Production company: Double Head Productions Pty. Ltd.
Budget: A$270,000 (Oxford Australian Film; $275,000 Cinema Papers production report March-April 1976), including federal government investment body Australian Film Commission, a small investment from Twentieth Century Fox, and several independent exhibitors who handled the first release of the film in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. ($250,000 in the 'making of', $300,000 Cinema Papers production report June-July 1976)
The independent investors included Darrell Illen in Canberra, owner of some of the town's major cinemas and drive-ins, Perth's TVW television group, who had gone into exhibition in partnership with MCA (in Sydney it was MCA, and in Victoria Messrs. Sharpe and Sellect, owners of the Capitol, the Bryson and the Century Theatres). Most had been involved in funding the first Barry McKenzie film.
Phillip Adams put his fee for producing the film at around $3,000 after tax.
Locations: main location, a suburban house in Westleigh, Sydney, St Ives, Sydney.
Filmed: January 1976, six weeks, mainly night shooting (the 'making of' suggests it was a six week shoot, though it is given as five weeks in the Oxford Australian Film, and some other sources).
Australian distributor: initially self and independent exhibitors, with producer Phillip Adams handling initial city releases, and Twentieth Century-Fox handling suburban and country areas.
Australian release: world premiere arts festival 10th November 1976, Queanbeyan, New South Wales, followed by commercial opening at Center Cinema, Canberra 17th November 1976. It opened in Sydney in December 1976 and eventually premiered in Melbourne at the Bryson Cinema on April 1st 1977 with proceeds to Amnesty International. Tickets were a hearty $4. It then slowly moved to other locations.
35mm Eastmancolor 5247 Panavision
Running time: 90 mins (Oxford Australian Film); 90 mins New York Times.
DVD time: 1'26"35
Box office: According to the Film Victoria report into Australian box office, the film grossed A$871,000, equivalent to $4,503,070 in A$2009.
But the film isn't listed in the July 1984 Cinema Papers list of the top twenty two domestic films of all time, based on Variety data, which has Starstruck at position 22 with a CPI adjusted for inflation box office of $581,010.
However the figures are cut, the film can be said to have done well domestically without being a raging hit, and it also enjoyed a 'success d'estime' internationally in certain territories such as Germany and the United States, again without setting the box office on fire.
The film did very well at the 1977 Australian Film Institute awards:
Winner, Best Achievement in Directing sponsored by Village Theatres (Bruce Beresford)
Winner, Best Screenplay sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation (Original and Adapted - the two separate categories didn't exist at the time) (David Williamson)
Winner, Best Achievement in Editing (William/Bill Anderson)
Winner, Best Achievement in Sound (William/Bill Anderson)
Winner, Best Performance by an Actress sponsored by Hoyts Theatres (Pat Bishop)
Winner, Best Performance by a Supporting Actress sponsored by Atlab Film and Video Laboratoriy Services (Veronica Lang)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress sponsored by Hoyts Theatres (Jeanie Drynan - she was beaten by Pat Bishop's effort for Don's Party)
Nominated, Best Film of the Year sponsored by the Australian Film Commission and Cinema International Corporation (Phillip Adams) (Storm Boy was the winner that year)
Don's Party was accepted into competition in the Berlin Film Festival in June 1977 - "nominated" for a Golden Berlin Bear - but did not come away with any prizes.
The film was however received well - in the 'making of' its reception is contrasted to the booing a Truffaut film was given the previous night - and the film went on to a German theatrical release.
The film was also screened at the San Francisco Film Festival, and was given a modest arthouse release, starting with a New York premiere.
The 'making of' contains some snide remarks by producer Phillip Adams about Storm Boy winning the best film, but the real scandal was the overlooking of the male cast, with not one nomination, presumably on the basis that it was an ensemble effort.
Some heads of department also had reason to feel slighted - the Art department, for example, did an excellent job evoking the recent past, always a tricky assignment, and why DOP Don McAlpine didn't at least get a nod must remain a mystery.
