The word success is almost impossible to define, as it means something different to just about everyone. It’s much too large than a single word can contain, because it’s a concept. A floating concept that bends and morphs and matures as we do. What we think it means at the beginning of our journey, may be vastly different to what it means at the end. It’s a dream that, once it’s seemingly fulfilled, may be considered a burden. A curse. A prison cell. A nightmare.
Perhaps it’s God’s sneakiest joke on us all. Giving us what we think we want, in order to find out first hand how hollow it ultimately becomes.
McCartney hit it on the head, simplifying it to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” A record we could dance to, even if the concept was way beyond our comprehension at the time. Perhaps Paul was starting to understand how restrictive a “successful” life can be.
One of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou Shalt Not Worship False Gods.”I have interpreted that to include money = success. For I’ve seen first hand people worship it at the expense of their family, friends, colleagues, ethics, talent and own life.Their “concept” of success was so delusional it eventually devalued every thing of true value in their life.
I was once privileged to have had a song of mine selected for inclusion on the Ferrets’ second album “Fame At Any Price.” I loved that album title then, as I love it now. It was prophetically apt for a band that self-combusted shortly after its release. Perhaps from the pressure of having to follow-up a Number One single and a Gold debut album “Dreams of a Love,” which incidentally also featured a song of mine entitled “Killing Ourselves.” A lyric about the friends of mine who were falling in action during the Melbourne heroin epidemic of the Seventies. That song proved prophetic for the band too.
It’s one thing to crave success. It’s another to have the stomach for it. People take drugs like heroin to numb themselves to the world around them. Isn’t it bizarre that when many performers finally break through and achieve the success they’ve craved, they reach out to self-medicate themselves to…what? The pain of it? The disappointment that the concept of success was so much more thrilling than the reality? Or is it their fear that they, mere mortals, are suddenly treated like gods, and know they can’t sustain this facade for long without publicly falling? False prophets for a false society.
It says a lot about our society that Elvis Presley, the most famous and desired man in the world, died of loneliness. Photographs of him towards the end show a man who is dull-eyed, self-medicated to the point of not knowing where he is, and clearly not having a good time. He even mocks himself in his final heartbreaking performances as if all his dignity is gone. Pity the man who inherits the world, but loses his soul?
We are fed the “Dream” to keep us productive, and striving day to night to achieve our goal, so we can be happy. But, what if, as Judy found out, there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow except burnt-out, broken, despairing suckers?
I always thought the rainbow ended on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Western. It almost did for me one night, but that’s another story. And there are millions of stories in the naked city.
My father worked his guts out from 6am until 5pm every day in a thankless job that paid him nowhere near his worth. Then he’d come home and drink. Do you blame him? I sure as hell didn’t. He dreamed of reaching retirement age and getting a big payout. He didn’t make it. In one of the final lines in Arthur Miller’s cathartic play Death of a Salesman, “…No one dast blame this man…He just had the wrong dreams. All wrong.”
How much of our lives are wasted chasing the wrong dreams? “When I get a nice new car I’ll be happy!”…”When I get married I’ll be happy!”…”When I get a nice house I’ll be happy!”…”When I have a child I’ll be happy!”…”When I get divorced I’ll be happy!”… “When I can retire and live as I want I’ll be happy!” etc., etc. The truth is, we’re not happy to begin with. One thing I’ve learnt from my own experience is that money and success won’t make you happy. In fact, they will just amplify the painful reality that you aren’t.In order to enjoy money and success, you must be happy within yourself before you obtain them. Otherwise they are weights around your neck that’ll drag you down to the bottom of the ocean.
Bob Dylan once said that “a successful man is someone who gets up in the morning and goes to bed each night and in between does exactly what he wants.” So, there you have it. Real success is freedom. The freedom to be who you are, and do what you want to do.
I’ve always admired people who are good at what they do. That’s probably a working class respect I inherited from my parents who much admired skilled tradespeople.
America used to have a healthy competitive pride whereby whatever job you had, people wanted to be the best at it. Whether it was driving a cab, being a shoeshine boy, a bellboy, a clerk, a hot dog vendor, etc.
I’ve seen waiters in Los Angeles, old guys who had made a career of it, and they were perfection personified. It was riveting to observe their attention to detail, manners, diplomacy, professionalism, and so on. The top guys made a fortune in tips and deserved every dime. But more than the money, they prided themselves on being the best. Some, were legends. I was in awe of them and paid them great respect.
