40 years of inspiration: Mad Max and My Brilliant Career

Still image from  Mad Max  (1979)

Still image from Mad Max (1979)

Curator Thara Krishna-Pillay discusses the impact and resonance of two films that were ahead of their time.

1979 was a significant year for Australian Cinema, with two groundbreaking films released – George Miller’s Mad Max and Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career.

Both made by first time feature film directors, these two very different movies have continued to influence and inspire filmmakers and audiences over the last 40 years.

Released in March 1979, Mad Max was a combination of the action, revenge and road movie genres reimagined in a completely new way. It was independently funded by director George Miller and producer Byron Kennedy, as well as their family and friends, which granted them complete creative control of the film. The way the film was shot and edited, its aesthetic and the vehicles featured, all contributed to it being a big hit at home and overseas.

It spawned two sequels and a reimagining, with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road nominated for 10 Academy Awards. Each film has enhanced and evolved the shooting style and aesthetic of the original as well as turning Max into the archetypal lone hero. Its influence has been cited by a range of filmmakers including James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, while iconic scenes, post-apocalyptic bikie costumes and extreme cars have become key pop culture references in TV shows, videogames and music videos.

Still image from  Mad Max  (1979)

Still image from Mad Max (1979)

Still image from  My Brilliant Career  (1979), courtesy NFSA

Still image from My Brilliant Career (1979), courtesy NFSA

My Brilliant Career, released in August 1979, turns the period film genre on its head and creates a declaration of independence for women both on screen and behind the camera.

Adapted from Stella Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel, this striking adaptation follows Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) fighting societal rules and expectations to exert her independence. Published while Franklin was still in her teens, the novel was extremely popular and Gilliam Armstrong’s film continued the success with an AACTA Award for Best Film, an Oscar for costume design and a Palme d’Or nomination.

Still from  My Brilliant Career  (1979) courtesy NFSA

Still from My Brilliant Career (1979) courtesy NFSA

The film’s resonance with contemporary audiences and overall success is due to the largely female creative team. The film’s producer, director, production designer, costume designer and screenwriter were all women, with Gillian Armstrong the first woman to direct an Australian film in 46 years.

My Brilliant Career also helped to launch the careers of Gillian Armstrong and its stars Judy Davis and Sam Neil, with Judy Davis winning both the best actress and best newcomer BAFTAs for her performance.

My Brilliant Career has become a much-loved adaptation of a classic Australian novel as well as a seminal feminist film in its own right.

Explore both these iconic Australian films in more detail when our new exhibition opens in 2020.

Anaya Latter