Production company: Southern Cross Film Productions
Budget: A$525,000 (Oxford Australian Film), including investment from the Australian Film Commission, $80,000 as the first investment in feature films by the new state government Victorian Film Corporation (The Age 23rd Dec 1976), the Nine Network, and private investors.
In the DVD commentary, producer Phillip Adams puts the budget at $600,000, with the smallest private investment only $1,000. He says he initially approached Nine for $20,000 to fill a shortfall, but that the Nine contribution was $100,000, including a deal for TV rights in perpetuity, because Kerry Packer told him he only dealt in millions and refused to deal in loose change. Some sources put the VFC contribution at $100,000, and the Cinema Papers' production survey puts the budget at $500,000.
Locations: school exteriors Methodist Ladies College, Barker's Road, Melbourne; school interiors, including the headmistress's study, at Mandeville Hall; Winchelsea, some 100 miles from Melbourne for an empty house which was used for school dormitories; Ormond College, University of Melbourne (where star Barry Humphries had done Shakespeare rehearsals in his youth); Illawarra House in Melbourne also provided a staircase; small village of Eddington on the road to Bendigo, central Victoria as Laura's home town; conservatory in Ballarat gardens (Ballarat also provided the brass band for this scene). The final big run by Laura at the end of the film took place at the Lake Wendouree end of the Ballarat gardens.
Filmed: January-February 1977
Australian distributor: Roadshow
Australian release: world premiere, 17th August, 1977, Bryson Cinema Melbourne.
35mm Eastmancolor Panavision ®
Running time: 100 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
DVD time: 1'37"11
Box office: According to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, the film made A$982,000, equivalent to $4,517,200 in 2009 A$.
In view of the short run of the film in first release, this seems like a generous figure, reinforced by the views of the creative team in the 'making of' documentary regarding the disappointing reaction to the film.
Producer Phillip Adams, director Bruce Beresford ('the critics were pretty tough on that one') and star Barry Humphries ('didn't receive the acclaim I think it deserves') each acknowledge the film was disappointing; star John Waters goes so far as to suggest that the film didn't make any kind of splash in the public consciousness at all, just did its two weeks in the theatres and then disappeared.
Additionally, it should be noted that the film didn't make the cut in the Cinema Papers listing of the all-time top 22 Australian films, using Variety data in its July 1984 issue, and yet the 22nd film, Gilliarm Armstrong's Starstruck, is listed as making only $581,000 in gross film rentals.
In a radio interview on the DVD, producer Adams estimated the film would need to do $3-4 million in box office to break even. It didn't get anywhere near this figure.
That said, the film did perform well in home town Melbourne, and it did also achieve a limited, art house style release in the United States via Atlantic Releasing, and it was given outings in other territories, as different as the UK and the then Yugoslavia.
The film received a reasonable number of nominations at the 1978 Australian Film Institute Awards, but like others in the field, was blown away by Newsfront:
Winner, Best Screenplay Adapted from other Material sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Eleanor Witcombe)
Nominated, Best Sound (Desmond Bone, Gary Wilkins, William Anderson, Peter Fenton) (the winners were Don Connolly, Greg Bell and Phil Judd for The Last Wave)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Art Direction (John Stoddart, Richard D. Kent) (Lissa Cotte was the winner for Newsfront)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Costume Design (Anna Senior) (Norma Moriceau won for Newsfront)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role sponsored by the Australian Film Commission (Patricia Kennedy) (Angela Punch won for Newsfront)
The film is listed in some databases as having been selected for the Director's Fortnight, 1978 Cannes Film Festival.
It was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on 19th May 1978 that the film would screen that day in the Director's Fortnight, but the festival's official site doesn't list the film as being part of the official selections. The Australian film screened that year in the official program was Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
The Getting of Wisdom has been released in region four on single and double disc DVD editions.
The vanilla version offers the film, the original trailer and Umbrella trailers.
In the double disc collector's edition, the first disc features the film in a restored 16:9 image, and trailers.
