“I’m not your average dolly bird”: Judy Davis on her career, quotas and writing

22 June, 2016 by Harry Windsor

Judy Davis on the SFF red carpet with the winners of the Lexus Short Film Fellowship.


As the Lexus Short Film Fellowship jury chair, Judy Davis last week selected four young filmmakers – Alex Ryan, Anya Beyersdorf, Alex Murawski and Brooke Goldfinch – to receive $50,000 each to make a short that will premiere at next year's Sydney Film Festival.

The gender parity of the winners was a coincidence, Davis told IF.

"On this jury, there was no quota, and I chose the films I liked. But as the afternoon wore on, it became clear it was looking like two and two. And one of the other members of the jury said, 'that's really good'."

Asked for her opinion on quotas, Davis said she wonders whether they might "breed resentment and mistrust", and argued instead for a shift in mindset: "that gradual but inevitable realisation that the female voice can be a profound voice, just as the male voice is." 

"Which I think is happening by the way, and I think it's happening very fast. And audiences are changing. So perhaps if we exert pressure in that way, rather than turning to quotas, in the end it may work better."

Davis recalled the pressure on Gillian Armstrong when she made My Brilliant Career for a budget then considered exorbitant by some.

"The film industry was shocked and disapproving that a young, 28 year-old first-time feature director had been given that amount of money. And that was part of the burden that she had to carry as she was making that film, which I don't think helped her. It was just an additional weight on her. That would not happen today. I don't think it would be questioned." 

Davis agreed that last year's The Dressmaker demonstrated the power of the female audience in Australia: "I do think women loved seeing Kate create havoc in that town. Burn[ing] it. They loved that journey."

So why aren't we seeing more films fronted by a female character? 

"Well that goes back to the writers, doesn't it?" said Davis. 

"Sometimes with male writers – or any writer really – you have your central character and then you're looking at the forces that affect that central character, so that you can show how he or she changes. And it's more common for women to be used as a tool to reveal another aspect of what is usually the male role." 

"I know as an actress I've suffered that, right from the start. I don't want to play the wife or the mother, I want to play the guy who's pitting himself against God and nature. And traditionally, historically, women have existed primarily in the domestic zone, and sometimes that's just not so exciting."

Asked if she turns down a lot or is simply not being offered the roles, Davis told IF: "I've always had what I might call a spotty career."

"I'm not your average dolly bird, and I never was. I was always just a bit out of left field. So it was always going to be difficult for the film industry to know what to do with me. The world is clearly much more comfortable with pretty girls with nice breasts (laughs) or whatever they expect from females. I'm not sure that's really changed." 

The veteran star of films such as High Tide, Barton Fink and Naked Lunch is currently writing a script of her own – with a male lead.

"I didn't set out to do that, but in order to explore what fascinated me, I needed him, this real figure."

She won't be in it, Davis said, though "there is a female in it."

Next off the block is Feud, a miniseries from American Horror Story's Ryan Murphy, in which she'll play gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, most recently essayed by Helen Mirren in Trumbo.

Davis is also directing a play at Sydney's Belvoir in October.

"It's a Brian Friel play called Faith Healer. I do enjoy directing. It's always nice not to have to perform."