The film was released on DVD in region four in a definitive two disc collectors' edition, with an image which shows signs of age but which is in 1.85:1 and is probably as good as it can get short of a full high definition restoration.
The extras disc features an exhaustive, exhausting 'making of' documentary, titled Crashing the Party running at 2'19'51, much longer than the feature film, put together by Mark "Not Quite Hollywood" Hartley, for Umbrella in 2005.
Apart from breaking the law requiring 'making of's' not to exceed the film they're discussing, this extra is quite informative and engaging, though a tad soft and prolonged - it takes until the one hour 45 minute mark to stop discussing the cast, and then the shoot and the release are disposed of very quickly. A little more actual hard detail as regards the film would have been appreciated, but the atmospherics of the shoot are captured well ...
There's also a 57'49 David Williamson featurette Tall Tales but True (a 1994 ABC/FFC financed Don Featherstone documentary), which mentions Don's Party while taking a more extended overview of Williamson's personal life and his career as a playwright.
A short 5'47" audio recording of John Hargreaves' "Don" recollections (by Tony Watts) is intriguing and makes listeners regret that this fine actor wasn't around to entertain viewers in the Hartley documentary - his telling how Bruce Beresford wanted his actors to play their roles as if they were in a Czechoslovakian movie alone makes it worth the listen.
There's also a little easter egg in the form of You Am I's homage to Don's Party by way of a music video, put together in 1998 for BMG by Mark Hartley and featuring young rising actors of the time re-enacting bits of the party - Stephen Curry, Ben Mendelsohn, Matt Day, Tania Lacy and Nadine Garner can all be seen.
The extras are completed with a stills and poster gallery, a Bruce Beresford trailer collection, and Umbrella trailer propaganda for their catalogue.
In short, a good package, and while the film has also been released in single disc form, Oz movie enthusiasts will need the two disc edition. Watching the three clips provided by the ASO here will not satisfy the genuine, dedicated addict.
David Williamson's screenplay is based on his play, first staged at the Pram Factory in Melbourne in August 1971, written in 1970 and so much closer to the time of political events of 1969 than the film.
According to Williamson, the genesis of the work was the election parties he'd been going to for some years, and his great gift and desire, to take the piss.
Producer Phillip Adams says the real party happened in a "eucalyptic gulag" somewhere outside Melbourne, though whether at Kangaroo Ground or lower Plenty or Eltham is now lost in the mists of time. Adams says that Williamson's play featured various friends who at the time were going through marriage break-ups, a "staple of the scene" which provided plenty of drama.
Williamson's own marriage broke up during the staging of his play The Removalists when he met his second wife Kristin, but he is careful to insist that his characters are an amalgam and there is never a "full person" from life up on the stage.
He claims the play was at the cusp of changes in Australia, after Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch came out in 1971. He also thought when he wrote it that it would never be produced because Australian censorship laws were tight, and the language - essential to the characters and the times - was too accurate and explicit. Within a year of writing, however the laws had been relaxed and the play was on the stage.
The play was a hard sell for the collective then running the Pram Factory, at the heart of the alternative theatrical scene in Melbourne, with member Graeme Blundell proposing that the collective was more interested in revolution than sex in the suburbs.
He sold it to his comrade thesps on the basis that it would be done in the round, with the actors mingling with the audience. As a result, as the actors got off the stage, there was some improvisatory dialogue.
According to Williamson, this helped, because writers were considered fascist authority figures who should be ignored. A ten minute interlude featuring a rugby song - which Williamson hadn't written - turned up in the performance, with Blundell - who directed the the original staging - alleged to have been shame-faced and apologetic, admitting to Williamson he couldn't control the actors.
The adaptation to film was saved from a number of potential disasters in the scripting stage. According to Adams, right up until the eleventh hour, there was a plan to re-set the show in the then last federal election (1975), until it was realised that no Labor supporter in his right mind would throw a party to celebrate Gough's certain victory.
