultz, Richard Lowenstein, Ken Cameron, Stephen Wallace, George OgilvieBob Ellis and Russell Mulcahy, as well as the writer/producers Paul Hogan and John Cornell, who represent a special case. We also briefly mention the works of Gil Brealey, Glenda Hambly, John Honey, Michael Pattinson, Sophia Turkiewicz, Claude Whatham, Craig Lahiff, Don McLennan, Ned Lander and Robyn Nevin. We lastly look at The 1980s at the Australian Box Office and Ozflicks’ Favourite Australian Films of the 1980s.

The 1980s saw many changes in Australian film-making, and increasing numbers of films were made in a greater range of genres. As many of the top Oz directors of the 70s moved to Hollywood in the early 80s, two broad types of directors took their place: new ‘serious’ directors, trying to make ‘quality’ films on serious themes with high artistic merit, and ‘populists’, trying to make commercially-successful, entertaining films that attracted large audiences. While the former were more popular with the critics and the Australian Film Institute (AFI) who gave out awards, the latter made some of our most popular films ever. Both types of films found devotees.

The 1980s were characterised by a number of trends:

  • The main 70s directors dominated the first few years of the 1980s, but then left to seek success in Hollywood, leaving the field to new names.

  • The introduction in 1981 of generous tax concessions for film finance (the 10BA provisions) resulted in an increase in the number of films made, as well as a dramatic shift from government financing of films to private financing, and an increase in the average budgets of Australian films. With the increasing number of films being made, a greater range of Australian films were made, with fewer period films and more contemporary dramas, crime films, action films and comedies.

  • There was an increase in cross-fertilisation between feature film production and commercial television production. Firstly, directors, producers and writers from Australian commercial television (notably the team of Paul Hogan and John Cornell, as well as George T. Miller and Simon Wincer) started making hugely successful Australian blockbuster feature films. Secondly, feature film directors began making large-budget mini-series for both commercial television stations and the ABC (Phil Noyce, Ken Hannam, Henri Safran, Charles Schultz and Ken Cameron all made major mini-series).

  • The 1980s are characterised by a few smash hits which did outstanding business domestically and internationally, and a large number of smaller budget films which gained only limited critical and commercial success. The biggest successes were Crocodile Dundee and The Man From Snowy River which remain the most successful and third most successful Australian films ever (in real terms).

  • The divide between ‘quality’ films and ‘commercial’ films (crowd-pleasing films favouring entertainment above artistic considerations) grew larger, with the most successful films ignored by the Australian Film Institute (AFI) when it gave out awards, and the films favoured by the AFI often failing to set the box office alight.

In terms of directors, the main new directors of the 1980s and generally be divided into either the ‘quality’ or ‘commercial’ camps, roughly as follows:

Quality’ (AFI-favoured) Directors                  Commercially-0riented Directors

Ray Lawrence                                                           George T. Miller

Paul Cox                                                                      Yahoo Serious

John Duigan                                                              Simon Wincer

Nadia Tass                                                                  Paul Hogan and John Cornell*

Charles Schultz

Richard Lowenstein

* Paul Hogan and John Cornell did not direct their own movies, but were the main creative talents behind some of Australia’s most successful films ever.

Here are some details of the careers and achievements of the major directors who established themselves in the 1980s:

1. Ray Lawrence

lawrence4-2Ray Lawrence was born in England in 1948 and moved to Australia in 1956, settling in Victor Harbour in South Australia. Coming to film from a career in advertising and a love of painting, Lawrence is something of an enigma, starting late, directing only three films in 20 years and then disappearing again. But his films have won two AFI Best Director awards (Bliss and Lantana) and been nominated for one more (Jindabyne). Lantana is his finest film and is regularly chosen as one of Australia’s best films by both critics and the public.

He has made only 3 films, all Australian: Bliss (1986), Lantana (2001) and Jindabyne (2008).

