LOVE or hate Judy Davis, chances are you’ve seen one of her acerbic, riveting onscreen meltdowns – they’re synonymous with the media-shy Australian actress who’s long been preceded by an offscreen ‘difficult’ tag.
Already a staple in period dramas by the time of Charles Sturridge’s 1991 production of E.M. Forster’s debut novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, Davis had breathed life into array of heroines on the brink of brave new worlds, and used a decidedly English voice to do so.
“Davis levelled the F-word at the director, and she hit a sore point.”
Her debut in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career saw Davis as Sybilla Melvin quite matter-of-factly assert to her suitors that she will never marry. Her Adela Quested, when pressed on Doctor Aziz’s crime in David Lean’s A Passage to India, eventually and quite calmly enunciates the truth.
Perhaps it was Sturridge who saw something more in Davis than polite colonial girls when he cast her as the boorish Harriet Harriton, one of Forster’s best-drawn wowsers who will not be broken down by Italy’s disarming romantic freedom.
After admonishing the cheering crowd at the local opera as “babies”; banging around the pensione in tears and rage, and delivering the final devastation of Forster’s story, with this Harriet Harriton, 1991 became the year the Judy Davis ‘volcano’ was finally able to erupt on the screen.
She moved on to a comic romance as 19th century French author George Sand in James Lapine’s Impromptu. The best scenes are those in which Sand verbally explodes, elucidating how it might have felt to be a woman in the period without the filmmaker having to resort to all the usual corset-tightening symbolism.
But the shrewish screen potential of this actress was fully realised when Davis appeared in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives as the woman who finds true love by losing it, literally.
Famous for never overtly directing actors, Allen simply loaded Davis into the film cartridge, and let her pull the trigger on an onscreen screaming match that peaked with Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, in the iconic scene where Davis takes a gun in a cab to Allen’s apartment, and lets rip.
Through the psychobabble (she called it going “slightly over the top” when interviewed about Husbands and Wives) Davis brings a genuine pathos to the character, who, as it turns out, has a point.
Yet if you believe some of the hype on the internet, Judy Davis was responsible for some heinous cinema crimes, such as driving River Phoenix to his untimely death during the production of Dark Blood (Phoenix’s final and only recently completed film), and ending the career of Britain’s legendary director of epic historical dramas, David Lean.
Powerful stuff for a Catholic schoolgirl from Perth, Australia.
It was during Lean’s production of A Passage to India that stories about Davis being ‘difficult’ emerged. The two reportedly started on good terms during the film’s casting, when the antipodean ingenue and the lion of British cinema first met.
Their conversation revolved around one of the great conundrums of 20th century literature – the motivations of the character Adela Quested, Forster’s anti-hero who kicks up a British panic.
Forster was no help to the filmmakers, having long refused to answer readers’ questions about what actually happens when Doctor Aziz leads Miss Quested to the higher Marabar Caves, alone.
Did Aziz follow her? Was there a rape? If so, was it their Indian guide?
This crucial scene was not included in the original novel, but a literary conundrum was not going to be good enough when adapting the work for the screen.
Lean and Davis concurred that Miss Quested, attracted to the vibrant Doctor Aziz, while faced with the reality of her impending, loveless marriage, just “freaks out”. Lean offered her the role on the strength of this conversation, but once on location in India, relations between director and actress quickly soured.
According to Gene D. Phillips in his Lean biography Beyond the Epic (2006), Davis levelled the F-word at the director, and she hit a sore point when blaming his decade-long hiatus from filmmaking for his inability to direct. They endured the shoot in a state of barely-concealed loathing for one another.
Later studio work in London was reportedly the exact opposite, so was India to blame?
Not entirely. With other key female contributors to the movie – production executive Verity Lambert, writer Santha Rama Rau, and film editor Eunice Mountjoy – Lean had notable work-related clashes on A Passage to India.
Peggy Ashcroft (who played the role of Mrs Moore) later observed that Lean behaved autocratically, particularly with younger cast members, noting that he “bulldozed Judy”, which confirmed Davis’ account of a level of bullying on the set.
Perhaps the two were always destined to clash, given their age difference and the vastly different styles of their eras?
Lean’s palette was the vast landscape, in which humans were secondary, subject to the kind of symbolism which Davis avoided in Impromptu. Instead of symbolism, he got a living, breathing woman to work with, and Davis possibly put him into a British panic of his own.
Davis’ job was to bring life to a character who does something reprehensible without actually doing much at all, and with barely a scripted line to assist her. Faced with inhabiting Miss Quested’s great self confrontation, Davis may have needed more support than Lean was capable of giving.
Phillips sums-up his generally even-handed account of the myths surrounding the production of A Passage to India with an unkind (and under-researched, considering he was writing in 2006) parting shot aimed at Davis – “For the record, when word got back to Hollywood that Davis had told off the likes of David Lean on the set more than once, directors were wary of hiring her. So she returned to Australia.”
“Maybe from the clash of temperaments came that performance.”
His last line suggests Davis had to endure some kind of penance by returning to the thriving Australian film industry, where Gillian Armstrong hired her again in High Tide. For the role of a prodigal mother, Davis won America’s National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actress in 1988 and cemented her career in that country.
Davis’ ‘difficult’ tag got a kick along during the 1993 production of Dark Blood, after producers were forced to intervene between director George Sluizer and Davis. The unexpected drug overdose of River Phoenix, eleven days before the film was due to wrap, brought that conflict to a swift end.
Davis’ co-star Jonathan Pryce eventually spilled the beans in 2015 when he recalled: “the absolutely horrible experience of working with Judy Davis”, although producer Nik Powell had already described the problem as a “clash of temperaments”.
“There’s nothing you can do. You just try to calm them both down, give them perspective. River’s fans won’t like me for saying this but I think it’s Judy’s performance which is phenomenal and full of energy. Maybe from the clash of temperaments came that performance.”
Hollywood continued to come knocking in the form of Lorna Luft, daughter of no less than Judy Garland, when casting the title role in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.
Playing another prolific Judy often labelled ‘difficult’, the production recreated a time when actresses were prone to negative perceptions and pigeonholes, based on what time they emerged from their dressing room, and complicity in everything.
It’s not a stretch to observe that Judy Davis was the best choice to objectively portray Garland’s great paradox – having power as an actress, yet also having none.
Ever since delving deep into this century-old struggle, Judy Davis seems to have shed her ‘difficult’ tag for good.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.