The image and sound are in relatively good condition considering the film's age, thanks to it having been one of the NFSA/Atlab film restoration projects. There's the usual signs of sparkle and dirt, but DOP Don McAlpine's beautiful photography emerges in relatively good shape.
The second disc was dedicated to extras including a 2006 1'23"27 Mark "Not Quite Hollywood' Hartley 'making of' documentary Telling School Girl Tales, which just avoids breaking the rule that a 'making of' should be shorter than the feature that it's about. It's an informative outing, though perhaps a little too detailed for all but enthusiasts in love with the film. (And perhaps there's also too much resentment of other films and film-makers).
There's also 54'57" of radio interviews with Beresford, Adams, Fowle and Humphries, from an undisclosed source, but apparently done before the film went on first commercial release. The tape hiss testifies to the age of the recording, but the words are clear enough. There isn't that much new added to what is revealed in the 'making of', but it has the immediacy of being made at the same time as the making of the film.
There's also a stills and poster gallery.
It's a generous package, which will make the special edition the preferred version for collectors and enthusiasts interested in Ozmovies that deal with classic novels and the Victorian era. While the film doesn't entirely work, director Beresford works very hard - perhaps too hard - with an energetic cast, and there are many incidental pleasures to be found on the way to wisdom.
The Getting of Wisdom was based on Henry Handel Richardson's novel, first published in 1910 (Richardson was the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, who attended, in the 1880s, what is called the Ladies' College in the film, and what was in reality Melbourne's Presbyterian Ladies' College). Richardson has a wiki here, and there's a good biography here at the ADB.
Director Bruce Beresford had read the novel when he was in school - he suggests he was 15 at the time. He found the work a revelation, thinking it very well written, amusing and observant, and completely unlike the other books he'd been reading about school-days, of the Tom Brown's Schooldays, Chums at Last kind. (In an interview in the Australian Womens' Weekly Beresford explains how he liked to hang around second hand bookstores, and pick up all sorts of reading material).
Instead of typical gungho boys' schooldays stuff, Beresford thought Richardson treated children in a sophisticated way, as human beings, with the same emotions as adults. He identified with the central theme of the heroine being an outsider.
The inspirational tone and the way the book was about someone trying to achieve something in the face of opposition or apathy also appealed to him. He thought it refreshing to read a book about someone realising that doing the right thing wasn't always the best thing, especially if talent might go to waste.
According to the creative team, Richardson had her name scratched from the honour roll at PLC when the book was published, and accordingly the school, the book and the film could be seen as a metaphor for Australia, where accomplishments should be repressed, and moments of happiness are best experienced in fantasy, a world where art has to be good for you - it wasn't enough to be good for itself.
Richardson during her life had a number of female friends, most notably Olga Roncoroni, who had lived in the household for many years, and filled the gap in Richardson's life after the death of her husband. Roncoroni became the executor of the estate on Richardson's death in March 1946 (destroying many of her private papers) and she held the rights to her works.
Beresford tracked down the, by then, very elderly Roncoroni to an old folks home and did a deal for the film rights.
Eleanor Witcombe, who had been writing radio plays, and stage plays for children since the 1940s, was employed to do the adapation, mainly on the strength of her work adapating Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians for an ABC mini-series. (She had developed a reputation for period adaptations, but had also worked extensively in commercial television, for such shows as Number 96).
In the DVD commentary, Beresford claims her main skill was dialogue-driven television, proposing that she had no sense of structure, and that she delivered a very long draft on which he had to do an enormous amount of editing and re-focussing. "I mean she'd go off on tangents and write like fifty pages about characters who were incidental to the story, things like that."
Beresford half-jokingly says he kept on saying the script was too long and she'd come back with a script fifty pages longer, and somehow she managed to turn a relatively simple novella into a sprawling screenplay.
According to Beresford, he pushed the screenplay in certain directions. For example, he went to the National Library and read Richardson's letters to her sister and mother, and took some incidents from them, and he also lifted scenes from Richardson's autobiography Myself When Young, which was unfinished but found amongst her papers. While it only went up to when she was 22 or 23, it covered her schooldays and mentions incidents in the book, but gives a different version of those incidents.