2. Paul Cox

Cox2 (3).jpgPaul Cox was born in the Netherlands in 1940 and came to Australia in 1965. He was the son of a documentary film-maker and worked as a photographer in Holland and Australia and a photography teacher in the 1970s. He was a prolific film-maker, directing 20 Australian features between 1974 and 2015. He also made 13 short films between 1965 and 1978 and ten documentaries, mainly in the 70s and 80s. He has made more Australian films than any other director. His films, often on small budgets, looked at human intimacy and frailty. His most successful films came in the early 80s with the trio Lonely Hearts (1982), Man of Flowers (1983) and My First Wife (1984). Cox won an AFI Best Film award for Lonely Hearts and his films Man of Flowers, My First Wife and Island were all nominated. He won the AFI Best Director award for My First Wife and was nominated for six other films, a record. He died recently in mid-2016.

Cox made 20 Australian feature films: Illuminations (1976), Inside Looking Out (1977), Kostas (1979), Lonely Hearts (1982), Man of Flowers (1983), My First Wife (1984), Handle with Care (1985) (TV), Cactus (1986), Touch the Sun: The Gift (1988) (TV), Island (1989), Golden Braid (1990), A Woman’s Tale (1991), The Nun and the Bandit (1992), Exile (1994), Lust and Revenge (1996), Innocence (2000), The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001), Human Touch (2004), Salvation (2008) and Force of Destiny (2015). He made only one film overseas: Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999), which he made in Hawaii.

Recommended Reading: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of Paul Cox

3. John Duigan

duigan78John Duigan was born in England in 1949 and came to Australia (Melbourne) in 1961. He has made 19 films including 12 Australian films. Duigan started directing in the mid-1970s and made a variety of interesting films, but had his best period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the semi-autobiographical The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting, as well as Sirens. He also made nine films in Hollywood and the UK between 1989 and 2004, though none were as successful as his best Australian films. He won one AFI Best Director Award, for The Year My Voice Broke, and was nominated twice more, for Mouth to Mouth and Winter of Our Dreams.

His Australian films are: The Firm Man (1975), The Trespassers (1976), Mouth to Mouth (1978), Dimboola (1979), Winter of Our Dreams (1981), Far East (1982), One Night Stand (1984), The Year My Voice Broke (1987), Fragments of War: The Story of Damien Parer (1988), Flirting (1991), Sirens (1994) and Careless Love (2012).

His foreign films are: Romero (1989), Wide Sargasso Sea (1993), The Journey of August King (1995), The Leading Man (1996), Lawn Dogs (1997), Molly (1999), Paranoid (2000), The Parole Officer (2001) and Head in the Clouds (2004).

4. Nadia Tass

n-tass-285x371Nadia Tass was born in 1956 in Northern Greece in and moved to Melbourne, Australia in 1966. She started out working in theatre as an actor and director, before directing her first film, the comedy Malcolm in 1986. The film won five AFI awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Colin Friels) and Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and did well at the box office. Her third film, The Big Steal, was also successful and led to her making several films in America. Tass’s films generally display gentle comedy and strong characterisation.

Her Australian films are: Malcolm (1986), Rikky and Pete (1988), The Big Steal (1990), Mr. Reliable (1996), Amy (1997), Matching Jack (2010) and Fatal Honeymoon (2012)

Her foreign films are: Pure Luck (1991), The Miracle Worker (2000), Undercover Christmas (2003), Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (2004), Felicity: An American Girl Adventure (2005), Custody (2007) and Lea to the Rescue (2016).

Further Reading:

5. Carl Schultz

schulzCarl Schultz was born in Hungary in 1939 and came to Australia in 1958 after two years in England following the Hungarian uprising of 1956. He started out in Australian television as a cameraman and later a director, before making his first feature, the successful family film Blue Fin in 1978. He also directed several excellent TV mini-series in the late 1970s and 1980s, including Ride on Stranger, The Dismissal and Bodyline. His best films were made in the early 1980s. His period drama Careful He Might Hear You, adapted from a Sumner Locke Elliott novel, won 8 AFI awards in 1983, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Wendy Hughes) and Best Supporting Actor. His film Goodbye Paradise was also nominated for Best Film and Best Director awards. His most successful film was the US film The Seventh Sign with Demi Moore which grossed $18 million at the box office.

His Australian films are: The Misanthrope (TV Movie) (1974), A Hard God (TV Movie) (1974), The Tichborne Affair (TV Movie) (1978), Blue Fin (1978), Goodbye Paradise (1983), Careful, He Might Hear You (1983), Bullseye (1987) and Travelling North (1987)

His overseas films are: The Seventh Sign (1988), Deadly Currents (TV Movie) (1993), Which Way Home (TV Movie) (1991), Cassidy (TV Movie) (1989), Love in Ambush (TV Movie) (1997) and To Walk with Lions (1999).