So, what is success? Is it determined by money? Or by your ability? Or what others think of you? Or how loved you are by your family? Or how many people know your name? Or how many of your peers respect you? Or how fulfilled you are within yourself?
Because, if we don’t know the answer to that, it means most of us have been striving for something that is so elusive, it is even beyond us. And, if we don’t know what we’re seeking, how can we expect to find it? Or ever be content?
I like to walk a lot and, when I do, observe people. You could say it’s part of my job. And in my journeys into the outside world, I have from time to time passed many happy people. The happy family man. The happy young girl walking hand-in-hand with her love. The happy little boy who puts his protective arm around his younger sister and smiles at her. The happy busker who has a captive audience and a hat full of money. The happy taxi driver who loves to chat with his passengers and treat each as a new friend. And so on. To me, all these types are successful people. In the truest sense of the word. They are happy within themselves and thus radiate happiness outward. They have not been shackled by expectations. Either of our own making, or of others.
I have also seen and met some of the wealthiest, most powerful and famous people in the world whilst I lived in L.A, and quite a few were utterly miserable, and made everyone in their presence feel the same.
In the some of the final lines of the classic movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” it is stated, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
I believe that. I have some very true, loyal friends. Their rock solid friendship make me feel successful, happy and content for having found them. No matter what I do professionally, or don’t do, or they do or don’t, we have achieved something rare, precious and beautiful. Something real.
My mother had suffered. While other teenage girls were carefree, my mother's
youth was robbed from her by polio. And the result was she'd walk with a limp
the rest of her life. She'd also been denied an education because she'd had
to leave school at 12 to work in a florist shop to help financially support
the family. Her father, whom she'd adored, was thrown out of the house by her
mum, and although he'd occasionally return to beg a reconciliation with his
family, it never eventuated.
I was told that he couldn't keep his feet still if he heard music and loved
to tap dance. It's one of those spooky things in life that I too loved music
and told my mum I wanted to learn tap dancing when I was all of 7. I guess
somehow in that mysterious way of the world I'd inherited his love of that.
One night he was hit by a car driven by a drunk and died instantly. No doubt
my stubborn Irish grandmother felt guilt that she'd never taken him back into
the family and household he'd loved so much. But all actions have ripples, and
some turn into tidal waves.
My mother missed him all the days of her life, and always told me what a
lovely man he was.
Some say wisdom can't be taught, it has to be earned. And perhaps all the
early heartbreaks my mother endured explained her inherent wisdom. She had
a calm soulful way of smiling and imparting her wise words that would cut
to the heart of any problem you had.
She was also the greatest mental arithmetic exponent I've ever witnessed, and
could correctly spell any word by sounding it. She was never wrong. Perhaps
She had a love of words that rubbed off on me. Her mathematical skills did
She loved people. Another trait I inherited. And like me, she sometimes
trusted the wrong people. At the age of fourteen this pretty, naive,
friendly girl was raped by a much older man. At fifteen, before her life
had really begun, she had a child, which was brought up by my grandmother
as hers to avoid a scandal and being ostracized by society at that time.
My mother assumed the role of the baby boy's sister. A common story in
those days, and much later gave me the insight to write about it in the
musical based on the life of Bobby Darin, "Dream Lover." I had witnessed
first hand the aftermath of the pain, shame and fallout of that situation.
Hence the line in "Dream Lover" that "once you tell a lie, it must become
your truth forevermore."
In her early twenties my mum met my father. It was obviously, on my dad's
part, love at first sight. But my mother steadfastly resisted any commitment to him.
Still, he persisted. Phone calls, flowers, visits to the house, all
intended to wear her down and make her fall in love with him. His desperate
Quixote delusion. These days such a romantic fool would be arrested for
stalking. Back then it was considered "woo-ing."
He and his two brothers were all steeple chase jockeys, and although my
dad wasn't yet earning big money, healthy prospects loomed. All the
brothers had been brought up as stable boys so they had a great gift with
being able to handle horses. It was second nature to them. My father offered
to give up his promising but tenuous career to get a steady job if only
Pearl Walsh would marry him. She refused his proposal. Then one night he
showed up at her mother's house, drunk and crying, and threatened to kill
himself if she didn't marry him. My mum's oldest brother, Bill, told her
to "let the silly bastard off himself so we can all get some sleep!"
