Cinema has always been an obsession for the English-born Australian critic David Stratton. As the director of Sydney Film Festival – a position he held for 18 years – he fought film censorship and help pioneer the new wave of Australian cinema in the 1970s. As a film critic for Variety – 20 years – his international profile blew up as a result of being the magazine’s fastest reviewer. But Australia fell in love with him as a result of his nearly three-decade appearance on television with Margaret Pomeranz on SBS’s The Movie Show and ABC’s At The Movies. As the documentary about him, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, screens soon in Australia, the man himself spoke with Richard Houlihan to discuss the film, writing for Variety, and his beard.
Richard Houlihan: I have to ask you about your beard. Your former Variety colleague Todd McCarthy makes a point in the documentary that your white hair and beard is what makes you internationally known to filmmakers. Is that why you’ve kept it all these years?
David Stratton: No, I was just too lazy to shave it off. I started growing it in 1969 and I thought, “Well, this is not so easy”. It takes a lot of time and effort in the time in morning. So I thought why not leave it on. By the time the ’70s came, that’s when the hippy shit started happening and lots of men wore beards. In fact, when we started doing The Movie Show in 1986, we thought about trimming it, but it wasn’t too outlandish. And there is it. I can’t imagine not having it. I don’t know what’s underneath it.
RH: Going back to the beginning of A Cinematic Life. Did you know the director Sally Aitken and when did the idea for it come up?
DS: I didn’t know Sally before. When Margaret [Pomeranz] and I decided to end At The Movies on ABC, I got to the stage after 28 years where I thought I was getting a bit stale and wouldn’t be able to go on. Margaret said she couldn’t do it without me, so we thought we should end it. ABC wanted us to keep on going, but our decision had already been made. There was a guy called Claude Gonzales who was our producer. We had a chat 3 weeks before we finished the show, and he said he wanted to make something with me again. We had this idea to do a documentary of me discussing key Australian films and what they meant to me. For one reason or another, the project didn’t happen with Claude, but we stayed on it. It was taken over by an outside company called ‘Stranger Than Fiction Films’, and that’s where I met Sally. ‘When David Met Sally’, it should be called. I learned she was from New Zealand, saw one of her documentaries and it turned out she hadn’t seen many Australian films. Which I guess was a good thing, because she was very eager to immerse herself in Australian cinema. We discussed a lot of movies, in which I gave her a list of movies from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s for her to find. She would go away, and the next week, she came back and I said she saw Newsfront and loved it. She said it gave her a whole new appreciation for Australian film.
RH: What appealed to you about doing this, and what was the most daunting part about it?
DS: What appealed to me was the opportunity to remind Australian audiences about the great films made in this country. I hope people who see the film come away from it wanting to find those movies and watch them. Films that we look at in documentary include Wake in Fright and Newsfront and among many films from the past. They might come across a film they might want see like Picnic at Hanging Rock. What I found daunting was that I’m a private person and I wasn’t particularly interested in being followed by a film crew. So there was some negotiation to be had. It became more about me than I thought it would be. I didn’t know Sally was interested in interviewing my brother Roger, but it worked out well because it provided a bit of insight into my disreputable background and what terrible person I use to be. So that was interesting prospect I didn’t particularly enjoy.
RH: Well, your documentary certainly interested me in seeing Patrick, Turkey Shoot, Chain Reaction and other ’80s Ozploitation films that I’ve never even heard of.
DS: When I saw Turkey Shoot in 1982, I wasn’t impressed and [director] Brian Trenchard-Smith said I didn’t get it. He’s a good friend of mine. When I travel to L.A., he and I will go out and have a meal together. He’s a brilliant director and has made good films such as Dead End Drive-In, but I didn’t get what he was aiming for with Turkey Shoot. It was too over the top and silly for my taste, and I thought it was a bit dumb.
RH: Being on screen with Margaret Pomeranz again must have been a highlight.