Adams: All of us know that we were going to get trounced - it was just a matter of degree. So we returned to the original 1969 setting.
The play was published in 1973 by Currency Press with an introduction by John Clark and a preface by H. G. Kippax. This edition was re-released by Currency Methuen in 1976 to coincide with the film.
(Below: film tie-in edition of the play - for details of various editions of the play, see Trove here).
2. Beginnings and Financing:
The Pram Factory staging set the scene for the film's adapation into film. The gritty realistic production achieved some notoriety, and according to Phillip Adams, the play attracted the attention of British film-maker Jack Lee, who had come to Australia to shoot Robbery Under Arms, and who had then gone into the mini-golf business.
The mini-golf courses didn't satisfy his creative longings and yearnings, so after seeing the Sydney production of the play, he got the rights to Don's Party off the young and inexperienced Williamson, and then brought the project to Adams to produce, with Lee as director.
According to the eventual director, Bruce Beresford, Lee changed his mind about the project, because being English he felt this study of a group of Australian friends at an Australian party might be a bit beyond him.
Deciding he didn't understand the culture well enough, he proposed someone else should direct it, and according to Adams lots of people put up their hands, including Michael Thornhill, who was "particularly aggressive" and thought he'd been born to direct the show, a view Adams wisely didn't share.
Adams, never short of a word, backgrounded the saga in an interview for a production report in the March-April 1976 edition of Cinema Papers:
At the time in 1974, it seemed to me that comedies were the only genre of film likely to redeem themselves financially in Australia. After all, in so far as there'd been a history of successful films in this country, it was a history of comedy going back to the Sentimental Bloke, the Dad and Dave films, Stork and Bazza. Furthermore, I'd had bitter experiences trying to raise money for dramatic films, but I did know that our unimaginative Australia investors would respond to comedy. In fact, I'd received a lot of unsolicited phone calls from would-be investors who'd heard wild rumours about Barry McKenzie's profitability. So I foresaw no problem in raising the $300,000 for Don's Party.
Unfortunately, things didn't happen as quickly as I'd hoped. As you know, I was foundation chairman of the Film and TV Board, and a member of the Australia Council, which was taking up at least 2 days a week. I was also spending quite a lot of time trying to raise money for other people's films. So the project had to wait until I resigned 12 months later. But by then Australia was in the middle of a credit squeeze and my investors had lost much of their enthusiasm. While everyone I approached agreed to participate, most of them offered just a fraction of the sort of money they'd originally proposed. So instead of getting a cheque for $50,000, I'd get one for $5,000.
Although somewhat dispirited, Jack Lee and I had a number of meetings with David Williamson on the script and we went through a number of rewrites. First of all, we went through the inevitable exercise of trying to "externalize" the drama, of trying to escape the stage set. But we found that it didn't really work - it was just tokenism. In any case, a drama like Don's Party, concerning a seething hot-bed of interpersonal conflicts, requires a high degree of claustrophobia. It's like a domestic argument - if you step outside into the garden the issues seem less important.
So, although a few additional scenes involving voting on election day and some skinny-dipping in the neighbour's pool have been added, the screen play is close to the original play - except that the off-stage scenes, which are implied in the original, now take place on camera.
Adams approached a number of directors, including Peter Weir and Tim Burstall, who said no, and Ken Hannam, who thought the characters too aggressive (he ended up with the dull characters of Break of Day):
It took such a long time to get going, and Jack had family commitments in Europe. So, although Jack retained his equity in the project, we agreed to find another director. At first, I wanted to use Ken Hannam, who directed Sunday, but Hannam was out of sympathy with the urban characters, preferring more rural archetypes. Hannam found the dialogue too aggressive, too ugly. Obviously, the man's a raving romantic.
The project was eventually offered to Beresford, though Adams said he was uncertain as to whether Beresford had sufficient craft - saying that there wasn't much in the way of craft in the Bazza films (this might also say something about the craft of producing as practised by Adams).
