Magda’s (not so) funny bits

A writer’s review of Magda Szubanksi’s ‘Reckoning’.

WHEN they say that all great comedy emerges from tragedy, they’re talking about books like Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning.

Audiences are often perplexed when commentators explore the comic-tragic paradox, a place where there are no easy absolutes. But it’s something Australian creators do particularly well. Think of the suicide of Muriel’s mother in Muriel’s Wedding, one of Australia’s greatest laugh-out-loud screen experiences, in which a near-silent housewife, whose name nobody can remember, kills herself at the turning point of the tragic B-story in the plot.

25875588It’s this layer of dysfunction that Szubanski courageously mines.

The narrative of Reckoning pivots around her success in show-business and her fascination for the scars etched into her family by European wars.

Szubanski’s exploration is driven by the very energy that fuels performers – seeking responses written on the face. The little girl who couldn’t interpret Holocaust images in a taboo book in her Father’s collection begins a lifetime journey of bearing witness to the facial reactions of those around her.

And no-one gets off the hook, not living relatives or the long dead in photographic records of ancestors, or the family legends about personalities that Szubanski brings to vivid life through her powerful imagination. The little Jewish boy given sanctuary in her grandparent’s Warsaw home during Nazi occupation is perhaps the best example of this evocative, pain-filled cauterising of deep emotional wounds.

Recounting her rise to stardom, the author learns to read the faces of her show-business contemporaries and the characters she created. Even the primates she starred alongside in Babe: Pig in the City are scanned for responses to human frailty, for understanding and forgiveness.

“Like the best memoirists, she avoids painting herself as a saint surrounded by sinners.”

Actors require a response in order to re-act, something that is especially critical for screen actors where nothing can be hidden from the camera. It’s this record of Szubanksi’s journey from the inner reactions of a deeply closeted child, to the outer courage it took for a beloved celebrity to come out – regardless of the world’s response – which I found the most telling.

Yet by the time Magda knew what she wanted to read in her Father’s face, after finally construing what she’d always needed to ask him, he was long gone.

Reckoning is, then, as simple and as complex as the glance between performers: Father and daughter, channelling the echoes of war, failure, culture, desperation and survival.

As an LGBTI icon who came out publicly in mid-life, Szubanski has fast-tracked her way from second-wave feminist to courageous marriage equality campaigner, and Reckoning also charts her journey to understanding how championing marriage can sit comfortably within the same vessel as female self-determination.

Like the best memoirists, she avoids painting herself as a saint surrounded by sinners, because not all wars are external, and not all courage is written on the face.

Szubanski’s account of the experience of being same-sex attracted and closeted, and the unravelling of the veneer, are some of the most well-placed for Australian audiences to finally come to terms with what our culture does to LGBTI. They have already created a legacy for Szubanski that stands to become as courageous as that of her father.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

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