Years ago, I was a rare American critic to take notice in print of Phillip Noyce's Newsfront (1978) and, more, go wild for it. In fact--what hyperbolic flow!--I actually called it "the Australian Citizen Kane," this Abel-Cain story of two brothers, one a gritty Aussie TV documentarian the other a swaggering, moved-to-the-USA sell-out. Jump ahead ten years: I was at an LA dinner party, and there was Noyce. "That review ruined my life," I remember him telling me. Huh? "That's right. I took seriously what you wrote, and believed that I should only do masterpieces. For a few years, I turned down every feature as unworthy. Only recently, I've realized that it's OK to direct small films. One film at a time."
Thank God, I was off the hook! In 1989, Noyce made the brilliant Australian neo-noir, Dead Calm, featuring Nicole Kidman, and Hollywood came seeking his talents. (And hers.) The Wellesian impulses were put to sleep while Noyce became among the most commercial, and prolific, of LA-based filmmakers, specializing in big-budget guys' movies and slick-concept thrillers: Patriot Games (1992), Sliver (1993), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Saint (1997), The Bone Collector (1999).
"I was happy, I was content. I was paid a lot of money to shoot action movies, and travel to exotic places," Noyce told me, when we talked last August at the Montreal World Film Festival. "For an Australian who had grown up on the feast or famine of government funding, what an idea to make one film afer another and get paid crazy fees to make them!"
Still, what had become of the once-impassioned filmmaker with bite? Had I been alone in wishing for more from émigré Noyce than Hollywood heaven? Than being Harrison Ford's studio homeboy? A crash back to earth?
Hallelujah, it's happened! In 2002, a reinvigorated Noyce, working through Miramax, directed not one but two potent, sophisticated, arthouse films, and both with political agendas. The Quiet American, his Graham Greene adaptation soon showing in Boston, is a straight-ahead indictment of the US's fatal dallying in Vietnam. Opening this week is Noyce's triumphal filmic return to Australia, Rabbit-Proof Fence, attacking his native country's historical racist policies. It's a stirring, based-on-life tale of three aboriginal girls escaping a Dickensian white-run government orphanage where they had been held captive for colonialist brainwashing.
The screenwriter, Christine Olsen, had telephoned him from Austrlia and said, "I have the perfect script for you. You are the perfect director." Noyce's pissed-off reaction: "She rang in the middle of the night and this was my private number! I didn't want to hear about her and her crazy screenplay. All day people in LA say the same thing. Everyone is a writer and a producer. So I told her to send it to my office. That was fine: it would disappear into my assistants' world."
Instead, "My African-American receptionist read Rabbit-Proof Fence first, and passed it on to two of my official script readers. They all said, 'It's wonderful.' Then I read it and I was really moved. It was a wonderful story."
Then Noyce froze.
"I believed I couldn't do it, that I was no longer an Australian," Noyce admitted. At the same time he grew increasingly alienated by the endless rewrites on The Sum of All Fears, the Tom Clancy adaptation he'd been slated to direct. "As I continued on The Sum of All Fears, I felt I wasn't an American either. So I went back to Australia to do the DVD for Newsfront, and I interviewed the people involved with that film. And I turned 50. I realized I was an Australian after all. Rabbit-Proof Fence? It was the most successful Australian film of the year, taking in 7.2 million dollars, about the same there as for Tom Clancy films."
OK, Newsfront. Watching it now, a quarter of a century later, Noyce place himself where inside the movie?
"There's the brother, Glenn McGuire, who stays at home in Australia and maintains his morals, and there's his sell-out brother, Frank McGuire, the go-getter. As a director, you can take on every character, and I'm both of those guys. Frank is where you begin to take on the American value system. A lady in Hollywood said to me one day, 'You bought a Lexus. That's a TV director's car.' That I gave her enough credence to consider what she said shows that I'd undergone a negative metamorphosis."
And now? "I'm back to guy one, Glenn, fiercely patriotic about Australia, even if it kills him." And the future? Noyce sighed. "I wish I could make independent films and get paid the same fees as Hollywood escapist movies," he said.
(Phoenix, December, 2002)