In particular Beresford shifted the emphasis to the more visual notion of the main character winning the piano competition, with the real focus of the book, a literary competition, given much briefer mention - a source of complaints from critics of the film, who suggest that Richardson's entire story is about her preparation in youth for a literary career.
Beresford used specific music to make specific points - the end piece by Schubert as a way for the character to assert independence while remembering Evelyn, and the Thalberg variations on Home Sweet Home, apart from being difficult to play, was deliberately shocking as a vulgar, cheap form of theatrical entertainment.
Beresford argues that the book was written in an episodic way, with characters appearing and disappearing and strands being left, none of which mattered in the novel, which didn't appear badly structured as a novel, but which mattered as a film.
As a result, he combines two characters into one so that it's Chinky (Alix Longman) who is expelled for stealing a ring and moreover, to help with narrative cohesion, she thieves out of longing for the main character Laura. (Another cause for later critical complaints about the convenience of the plotting).
This was because Beresford wanted to emphasise the girlish/lesbian infatuation and overtones deeply embedded in the original story. For example, Richardson had admitted in her autobiography that she greatly played down the affair between Laura and Evelyn in the book, but it was in fact a raging obsession, and so Beresford made this a stronger element in the film.
There is some debate in the DVD commentary as to whether Beresford pushed it too far by having the two girls get into bed together, or not enough, by having them only cuddle in platonic way. In a similar way, there's some discussion regarding the clear implication of the train scene in which teachers Jan Friedl and Candy Raymond broadly hint that they're also having it off.
Beresford also wrote a scene into the film which quotes the Bible proverb which is at the head of the book (but not within it) on the basis that it was ironic and played well, because most of the students weren't getting any wisdom at all.
A number of film tie-ins were issued at the time, including a paperback by William Heinemann in 1977, and a paperback by Nelson in 1980. Details of various editions of the book at Trove, here.
(Below: the film tie-in edition of the book)
The screenplay was also published by the Australian Theatre Workshop in 1978 as a soft-cover. Details of this edition at Trove, here:
The film was the second adaptation of one of Richardson's semi-autobiographical novels.
The first had been MGM's 1954 feature Rhapsody, an adaptation of Maurice Guest, starring Elizabeth Taylor, which takes up where The Getting of Wisdom left off, and featured Laura's experiences in Europe on a music scholarship - or as Barry Humphries crudely dubs it in his DVD interview, Lesbianism in Leipzig.
Showing a little cultural cringe, in the DVD interview, it's asserted that The Getting of Wisdom is a much better film, and Susannah Fowle much better than Elizabeth Taylor, but this is a bit like saying that chalk tastes different to cheese.
Financing the project proved difficult. Initially Reg Grundy agreed to finance the project provided Beresford made a sequel to the first Barry McKenzie film, but after this was done, Grundy stiffed him and refused to honour the deal.
This was in the days before the federal government's 10BA tax incentives, and on the DVD commentary the team tell various jokes about the trials and tribulations of raising money from private investors. Phillip Adams suggests that when Beresford was seated next to a terrible man who regarded the holocaust as a myth, he argued with the man and blew the investment (Beresford denies the story).
Adams also suggests Beresford made up all sorts of stories about how he was dressed up in a suit and paraded in front of investors, but how it would have been impossible to get Beresford into a suit.
He also says that the reason Kerry Packer came in with 100k in a deal involving television rights - after Adams had asked him for 20k - only happened so Packer could show what a powerful figure he was. Packer had grandly said he didn't deal in small change, he only dealt in millions, so he'd only contemplate a 100k investment.
Then there was the matter of the funding bodies. When they took the project to the bureaucrats, the funding bodies suggested that a woman should direct it, because it was about women and schoolgirls, and they wanted Gillian Armstrong to do it.
Beresford tells the story that he agreed, on one proviso - the next time that Armstrong came to them in the future wanting to do a film with a predominantly male cast, then they should make sure that Beresford got to direct it. He claims no more was heard about this.