DS: It was. We filmed our scenes together in a restaurant in Sydney during lunch time. Well, it was an empty restaurant in the morning, so I guess it was actually breakfast. We were drinking wine and she would eat oysters. She had a few glasses and when she does, she’ll say anything. It was fun and I always look forward to seeing her. In 1985, we were having lunch and realised Australia didn’t have a film review programme and said, “Why can’t we do this?” We pitched the idea of a film review programme to SBS, that’s how we started The Movie Show and that partnership lasted 28 years.
RH: You once said that you were not the best film reviewer at Variety, but the fastest. How long does it take you to write a review?
DS: Quite quickly. I had a reputation of being the fastest critic. When I visited the major festivals like Cannes and Venice, I was often assigned a film if the deadline was a tight one. The best story was going to Venice, where I attended the opening for Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. It was a usually long journey to get there. I flew out of Sydney, landed in London’s Heathrow Airport, and caught a second plane to Venice. Afterwards, I had to catch a boat from the airport to the island, and then a car from the dock to the hotel. I was told by Todd McCarthy not to worry and that he’ll cover the film. After 48 hours of travelling, Todd advised me via email that he was unable to make the screening and said, “You have to do it.” The press screening was in half an hour. I had the fastest shower ever, dashed to the accreditation office for my pass, and arrived in the cinema as the lights went down. I don’t sleep well on planes so I hadn’t slept properly for the last 48 hours. I thought the film was terrific and the review I wrote is still one of my most authoritative. The next day, a woman walked up to me and said, “Are you David Stratton?” She turned out to be Woody Allen’s producer and she told me Woody had read my review and liked it. I don’t often get positive feedback for my reviews, so that was nice to know that he liked it. I can write well under pressure.
RH: In term of Australian films that are important to you, what stands out?
DS: Oh dear, there’s so many. I loved Beautiful Kate, I’m not sure if it’s well known. I don’t know how many people know about Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront, my favourite Australian film. There are a lot of films that didn’t make it into the documentary. We did get to include Beautiful Kate, but what we did leave out are so many wonderful films. I would say to Sally, “Can’t we leave this film in? I can’t imagine not having it in.” But you have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. I didn’t get to show everything I wanted, which was the difficult part.
RH: Is true that you spend every day watching a film you’ve never seen?
DS: Yes. If Amy [publicity agent] here allows me to, I plan on watching one today. It keeps me educated and alert. If I get a chance, I want to see this French film from 1952.
RH: What’s the name of this film?
DS: That part I can’t mention. I tend not to find out anything about the movie I’m about to see. It’s a quirk of mine, but I don’t want to know anything. If people who are around me bring it up, I close my ears. I don’t watch trailers. Sometimes it can be a mistake, like when a movie runs too long and you’re waiting for it to end. Still, I find it’s a good thing not knowing so much about the film.
RH: What films in 2016 stand out to you?
DS: I thought La La Land and Arrival were among the better ones. One of the films I liked best that I’m surprised didn’t get more Oscar nominations was Sully from Clint Eastwood. I thought it was a terrific, underrated film. Another one I thought was overlooked was Elle, the Paul Verhoven film with Isabelle Huppert giving a brilliant performance. I’m not sure if she will win the Oscar, but she is a remarkable actress and very nice person.
RH: I personally want her to win.
DS: She was in Australia in the 1980s to work on Paul Cox’s Cactus. I knew Paul and while they were shooting in Melbourne, I visited the two of them in her hotel. We began talking about the film and all sorts of thing. She was a lovely person.
RH: Do you have a favourite to win Best Picture?
DS: I would love it if La La Land were to win. I would love to see Manchester by the Sea win something. I would love it if Arrival did win. To me, they’re all wonderful films.
RH: Last question: you have called Singin In The Rain your all-time favourite movie and we sadly lost actress Debbie Reynolds in December. Being a film critic and a fan, what was your reaction?
DS: It was a very sad loss. In fact, I just finished a new documentary called Bright Lights. It was about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, and how they were so co-dependent as mother and daughter. It was really good film, but yes, it was a very sad loss. She was so wonderful in Singin in the Rain, singing and dancing with Gene Kelly. She was so fresh, young, energetic and vulnerable, and gorgeous as well.