Beresford himself was in a bad way - he had gone to England with the odium of the Bazza films still hanging around him, and feeling he'd been written off as a major lunkhead. He had completed a little known, little seen musical Side by Side, featuring amongst others Terry-Thomas and Barry Humphries, which is now an iconic cult classic of the truly awful, when Adams sent him a copy of the script and asked him whether he was available to direct it. It turned out to be the best move Adams could have made, with Beresford on a quest for redemption.
According to Adams, Williamson was an astute anthropologist of Australian sexual attitudes, based on a huge amount of personal experimentation. The play and the script must rate amongst the best things Williamson ever did, so much so that he returned to mine the turf with a sequel, Don Parties On, an effort which only makes the original shine even more.
However the project was no certainty in the financing:
... Americans have a lot of trouble with Don's Party. The script was examined by a number of lofty personages from major studios, and they simply couldn't believe the way Australians talk to each other. What they failed to realize was that while characters were calling each other "bastard" and "cunt features", they were being affectionate; that underneath this scatological abuse, there is a great deal of camaraderie and warmth. It is very hard to explain to an American script consultant that "cunt hooks" (typo - looks?) is a term of endearment.
I had the same problem with the American consultants to the South Australian Corporation, as they also took the view that Don's Party was a piece of horrendous vulgarity. I remember David Williamson trying to explain what the play was all about, in the face of their rather pious reactions, and getting very angry. (Phillip Adams, Cinema Papers interview, ibid)
Eventually financing came together as a patchwork of government funding from the recently formed Australian Film Commission (replacing the AFDC), and some private investors who had previously invested in Adams' Barry McKenzie films.
The first job director Bruce Beresford had to do was to save the project from assorted casting lunacies proposed by producer Phillip Adams, most notably Paul Hogan for the part of Don and/or Cooley:
... I wanted him for the part very much. I'd also wanted him to play Curly in the original Barry McKenzie. Whe he was just down from the bridge, and before he'd assumed superstar status, I had a great admiration for his comic gifts, but he was very wary of the role. Finally the rationaliization for him refusing it was financial, but I suspect he was concerned over his ability to work with professional actors.
As well, I know that John Cornell was worried that the film might have a bad effect on Hogan's mass audience. Mind you, he had some cause for concern - Barry McKenzie hasn't exactly helped Barry Crocker's record sales. Little old ladies won't buy albums performed by young men who take their trousers off on television.
Fortunately Hogan and his manager John Cornell read the script and expressed great shock, deeming it too vulgar, with Hogan, speaking in the third person, advising that "Hoges wouldn't do that". The pair asked for a fee more than the budget of the entire movie, and that was that.
Adams was convinced that as Australia lacked film stars, the project needed televison personalities as stars (though Graham Kennedy had cracked that 'in order to be a television personality, first you have to prove that you didn't have one').
This notion reached the peak of possibile absurdity and disaster with the thought of Mike Willesee, a televison reporter and presenter, taking the role of Cooley or Don.
The one good result was that Graham Kennedy was given the chance to stretch his wings. Kennedy, in a 1994 interview featured in the 'making of', suggested that at first he'd felt comfortable with the proposed cast, as he was going to be amongst a bunch of other inexperienced television personalities. When it came to the crunch, he found himself amongst "proper actors" and frightened beyond words.
According to Beresford he hadn't ever heard of Graham Kennedy, nor had he ever seen him on television, as a result of being in England, licking his wounds over the Bazza films. When he met him, he realised he didn't know him, but tested him and thought he was good.
There was also a lucky accident, which was unlucky for Barry Crocker, star of the two Bazza films. He was a keen gardener, and the day before rehearsals started, he badly damaged his back, and went to hospital. While Crocker had performed admirably and with great spirit in the Bazza movies, it's highly unlikely he could have delivered the performance provided by his last minute replacement, John Hargreaves in the central role of Don.