6. Richard Lowenstein

lowenstein3-2Richard Lowenstein was born in Melbourne in 1959. He came to film from a background in music videos, and his films alternate between music/youth culture and social issues about people on the fringes of society, generally with strong musical soundtracks. While he has only made a small number of features, he has continued to make music documentaries, videos and concert movies. His films have become cult favourites rather than general successes.

His films are: Strikebound (1984), Dogs in Space (1986), Say a Little Prayer (1993) and He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (2001)

Recommended Reading: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of Richard Lowenstein

7. George (T.) Miller

miller2a-3George T. Miller (not to be confused with Dr George Miller who directed Mad Max) was born in 1943 in Scotland and moved to Australia as a child where he grew up in Gippsland, east of Melbourne. He began his career in television drama, directing cop shows, dramas and mini-series throughout the 1970s. In 1982 he directed his first feature film, The Man from Snowy River, which was a huge hit in Australia, grossing $17 million at the domestic box office, making it the most successful Australian film up to that time, and still the third most successful film ever. Miller went on to make another six films in Australia and 12 films in America, but never achieved such success again. Only The Never Ending Story II made a lot of money, presumably on the basis of the popularity of the original film.

His Australian films are: The Man from Snowy River (1982), Cool Change (1986), Les Patterson Saves the World (1987), Bushfire Moon (1987), Over the Hill (1992), Gross Misconduct (1993) and Prey (2009)

His foreign films are: The Aviator (1985), The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990), A Mom for Christmas (1990), In the Nick of Time (1991), Frozen Assets (1992), Andre (1994), Zeus and Roxanne (1997), Tidal Wave: No Escape (1997), Robinson Crusoe (1997), Cybermutt (2002) and Attack of the Sabretooth (2005).

8. Yahoo Serious

yahooYahoo Serious was born as Greg Gomez Pead in 1953 on the NSW Central Coast. He is an Australian film actor, writer, director, and score composer who made three madcap comedies between 1988 and 2000, before disappearing from public view. He is best known for his 1988 comedy Young Einstein which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. The film was enormously popular in Australia and moderately successful in the US, grossing over $13m locally and $11m in America. He also created and starred in two similar comedies, Reckless Kelly in 1993, which was quite successful, and Mr. Accident in 2000, which was not.

He made three films Young Einstein (1988), Reckless Kelly (1993) and Mr. Accident (2000)

9. Simon Wincer

wincerSimon Wincer was born in 1943 in Sydney. He worked in Australian television in the 1960s, and began directing TV dramas in the early 1970s. Wincer has had a long career, directing 10 Australian films and 10 American ones, while continuing to direct television series. Many of his films have done well at the box-office, particularly Phar Lap in Australia (which made over $9m – equivalent to $28 million today), and Free Willy internationally (which made US$153 million). He has generally directed action/adventure films, often with horses or other animals involved.

His Australian films are: The Haunting of Hewie Dowker (TV Movie) (1976), Snapshot (aka The Day After Halloween and One More Minute) (1979), Harlequin (1980), Phar Lap (1983), The Lighthorsemen (1987), Quigley Down Under (1990), Lightning Jack (1994), The Echo of Thunder (1998), Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001) and The Cup (2011).

His foreign films are: D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), Lonesome Dove (1989 TV), Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991), Free Willy (1993), Operation Dumbo Drop (1995), The Phantom (1996), Flash (1997), Crossfire Trail (2001), Monte Walsh (2003) and The Young Black Stallion (2003)

10. Paul Hogan and John Cornell – The Best Non-Director Creative team of the 1980s

hoges3-2Paul Hogan and John Cornell were the creative talents behind the most successful feature film in Australian history, Crocodile Dundee. The pair had worked together on the popular TV comedy show, The Paul Hogan Show, which ran for over ten years until 1984 and established Paul Hogan as Australia’s best-known comedian. He was famous for his working-class ‘ocker’ humour and satire of middle-class pretension. The team wrote, produced and starred in Crocodile Dundee, hiring as director Peter Faiman, who had directed and produced The Paul Hogan Show. Crocodile Dundee is still the most successful Australian film ever, making $47million at the Australian box office (equivalent to $119 million in 2015) and US$174 million in the US (equivalent to A$647 million in 2015). The team’s follow-up film, Crocodile Dundee II, was also extremely successful making $25 million locally and $137 million in the US. While the team’s next two films were less successful, the third film in the Crocodile Dundee series, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, made $7.7 million locally and $50 million in the US in 2001.