Some 6,000 girls were auditioned for the role of Laura - a statistic used in publicity for the show - with the role being given to Susannah Fowle, who had not previously acted. The Australian Women's Weekly did a two page splash in November 1976 to help with the search.
In the DVD commentary, Beresford notes that the film was about an ugly duckling, who couldn't therefore by played by a beautiful young woman.
Instead he wanted a spirited young woman who could preferably play the piano to a certain level. Beresford says he auditioned a tremendous number of school girls in Melbourne - in the hundreds for the film role.
He didn't want a NIDA graduate (as happened with Judy Davis getting cast in Tim Burstall's High Rolling). He didn't want too much of a film or acting education, and doesn't in fact believe that much in actor training on the basis that some people can act and some can't. He liked the fact that Fowle was willing to be unlikeable.
The creative team discovered Fowle early in the casting process, but only came back to her towards the end of their extensive search. She was doing her HSC exams, and she played the piano well enough for the purposes of the film, though she played to a tape playback during shooting, with felt on the strings of the piano to deaden the sound (future concert pianist Sarah Grunstein did the actual playing).
Barry Humphries returned from London to play a rare straight role as priggish school principal - he had previously worked with both director Beresford and Adams on the Barry McKenzie shows.
Adams wanted a name to balance the unknown in the lead role, and they had asked James Mason, but didn't hear back from him or his agent.
Casting Humphries was, as Adams notes, a risk, relative to what might be called the Norman Gunston factor - when Gary Macdonald was cast in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock as a policeman, his career on television as a comedian had begun to explode, and when audiences sighted him on screen, they burst into laughter at the sight of him. (This was perhaps compounded because the Gunston character depended on him turning up in odd but real places, interviewing people, and milking the situation for laughs).
Humphries was therefore a risk, and so had to play the character without a hint of comedy or irony or self-mockery. He wanted to play the character Scottish, but didn't, and instead hit on the idea of dressing himself up with a moustache known as the Dundrearies (named after Victorian hero of an 1858 stage play Lord Dundreary). He also dyed, bleached and permed his hair to add a crinkle, and so get away from any hint of a comic persona.
Humphries notes that the slight hint of lechery required of him was effortless, and also notes his interest in Victorian manners and culture (the covering of teapots, lest the emission of a stream of tea arouse unwanted feelings, the covering of table legs, and joshing a TV Week interviewer by explaining that the film was really a guide to real estate developers searching for the next Victorian building in Melbourne that they should tear down).
The creative team wanted an elegant girl for the love interest. Beresford suggested a fishing expedition to London, where they found Hilary Ryan, an American-born actress from Kentucky, only about 18 at the time, but with some British stage experience. Ryan was imported to play the sophisticated glamorous Evelyn, who is worshipped by Laura, and the team thought she would go on to be a big star, but she didn't go on with it.
Sheila Helpmann, Sir Robert Helpmann's brother, was another recognisable name, though in the DVD commentary, it is unkindly suggested that she's like her brother in drag, or more out of drag, and certanly more masculine than Robert.
For a period film, the show has a relatively large speaking cast, both teachers and girls. Most of the girls had no acting trainging. A few, such as Jo-anne Moore did, and several of the girls would continue on to long careers - Sigrid Thornton confirmed the ability shown previously in The FJ Holden, and Kerry Armstrong began what would turn into an extensive career in ABC drama and some feature films (Lantana). Ironically Noni Hazelhurst can only be seen, virtually anonymous, in a very brief scene as a maid.
Producer Phillip Adams makes a cameo appearance as a schoolteacher.
The cast rehearsed for a week before filming started. Beresford was staying at the Windsor in a big suite, and he got the girls in to act out the script.
He was intent on driving out any hint of the acting style to be found in school plays, pointing out the need not to overplay when you happen to be thirty feet hight on a screen, and with an audience able, courtesy of the microphone, to hear an actor breathing. There was no need for elocution or slow speech - if he could hear and understand, so could an audience.
The film is a hodge podge of Victorian locations, merged together seamlessly in a high summer shoot in 1977.