The story, according to Hargreaves, is that he was in the loop for a role in the film but negotiations broke down when he and his agent asked for a thousand dollars a week, instead of the $850 a week on offer, which he thought unreasonable for a six week shoot all at night. The producer refused to negotiate, and didn't come back with a counter-offer to Hargreaves.
Then, when Crocker hurt his back, the next thing Hargreaves knew he was in a taxi heading to a real house somewhere near Pymble to join in rehearsals. Because of his youthful appearance, the role of Ray Barrett was changed from being in the same class as Don, to being Don's lecturer/mentor at university.
Hargreaves thought Beresford didn't have the language to speak to actors, but knew what he wanted. He didn't want any "hammy acting", proposing that the cast treat their roles as if they were acting in a Czechoslovakian movie. This line also turns up in the Cinema Papers interview with Phillip Adams:
By casting people agains type, we are hoping to get something extra from them in performance. David and I have talked about the style of acting a great deal, and we both wanted it to be very naturalistic, almost Czechoslovakian. At the same time I wanted the camera to be as mobile as possible, which is very difficult in a tight location.
According to Harold Hopkins, Beresford was worried that Hargreaves might appear too camp - he claims Beresford referred to gays as pillow biters - but Beresford denies this was a matter of concern to him.
The same negotiating failure happened with Wendy Hughes, who was offered the role eventually played by Candy Raymond. She too asked for more money, and when negotiations failed, she was replaced at the last minute as rehearsals got under way.
According to Beresford, he was in a motel room in Arizona watching television when the serial soap Class of '74 came on, and he spotted Jeanie Drynan in it. He decided she'd be perfect for the role of Don's long-suffering wife.
And so, in what might be called producer's luck, Phillip Adams ended up with Hargreaves and a largely professional, certainly excellent cast, balanced by the one television star and personality in the form of Kennedy, and without the risks of a Hogan in any role.
Hogan would, for example, have found himself out of his depth up against Ray Barrett, who was an experienced stage actor before he headed off to England in 1958 and to success in television shows such as The Troubleshooters. Barrett had played the part of the lecherous lawyer Cooley in the London production (though he knew he was too old to repeat that part under the close-ups of a camera).
Others in the cast had a similar lineage - Pat Bishop had played Kath in the first Sydney production, Veronica Lang had played Jody in London, and Kit Taylor had been a child star as long ago as Long John Silver in 1954.
According to Phillip Adams, Ray Barrett's character is reminiscent of the character of director Tim Burstall. Williamson denies that Burstall was the "major model for Mal" though that leaves room for him to be considered a minor model, especially as Williamson had worked with Burstall on a number of occasions.
Adams also claims that Don is eerily like an abbreviated Mr Williamson, offering affability, wry humour, self-deprecation and chauvinism, and Williamson admits that elements in the character did resonate with him.
Australian Prime Minister John Gorton is briefly featured in the film, partly as a tribute to his role in establishing several aspects of the nineteen seventies film renaissance, including government investment funding and the national film school.
Gorton and producer Adams had worked together on various aspects of federal funding for the film industry. Adams: ... I wanted to have "Introducing John Gorton" in the titles. After all, without John we wouldn't have had a local industry worth two bob.
Finally, while speaking of credits, and as a measure of Adams' hubris, it should be noted that for many years, in Hollywood and outside it, there was a long-standing convention that, where there are head credits, the producer took the penultimate credit and the director was given the last credit before the action started.
In the case of Don's Party, director Beresford is given the penultimate credit, and producer Adams the last, this for a project given to him by another, and where Beresford delivers top-notch work.
There was a week's rehearsal, in the actual house. Rehearsing was done in script chronological order, with DOP McAlpine already laying tracks around the house. According to McAlpine:
We have been greatly aided by the week's rehearsal we did with all the actors. The whole film has been plotted, with every camera angle worked out. This is saving an immense amount of time in set-up because there is none of the usual discussion about what to do next. Unfortunately we sometimes forget the poor old crew wasn't in on it and they occasionally get a bit lost. But we usually ask the talent to do a walk through for them ...