Films made by Paul Hogan and John Cornell: Crocodile Dundee (1986), Crocodile Dundee (1988), Almost an Angel (1990)

Other films starring Paul Hogan which he wrote or produced: Lightning Jack (1994) and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles(2001).

Other Significant Directors of the 1980s

Ken Cameron

ken-cameron-1980-2Ken Cameron was born in Tenterfield NSW in 1946. He was a teacher for a few years before turning to making short films and features in the 1970s. His most successful films were Monkey Grip, adapted from a popular Helen Garner novel, and The Umbrella Woman. Monkey Grip was nominated for the AFI Best Film award and Fast Talking for the AFI Best Director award. After the lack of local box office for his later films, Cameron moved to television where he directed the popular TV mini-series Bangkok Hilton (1989) and Brides of Christ (1991), as well many other Australian TV series up to this day.

His Australian films are: Out of It (1977), Monkey Grip (1982), Fast Talking (1984), Crime of the Decade (TV Movie) (1984) The Umbrella Woman (1987) and The Clean Machine (TV Movie) (1988).

Stephen Wallace

wallaceStephen Wallace was born in NSW in 1943. After directing the well-liked short (50m) feature The Love Letters from Teralba Road starring Bryan Brown in 1977, Wallace’s full-length debut was a prison film Stir in 1980, which was nominated for the AFI Best Film and Best Director awards, as well as Best Actor nominations for Bryan Brown and Max Phipps. It was his most successful film until Blood Oath in 1990, about the trial of Japanese soldiers for war crimes in Indonesia after World War Two. The film, again starring Bryan Brown as well as Russell Crowe in his debut performance, was nominated for the AFI Best Film and Best Director awards. After the failure of his next film, Wallace moved to television directing and production.

His Australian films are: The Love Letters from Teralba Road (1977), Stir (1980), The Boy Who Had Everything (aka Winner Takes All) (1984), Hunger (1986) (TV), For Love Alone (1986), Olive (1987), Blood Oath (1990) and Turtle Beach (1992)

George Ogilvie

george_ogilvieGeorge Ogilvie was born in Goulburn, NSW in 1931. He worked as an actor in Australia and England until the 1980s. He directed many television series and mini-series, as well as five feature films in the 1980s and 90s. His most popular works were Short Changed and The Shiralee.

His Australian films were: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985 co-directing with George Miller), Short Changed (1986), The Place at the Coast (1987), The Shiralee (TV 1987), Princess Kate (TV 1998) The Crossing (1990), The Battlers (TV 1994) and The Last of the Ryans (1997 TV ).

Bob Ellis

bobBob Ellis was born in Lismore, NSW in 1942 and died in 2016. He was better known as a prolific writer of plays, novels, non-fiction books, articles and screenplays, than as a director. He wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for many fine Australian films, including Newsfront and Man of Flowers, and directed three films, which were interesting and witty but not very successful.

His Australian films are: Unfinished Business (1985), Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1988) and The Nostradamus Kid (1992)

Russell Mulcahy

Russell_Mulcahy_ProfileRussell Mulcahy was born in Melbourne in 1953 and became known as one of the most prominent music video directors of the 1980s. His feature film debut was the Australian creature-thriller Razorback, about a killer feral pig, in 1984. Following this he went to the UK to make two Highlander films, and then spent the 90s making action-thrillers in the US. He returned to Australia in 2000 to make a TV re-make of the classic On The Beach, and in 2003 made his third Australian film, Swimming Upstream, a biopic of the life of Australian swimmer, Tony Fingleton, with Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. He then returned to the US and continued to make TV movies, until offered the third in the Resident Evil horror series, Resident Evil: Extinction, which became his most successful film.

