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Posted on 23 Apr 2020 in Non-Fiction |

DEREK RIELLY Gulpilil. Review by Bernard Whimpress

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Derek Rielly’s biography of actor David Gulpilil is a moving testament to a man who has left a unique imprint on Australia’s cultural life for the last half-century.

It might seem appropriate that this book should have a subtitle along the lines of ‘the man and his world’. But Gulpilil stands alone. The title, like its subject, is unbound and stronger for that.

Shortly after the release of his 2006 film Ten Canoes, I heard Rolf de Heer speak at the Adelaide Festival of Arts. When questioned about David Gulpilil he said, ‘He’s a man caught between two cultures.’ Rielly quotes de Heer saying virtually the same thing in press notes for another film, comparing him to Albert Namatjira, who was ‘likewise unable to reconcile the two cultures he had to live in’. A generation earlier another director, Peter Weir, offered: ‘He has a foot in both cultures. It’s an enormous strain on the man.’

The strains would tell. International applause, awards galore, meeting the Queen and hanging out with the Beatles, drink and drugs, returning to his Yolngu community in Arnhem Land, fathering four kids by four mothers, drink, drugs, prison, broken health, fame if not fortune — what a story.

The author is amazed that a biography has not been written previously, and tracks his subject (by this stage suffering from lung cancer) to the South Australian town of Murray Bridge, 3000 kilometres south of his traditional territory, a safe haven for his final days with his carer, Mary Hood.

Rielly is an evocative scene-setter:

Fast-food joints, service stations and motels feed and shelter the weary traveller, usually heading west to Adelaide or across the border into Victoria. Australian cars from the nineteen-nineties, whose after-market exhaust pipes have mouths like hungry gropers, sit in servo car parks. They are slow to start on the cold mornings but erupt suddenly and with vigour, shaking the occupants.

Murray Bridge, therefore, is an Australian country town like most.

Slow. A little wary. On the poor side, but the people have a roof over their heads, a cheap car in the driveway, a river to slosh around in, enough to eat.

And when he meets Gulpilil for the first time:

He has a beard and moustache, which is mostly grey, with a few black cameos. His hair is long and straight and hangs across his chest.

‘The chemo took out the curls,’ says Mary.

Gulpilil wears a black sleeveless jacket over a purple checked shirt, T-shirt and black jeans with comfortable black shoes.

His hands are like nothing I’ve seen before. From regular-sized pads sprout thick, powerful fingers, each appendage crowned by a curved fingernail that has the appearance of being painted in metallic gold nail polish.

In fact, so powerful are the hands that they provide the arresting photograph by Richard Freeman on the book’s back cover.

How to write the book presents a challenge. De Heer tells the author that getting a dozen words out of Gulpilil will be difficult, so he determines to talk to actors, directors, friends and others who know him well to build the picture of why he matters ‘and still matters’.

‘He’s a director’s dream. There aren’t many people the camera loves … He’s in a league of his own,’ enthuses Phillipe Mora, who filmed him alongside Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan (1976); he knows how to ‘feed the camera’, says Jack Thompson, who starred in the same movie, and adds:

‘Through David we can learn from the values and vitality of the oldest continual cultural continuum on the planet. That he is part of. And that he brings into our world. He is a gateway to a history that we’ve so far denied and not embraced.’

Rielly speaks at length to artist Craig Ruddy, whose portrait of Gulpilil, Two Worlds, won the 2004 Archibald Prize, and gets him to enlarge on the artistic process:

‘I remember at the time of painting him, we started chatting, and he seemed to morph into this beautiful symmetry with his motions and his movement.’

Ruddy waves both arms and hands in circles.

‘You can’t explain it or describe it. It was the most powerful, enigmatic thing. I remember this sense of knowing come over me, a feeling of calm belonging.’

Gary Sweet describes a scene with Gulpilil in de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) in which the pair are engulfed in laughter:

‘I can’t help laughing when he laughs. He explodes with laughter and you get caught by the explosion and hit by the shrapnel. It’s impossible not to laugh. “You’re going to hang, yes boss, poor black fella, been born for that noose.” Quite a bizarre thing. Such poetry in the way it’s told. It’s poetry on screen.’

And Phillip Noyce, who directed him in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), enlarges on Gulpilil as the most talented actor he has worked with, as well as his ‘bitter-sweet relationship’ with the white world. Echoing Mora and Thompson, Noyce describes him as not having to act but merely ‘to be … each of the characters that he played was inside him already. And he had to just let them come out.’

The dramatis personae is long and we hear the voice of Mary Hood, who ministers to his daily needs; and the voices of his friends (and gay couple) Michael Higginbottom and Terry Hocking, who operate a horse-breaking and training business halfway between Murray Bridge and Tailem Bend; artist and filmmaker George Gittoes; Paul Hogan, who cast him in Crocodile Dundee and enjoyed his company; playwright Reg Cribb; Indigenous actress Natasha Wanganeen, who co-starred in Rabbit Proof Fence and drew on his power then and after as ‘soul food’; minder/handler Wayne O’Donovan; film critic Margaret Pomeranz; and finally Richard Trudgen, whose book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die (2000), written following decades of working with the Yolgnu people, offers a cross-cultural understanding for anyone involved with remote Aboriginal communities.

Books drawing on the testimony of so many people frequently lose their way and too many tributes often result in hagiography. To the author’s credit, however, he marshals his sources with care and balance, and by including Trudgen’s observations near the end, offers a balanced perspective: ‘David was a great disappointment to his parents. … He was in films and all that stuff. Important to white fellas, I suppose.’  A couple of questions are then posed: Is Gulpilil a tragedy? Is his experience typical of Yolngu who attempt to walk in two cultures?

‘It’s typical of the colonial failure, that’s what it’s typical of,’ says Trudgen. ‘Where we use and abuse things from the traditional people and traditional culture. In this case we took a young man from his family. I don’t know how long he would’ve lived if he’d stayed there, but he could’ve lived long and could’ve had a better life.’

Derek Rielly has weaved together a deeply satisfying portrait of the life that has been lived.

Derek Rielly Gulpilil Macmillan 2019 HB 246pp $29.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. He grew up in Murray Bridge and his most recent book is The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018.

You can buy Gulpilil from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.