We played through the whole script as it will be filmed, seeing how the lines would fall with each shot, and so on. The rehearsal wasn't to polish the acting or anything like that.
McAlpine had been keen from the very beginning to shoot in a real house:
Other Williamson plays have been filmed, and for me they were all a bit theatrical: not in performance, but in appearance. If we can shoot on location, and have views through windows - even at night with lights outside - then we can begin to defeat the problem of everyone knowing it's a film of a play, and degrading it because of that.
Also Bruce is demanding complex camera movements to keep the film moving: ever changing angles, perspectives and so forth. Unfortunately this compounds the inevitable lighting problems, because on a set you can't always get your lights up over the dolly, and you must avoid tracking through your light sources. By the time we finish filming, I should imagine every bit of the house will have been seen, and not only seen, but tracked past.
Therefore I have to maintain a continuity of lighting throughout the shooot that will enable all these camera movements to occur. It's far beyond anything I have tried before.
Director Beresford had first thought of building a house in a studio, but was advised that this would cost $300,000, more than the entire budget for the film, and so he settled for a real project home in the northern Sydney suburb of Westleigh (the shoot had been shifted from Melbourne for various reasons, including cost, but for once without damaging the spirit of the material - though inevitably some people mourned the loss of the Carlton touch, as if lower Plenty had that much in common with Carlton).
Despite rehearsing in script order, and starting to film in the same way, the decision was made to shoot in location order - it made sense to film all scenes in the bedroom, all scenes in the kitchen, all scenes outdoors, and so on - but this also meant that the various stages of the party as it developed, raged and waned, had to be carefully storyboarded to keep track of things.
Because of the size of what was essentially a small suburban project home, the production experienced sound problems - any noise in one room could be heard in others - and the location wasn't well placed to survive Sydney rain, with the pool scene affected and the house having to be covered in tarpaulins.
The weather also made life difficult for DOP Don McAlpine, with the rain restricting shots onto the patio, because it was blowing all over the globes used in the Chinese lanterns (which ranged from 100 watters to 275W photo-floods that could only be used during a take and had a very short three hour life).
The shoot was over six weeks, mainly at night, except for the top and tail scenes featuring Don in his garden, and the relentless night shoots (in those days filming involved six day weeks) led to the actors feeling like rats in a cage, suffering from cabin fever, and with the relationships in play in the script echoed on set, for good or ill (according to producer Adams)
In the 'making of', various feuds are discussed. According to some, the barracking between Ray Barrett and Graham Kennedy became very intense, and it took some skill on the part of Beresford to keep Kennedy on set. There was some resentment of Barrett for having gone overseas and made a success of acting in Britain; at the same time, Kennedy found Barrett's 'lord of the manor' routines irritating, and kept telling him to piss off or fuck off, until eventually refusing to work in the same room with him, resulting in several scenes involving the pair being shot separately.
Or so the story goes. Barrett in the 'making of' doesn't remember any of this, proposing instead that he helped Kennedy by running through his lines and keeping an eye on him during the shoot.
There are many other gossipy points made during the 'making of' documentary, with nudges and winks, such as Phillip Adams proposing that there was sexual tension and sexual release during the shoot, but keeping his lips sealed, and Beresford claiming that Pat Bishop was so good in her role because she was just as caustic and bitter in real life.
According to Williamson, Beresford added the duck hunting joke, which involved Graham Kennedy. While it was in the play, the gag wasn't ever carried through to its scatological conclusion. Williamson thought it too puerile and outrageous to be played out in full, and is still doubtful as to whether it should be in the movie or not. It might be considered grossly hilarious, or simply gross.
A similar dispute arose in relation to the swimming pool scene. According to Clare Binney, the scene was in Williamson's script, and what's more Williamson had written a note in the script saying that the scene should definitely feel like pack rape.