His films are: 1979 Derek and Clive Get the Horn (doc), 1984 Razorback, 1986 Highlander, 1991 Highlander II: The Quickening,  1991 Ricochet,  1992 Blue Ice, 1993 The Real McCoy, 1994 The Shadow, 1996 Silent Trigger,  1998 Tale of the Mummy, 1999 Resurrection, 2000 On the Beach (TV Movie), 2001 The Lost Battalion (TV Movie),  2003 1st to Die (TV Movie), 2003 Swimming Upstream, 2004 The Dale Earnhardt Story (TV Movie),  2005 Mysterious Island (TV Movie),  2006 The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (TV Movie),  2007 Crash and Burn (TV Movie),  2007 Resident Evil: Extinction,  2007 While the Children Sleep (TV Movie),  2009 Give ’em Hell Malone,  2009 Prayers for Bobby (TV Movie) [Australian films in red]

Russell Mulcahy at Wikipedia, Russell Mulcahy at IMDb

Honourable Mentions

Other directors produced interesting Oz films in the 1980s, and the following directors, in particular, deserve a mention for making these fine movies:

  • Gil Brealey for directing Annie’s Coming Out (1984) and producing many films including Sunday Too Far Away, 3 to Go and Manganinnie.

  • Glenda Hambly for Fran

  • John Honey for Manganinnie

  • Michael Pattinson for Moving Out

  • Sophia Turkiewicz for Silver City

  • Claude Whatham for Hoodwink

  • Craig Lahiff for Fever

  • Don McLennan for Mull

  • Ned Lander for Wrong Side of the Road and Molly

  • Robyn Nevin for The More Things Change

The 1980s at the Australian Box Office

The Australian box office figures for the 1980s show that the 80s was the best decade for Australian films at the box office, with three of our five most successful films ever, and five of our top ten ever. The successful films came mainly from the new ‘commercial’ directors (Crocodile Dundee (and the sequel), The Man from Snowy River (and the sequel), Mad Max 2, Young Einstein and Phar Lap) but also from the established ‘quality’ directors from the 70s (Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and Puberty Blues).

Here are the top ten Oz 80s films at the Australian box office (the figure in round brackets is the equivalent in 2016 dollars; the figure in square brackets is the all-time ranking):

  1. Crocodile Dundee                      (1986)   $47,707,045     ($119,744,683) [1]

  2. The Man from Snowy River  (1982)   $17,228,160     ($57,714,336) [3]

  3. Crocodile Dundee II                (1988)   $24,916,805     ($53,820,299) [4]

  4. Gallipoli                                          (1981)   $11,740,000     ($43,672,800) [6]

  5. Mad Max 2                                    (1981)   $10,847,491     ($40,352,667) [8]

  6. Young Einstein                           (1988)   $13,383,377     ($28,908,094) [14]

  7. Phar Lap                                        (1983)    $9,258,884     ($28,147,007) [17]

  8. Breaker Morant                         (1980)   $4,735,000     ($19,366,150) [25]

  9. The Man from Snowy River II (1988)    $7,415,000     ($16,016,400) [33]

  10. Puberty Blues                                (1981)    $3,918,000     ($14,574,960) [40]

Ozflicks’ Favourite Australian Films of the 1980s

  1. Gallipoli (1981) (Peter Weir)

  2. Breaker Morant (1980) (Bruce Beresford)

  3. Man of Flowers (1983) (Paul Cox)

  4. Careful He Might Hear You (1983) (Carl Schultz)

  5. Crocodile Dundee (1986) (Peter Faiman)

  6. Dogs in Space (1986) (Richard Lowenstein)

  7. The Club (1980) (Bruce Beresford)

  8. The Year My Voice Broke (1987) (John Duigan)

  9. The Fringe Dwellers (1986) (Bruce Beresford)

  10. Bliss (1985) (Ray Lawrence)

  11. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) (George Miller)

  12. The Man From Snowy River (1982) (George Miller II)

  13. Evil Angels (AKA A Cry in the Dark) (1988) (Fred Schepisi)

  14. Malcolm (1986) (Nadia Tass)

Further Reading:

New Australian Directors of the 1970s – The New Wave Directors

New Australian Directors of the 1990s – from Porpoise Spit straight to the Pool-room


Tom O’Regan, Australian film in the 1980s


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