by Inga Walton
Australia’s most internationally lauded and widely respected actor is the subject of a sprawling exhibition of memorabilia, costumes, photographs, and artefacts, The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush, at Arts Centre Melbourne (until 27 October, 2013). Curator (Theatre) of the Performing Arts Collection, Margaret Marshall, worked closely with Rush to realise the project, which begins with his formative years growing up in Toowoomba and Brisbane. Talent-spotted at university by Alan Edwards, the newly appointed (English) director of the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC), Rush began his career there in 1971 the week after his final exam, at just twenty years-old.
In 1975, he went to Paris for two years and studied at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. We learn from Rush’s framed tribute to Lecoq (1921-99), read at memorials in France and Washington, DC, that “[He] taught me how to fall over, get slapped, and be a failure. As an impoverished student, I handed over a fair sum of money for him to do this. I couldn’t even question him about it at the time because my French was so lousy … He expanded my ignorant and rigid sense of creativity to such magnitude that his influence on my life still reverberates, spiralling upwards and outwards, twenty-two years later”.
The exhibition structure organizes Rush’s professional output into six sections: ‘Clowns, Fools & Ratbags’, ‘Antagonists’, ‘Dames & Dandies’, ‘Harried Men’, ‘Famous, Infamous & Forgotten’, and ‘Fantastical’. Rush and Josh Nelson have compiled a fifteen minute loop of excerpts from forty-three roles, starting with Rush’s film début in Claude Whatham’s Hoodwink (1981), up to his most recent stage performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Her Majesty’s Theatre (2012), for which he recently won the Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Musical. A compilation of ‘novelties’, edited by Rush and Michael Borthwick, includes two sketches Rush wrote, one being the 2011 parody of film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton of ABC’s At the Movies. Performed in their presence by Rush and Cate Blanchett, his co-star in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Oleanna (1993), and the Elizabeth films (1998 & 2007), the dialogue and the spot-on delivery has the honourees and the studio audience in stitches.
Many of Rush’s most acclaimed roles have been biographical in nature, including his Oscar-winning role as troubled pianist David Helfgott in Shine (1996). He received subsequent Academy Award nominations for Best Actor as the incarcerated libertine and writer Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) in Quills (2000), and for Best Supporting Actor as embattled theatre-owner and entrepreneur Philip Henslowe (c.1550-1616) in Shakespeare In Love (1998), and as Australian actor and elocution therapist Lionel Logue (1880-1953) in The King’s Speech (2010). The BAFTA for Best Actor in a Supporting Role went to Rush for his performance as the sinister ‘spymaster’ Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1532-90) in Elizabeth (1998). Rush received the Primetime Emmy Award (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie) and the Golden Globe (Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film) for his portrayal of the erratic actor and comedian Peter Sellers (1925-80) in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004).
Rush’s Tony Award in 2009 for Best Actor, in Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit The King (Le Roi se meurt), is one of his few accolades for portraying a fictional character. Rush is the only Australian to join the select group of twenty-one performers to have won the so-called ‘Triple Crown’ in competitive acting categories: an Academy (1997), Emmy (2005) and a Tony (2009) Award. These are on display atop a vintage Ronaldi upright piano, along with Rush’s gong as Australian of The Year (2012) and the Raymond Longford Award (2009), the highest accolade bestowed by the Australian Film Institute (AFI). Like many artistic children, Rush bemoans that, “All through my academic high school studies I failed in the eyes of my school because I had no sports trophies”. His yawning trophy cabinet now includes another Golden Globe (1997), four Screen Actors Guild Awards, two further BAFTAs, two Helpmann Awards, two Green Room Awards, the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award (1993), an AFI Award for Best Actor (1997), and their Global Achievement Award (2003), among others. In 2011, the AFI authorised a subsidiary to act as its industry engagement arm, the rather more pompous-sounding Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA), of which Rush is the inaugural President.
Viewers can pore over Rush’s annotated scripts, notes and speeches, and catch a glimpse of his famous friends. Congratulatory notes on his Oscar win from designer Calvin Klein, director Steven Spielberg (whom Rush would later work with on Munich, 2005) and a gracious Woody Harrelson (who was a fellow nominee for Best Actor that year with The People vs. Larry Flynt) are displayed. A delighted note from John le Carré about the film adaptation of his 1996 book The Tailor of Panama (2001), assures Rush that it was, “better than any of us could have dreamed!”, and that, “… if we ever meet – which I much hope we shall – the first, second and third [drinks] are ALL on me”. Le Carré, who served as Executive Producer on the film, signs it under his real name, “David (Cornwell)”, the endearing brackets presumably in case Rush was unsure! Probably the oddest item is a birthday message on Rolling Stone letterhead from a “Colonel J. Depp”, whose official title is given as “Opium Inspector for Mr. [Jann] Wenner” [the magazine’s publisher]. Addressed to “My Dearest Hector” [Captain Barbossa, Rush’s character in the Pirates of the Caribbean films], Depp proffers “some of France’s finest”, and signs off as “Capt. Jack”. How’s that for staying in character?
• Gallery 1, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne (VIC) – www.artscentremelbourne.com.au