In the 'making of', Williamson denies writing the pool scene several times, suggesting Binney's memory is faulty, and proposing that it was only included because Bruce Beresford found a swimming pool in the next door house and decided it should be used as another way of opening up the play (and offering a bit of requisite 1970s nude swimming, a tradition since The Set first established the joys of nude swims, in what was commonly known as the 'get your gear off' screen era for Australian films).
Williamson disagrees with Beresford regarding the rough behaviour of the men in the film - "rougher than I would have written" - while Binney claims that Graham Kennedy panicked while swimming in the pool, grabbed her, and almost drowned her by dragging her under (by way of contrast, Ray Barrett tells a story about how he went the grope in the water, purely as part of his character, but at the same time finding it remarkably easy to do).
Williamson thought at the time that he should keep away from set and leave the job to the actors and the director. He didn't attend rehearsals, but when he didn't turn up on set during filming, he received word that the actors were hurt and upset. So he got to set, and found that there was a lot of tension in the air. His presence inhibited the actors, and Bruce Beresford suggested he should leave, and as a result his experience of seeing the film shot was very brief.
In short, just another film shoot.
Director Bruce Beresford makes a cameo appearance serving Graham Kennedy at a pub drive through bottle shop.
Ray Barrett's short frilly undies, flashed in publicity photos, came from a sex shop just down from the Sebel Town House in Kings Cross, where he stayed for the shoot. He saw them in the window, bought them, and wore them in the pool scene, but viewers might find it hard to sight them in the final cut.
A final word on the mobility and the look achieved by DOP Don McAlpine. By 1975, Don's Party was already a sort of period film:
... being set in 1969 we felt it should have a reasonably hard and clear look. So I couldn't use diffusion or low contrast, though I consider them ill-used and in-vogue tricks anyway. I guess people will think I am having a shot at Russell Boyd, but Russell used it excellently in Picnic - I must make that clear. It is just that a lot of other people are using it without any real motivation: they are just degrading techniques to a point where they could just as well have shot it on bloody 16mm and blown it up.
Anyway, with the inevitable softness of enhanced, practical lighting, I think we made the right decision by shooting on straight, clear lenses ... (Cinema Papers, March-April 1976)
The result is one of the few Australian adapations of a play that feels like a film.
For reasons best known to himself, producer Adams decided to self-distribute the film, as a way of saving himself the 30% distributor fee then charged by the branches of the Hollywood majors, but resulting in a piecemeal approach which the film struggled to overcome. The film didn't reach Melbourne until some four months after it played Sydney, which in turn had waited until after it began life in theatres in Canberra.
Despite this eccentric strategy, according to the Film Victoria report into Australian box office, the film grossed A$871,000, equivalent to $4,503,070 in A$2009, and this is a more than respectable result for an R-rated film, especially relative to budget.
Despite the concerns about the language and the R-rating given the film by one-armed censor R. J. Prowse (whose name inspired the concept of Prowsing a film, or giving a film a good Prowsing and led to a cruel Barry Humphries joke about Prowse giving his arm to be present at a press conference), Adams sold the film to television very early, before the film's theatrical release:
... I've already sold the film to television - to the 0/10 Network - with the promise that it will be cleared for transmission in about three years time. That may seem optimistic on my part, but the fact is that Australia now has the most liberal television censorship in the world. There's no way a film like Don's Party could ever be screened on American television, or, for that matter, the BBC. As a matter of fact, the BBC told me to bring Barry McKenzie back in 10 years time. Prior to that, they saw no possibility of screening it. (Cinema Papers, March-April 1976)
The film was sold as a raw Ocker comedy, but David Williamson sees it as mainly a drama bout male failure, male boredom, male disappointment, and the anguish of women who have to put up with men who are suffering this burden - with Don, failed novelist and a life of frustration behind and ahead of him, symbolic of all the characters' failures and frustrations (Harold Hopkins in the 'making of' calls this sense of failure, of not living up to aspirations, a kind of recreational suicide).