The creative team thought that Melbourne was the best location in the world for a Victorian period film, better than London or Sydney. During the late nineteenth century mining and pastoral boom, many enormous Victorian-style buildings had been put up and many had been preserved.
Coincidentally this matched the thinking of the Victorian government, which through its new film body and investment arm, the Victorian Film Corporation, offered $80,000 on the proviso that filming took place in the state.
The biggest location problem was finding the little country town that would be Laura's home, and it took three weeks of driving around Victoria for Beresford to find it, until on the way to Bendigo, he came across the hamlet of Eddington.
Real commercial and critical success eluded the film. It opened well in Melbourne but then faded.
In the DVD commentary, the creative team brood about some of the reasons, with a clear resentment and hostility towards Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock emerging.
Adams and Humphries rail at the "idyllic school" represented by Picnic, with not much story but a lot of atmosphere, and girls floating around in muslin dresses and disappearing into rocks, suggesting that the film was perceived as a second class Hanging Rock, when they were very different sorts of films.
The Getting of Wisdom wasn't as popular because it was tougher, the creative team argue, but in reality most reviewers understood that the film wasn't Picnic, and if making comparisons, often pointed to The Devil's Playground (which is perversely dismissed by Phillip Adams in his commentary as being uncommercial, but which was a lot tougher than Wisdom).
The discussion also revolves around the character of Laura, who never becomes a swan - she always stays the ugly duckling but forms a friendship with a swan, and learns how to be street wise and use lies and deceit and emotional blackmail in what is a study of obsessive love.
The creative team thought there was a fair bit of reaction against this by lots of audiences who found it hard to watch (and in turn by implication something of a judgment on Susannah Fowle, who presented a bushy eye-browed resentfulness and lack of acting experience in the main role).
The DVD discussion also turned on the "questionable sexuality" in the film and how this might have impacted on the acceptance of film in general terms.
It wasn't a conventional story, but then Humphries - who is never afraid to display his discomfort with female homosexuality or to fire off a few barbs - suggests it would do better better now, "when everyone's a lesbian".
Beresford concludes that the abrasive central charactrer didn't help the film but that was the point of the story. He didn't want to use a conventionally beautiful actress, but someone who's inner beauty was not immediately apparent,
According to Adams, this hurt the film's commercial prospects, it would have been better done with conventional beauty, but this would have been at the expense of integrity, while Humphries contends that it's the realism of the characters that makes the film.
There is one irony to be heard in the radio interviews when Phillip Adams goes on a rant about recessive Australian heroes, who are passive and star in "detumescent, droopy" films - citing Michael Thornhill's recessive, droopy Between Wars - and praising the heroine in The Getting of Wisdom because Laura wants to succeed and to achieve and therefore has something other Australian films miss as a dramatic requirement.
Yet in another breath in the DVD, the film is being compared to a soporific Merchant Ivory film where period detail is important, but the story is the main thing, and in another part of the interviews, Adams and Beresford mention different views of the ending, in which Laura races away from camera.
Beresford adopted the ending in the book, with Laura retreating into the distance and being lost to view.
Adams, who had supervised the poster - which featured the heroine in triumphant, up-lifted mode - had wanted something which sounds a bit more like the US poster for Shine as the film's ending, with the heroine triumphantly tossing hat in air and perhaps jumping in a soaring way into the sky for joy.
The ending used looks a bit like those other detumescent Australian films of the time, Adams claims.
In all this, Adams sees no irony in criticising other film-makers for featuring depressive heroes or heroines in downbeat films, while presiding over a film about an uppity, disruptive, alienated lesbian who dislikes her school-mates and school and Australia generally so much that she can't wait to head off to Europe and Leipzig.
Whatever the precise reason, the film didn't sell as many tickets as expected but as usual, it's likely that more than anything else, mysterious, ineluctable word of mouth was responsible.
And now, having been released on DVD, there has been a revival of interest and attention, along with interest in other films of the early revival, such as The Devil's Playground, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and My Brilliant Career.
5. Eleanor Witcombe:
Eleanor Witcome was a Mosman based playwright and writer who began her career writing for radio in the 1940s. She wrote stage plays for children such as Pirates at the Barn and The Bushranger, and she also did an adaptation of The Magic Pudding for marionettes, and at the time of The Getting of Wisdom, she was a hot property because of her upmarket television work. She became even hotter for a brief while as a result of her adaptation of My Brilliant Career.
Publisher UQP provides this short biography:
Eleanor Witcombe was born in South Australia, but left home in 1939 to live first in Brisbane and then in Sydney. She began writing plays for children in 1948, and was writing for radio at the time of her departure for England in 1952. On her return to Sydney in 1957, she wrote for radio, co-wrote two stage shows, and in 1963 adapted Smugglers Beware for television. This was followed by a long spell with the Mavis Bramston Show and its sequels. Other television credits include her adaptation of Seven Little Australians and writing for Number 96. One of her first film scripts was The Getting of Wisdom. Her screenplay adaptation of Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career produced a landmark Australian film. In 1979 it won six AFI Awards including Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Achievement in Direction. My Brilliant Career: The Screenplay is part of the UQP Screenplay series, and was published in 1992.
For a more detailed biography, AustLit provides the one below. See here for it, and for details of works by Witcombe, works about her, and works about her works, as well as a listing of awards:
Eleanor Witcombe's mother Bertha ('Sissy') Erichsen, was the daughter of Danish and Prussian immigrants, and her father, Noel Witcombe, was the eldest son of the Reverend William Witcombe of Sydney. She was educated at the Yorketown Higher Primary School and, after her family moved to Brisbane in 1939, at Brisbane Girls' Grammar School.
The first play she wrote down was 'Omlet', a skit on Hamlet, for a school concert in 1940. In 1941, the family moved to Sydney. Witcombe has been a chronic asthmatic nearly all her life, and persistent ill-health forced her to give up studying for matriculation and later, the National Art School. With a growing interest in writing and theatre, she enrolled in 1947 in Peter Finch's Mercury Theatre School, and between 1948 to 1950 was commissioned by the Mosman Children's Theatre Club to write three plays for children: Pirates at the Barn, The Bushranger, and Smugglers Beware. These were widely produced both nationally and overseas. At the same time, she wrote many scripts for ABC School Broadcasts and Drama. She also wrote short stories and, as a finalist in a competition, won £6.
In 1952, she left for five years' work and study in London. Smugglers Beware became the first Australian children's play professionally produced there. On her return to Sydney in 1957, she continued writing for the ABC and now for commercial radio. She wrote one-hour drama adaptations of plays, books, and stories for ABC radio, the Lux Radio Theatre, and the Macquarie Radio Theatre: Sunday night specials, competing with each other. She also wrote the books for stage musicals A Ride on a Broomstick (for children) and Mistress Money (for adults) for the Philllip Street Theatre. During the 1959 Christmas period, three of her plays for children were playing simultaneously in Sydney. In 1963, she initiated the Australian Theatre for Young People and contributed to The Mavis Bramson Show and its sequels on television. In 1968, the Theatre for Young People commissioned the play The Runaway Steamboat for the Adelaide Festival, and she adapted the first of a series of book serialisations for ABC-TV while contributing for over three years as an original writer for the marathon television series No 96.
She wrote the screenplay for The Getting of Wisdom in 1976 and for My Brilliant Career in 1978, which resulted in developing several projects in the USA. A long interest in social history has led to her researching the lives of Daisy Bates and Breaker Morant for a double biography to be published by Pan-Macmillan.
Although she now lives in Sydney, Eleanor's ties with South Australia have remained strong. In 1988, she instigated the Erichsen Heritage Award for Southern Yorke Peninsula in honour of the pioneers, and to promote interest in the local history and environment. As a republican, she sees Australian drama as important to our self-realisation.
Apart from her writing, she says she 'enjoys AFL footy and going for long fast drives all over the landscape'. In 1999, she was the recipient of an Emeritus Award by the Australia Council, 'For a distinguished life-long contribution to Australian Literature'.