Beresford claims he felt sorry for all the characters, all of whom were vulnerable in one way or another, though trying not to show it, with a sense of desolation and waste, which is why he used Janacek's In the Mist, very briefly at the top and in extended form at the tail, to evoke the mood - as Williamson puts it, the pathos, the black humour, the dissatisfactions, the mini tragedies of the people at that time, the women (not so) silently observing the boorishness of men.
The film is distinguished by this refusal to use a conventional underscore, but instead to rely on pop songs to establish the period feel, and the Janacek to assert the end note.
The point is that the film, a mix of comedy and drama, required careful handling and careful targeting in release, and while it did well enough, it perhaps could have done better.
As a result of the DIY distribution, the commercial response was mixed. The film did reasonable business in Australia, but probably wasn't helped by the way producer Adams tried to release it himself in conjunction with more conventional distribution.
In the interview in Cinema Papers, Adams emphasises the importance of a big opening - In my view, a film has to take a lot of money quickly for the production to have any hope of getting into the black. Australians have to learn a lot more about these aspects of production, otherwise their first film will often be their last - yet Don's Party had a leisurely release pattern.
One result of its presentation as something more than an Ocker sex comedy was that the film did appeal to international film festivals (though perhaps the image of Simon, the pipe-smoking, film festival-going, totally boring accountant Liberal voter was a tad too close to home for domestic festival organisers).
Select members of the creative team were given a warm welcome at the Berlin Film Festival, and the film also screened at the San Francisco Film Festival, before being given a New York opening - then still a rare event for an Australian film.
And the film did have a strange second life in the international sphere. According to the 'making of', it did good business in Israel, and remarkably, also good business in Venezuela.
But when it was given a screening in Moscow, viewers were outraged, demanding to know how real Australian workers and socialists would have behaved at a party, and refusing to accept that the people on view were remotely socialist.
The last words should be given to Williamson, who notes that the play, and the film caused great cultural anxiety, and that some prissy parts of the population were panicked in the usual way. He himself had some misgivings when he saw the rough cut version, but changed his mind when he saw the film with an audience.
For him, the film is now a time capsule, a snap shot that encapsulates the late 1960s, at a time when the American 1960s had finally impinged on the land down under, breaking it out of its awful 1950s suburban conformity.
The permissiveness of Don's Party didn't last for many years, with women realising that the ersatz liberation was another way of exploiting them, and in that sense it's a piece of social history, covering a time when the bourgeois left came to prominence, and when the middle class - or at least the still somewhat rowdy, educated Labor-voter believed their god Gough Whitam would enter stage left and take over Australia.
As a satire, it dishes it out to the crass, sex obsessed materialistic chauvinist Australian male, but Williamson also claims that in the sense of failed ambitions, failed relationships, and life's disappointments, it is relatively timeless.
It is arguable that it is Bruce Beresford's best early period film, and it is certainly arguable that it is the best adapation of a David Williamson play, due in no small part to the ensemble cast, to Beresford's knowing direction and to Don McAlpine's mobile camera.
Certainly it's a close call between this film and Beresford's 'Breaker' Morant - too much is made of how plays can never be turned into a good film, especially when it's remembered that the film about Morant is a courtroom drama which works very much like a play.
It can also be said that if you don't understand Don's Party, you don't understand a significant segment of Australian society. If you wish to understand the late twentieth century, its politics, and the baby boomers who held on to the reins of power for so long in Australia, Don's Party remains an essential briefing document.
Such is the power and lasting effect of the original - Don's party became a joke applied to politicians as diverse as Don Chipp and Don Dunstan - that David Williamson wrote a sequel, Don Parties On, which was staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, with Don and Kath throwing a party on the night of the 2010 Australian federal election. It was given a number of statings, but is unlikely to be made into a movie any time soon.
Of it, after paying due homage to the original play, Richard Watts wrote, here:
In essence, Don Parties On is a self-indulgent eulogy for David Williamson’s youthful dreams and reputation. It should never have been written. It should certainly never have been staged.