My mother, cursed with a soft heart, married Henry Francis Howson (Jacky
to his friends) and they set forth to try and build a life together.
She'd thought her child would move in with them and the wrong could be
righted, but he'd grown too attached to the familiarity of her mother by
then. My mother carried the hurt of this rejection the rest of her life.
In his later years he'd desperately sought my mother to acknowledge him
but she never did. He had made his choice. In Irish Catholic homes
betrayals and vendettas ran hard and had a way of icing even the sweetest
I never knew any of this until I was a teenager. I was staying at my
uncle's house once, and his kids kept referring to him as my brother.
Suddenly, it was unraveled and and revealed.
My father's drinking accelerated and one can only assume as to why that
was. He went to his grave with so many inner feelings unvoiced. Like most
men of his day. Perhaps he regretted what could've been if he hadn't given
up his racing career. He watched both his brothers go on and gain much
acclaim culminating in his oldest sibling winning many Grand National
Steeple Chase events and ending up in the history books.
Or perhaps it was because he was sensitive enough to know that my mother's
love never matched his. After he died, my mum told me that she hadn't loved
him and had only married him because he seemed so lost. That hurt me very
much to hear, and made me sad knowing my father had endured a life with that
knowledge. She'd married to get away from living in her mother's home with
her two older opinionated brothers. Suffocating living under too many
people's rules with a child she wasn't allowed to acknowledge as her own.
At times I've thought that some people marry in order to kill each other. Or
themselves. Not sure if there's a name for that syndrome but it surely does
exist. As much as day follows night.
I guess I always dreamed that I'd one day have a normal family life of my
own, not damaged by denials, guilt, recriminations, and shame. And, for
15 years of a marriage I did, but lost it all when I stood up over a
principle (that Irish streak again). I won big in the integrity stakes but
lost in the financial one. Still, I could live with that far better than the
alternative, for I'd seen first hand what damage living a lie does to
Who knows what my mother could've achieved if she'd been born into
different circumstances. Her great love was the movies. Spencer Tracy, Bing
Crosby, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Ronald Coleman, Katherine
Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were among her favourites. Later she became a big
fan of Peter O'Toole and thought that the acting between him and Richard
Burton in "Beckett" was the greatest she'd ever seen on the big screen.
My mum quoted Hollywood stories like some people quote Shakespeare or Bob
Dylan. Somehow she's found some morality stories about Tinsel Town. One of
which was about dear ol' Cary Grant who'd married the Woolworth's heiress
Barbara Hutton, and how everyone at the time had thought he'd only married
her for her money. Yet, when they divorced, Cary took not a cent. What a
guy. That morality story has cost me a small fortune. I too, as a result,
have never walked away from a marriage with anything other than the clothes
I'd been wearing. Somewhere Cary and mum are smiling. As for me, I've spent
She had an amazing instinct about people. Not sure if one is born with this
ability, or earns it from meeting too many horribles along the way. Anyway, I'd
bring a young school friend home and after they'd left she'd say, "He's
(or she's) not for you." That really pissed me off as I thought she was far
too judgmental. But what pissed me off most was the fact that she was always
right. In fact, I've missed her judgements for far too many years.
She was so protective of me. I'd been a change of life baby and in her eyes I
was a precious gift from God. Of course I tried to rebel against this
rather restrictive image at every opportunity, but her love to me was always
unconditionally. When my much older sisters heard my mother's good news about
my impending entrance into this world they, in their usual graciousness,
refused to speak to my mother for 12 months. In many ways, I became the love
of my mother's life. All her unrequited dreams were wrapped up in me. It
became a heavy burden for a young boy but on reflection I guess it pushed
me to strive harder so as not to let her down. This resulted in my mother
thinking everything I did was right, and my sisters believing everything I
did was wrong. It got me used to mixed reviews. And I also learnt early that
if people resent you it doesn't matter if you walk on water they're going
to be unimpressed. Or pretend that they missed it. And you can't fight that
or you'll become as mentally ill as the swallow people.
Every day she'd get on the tram to the city and wander around all the floors
of the Myer Department Store shopping for the latest bargains. I shared those
journeys with her many, many times. She was on first name basis with all the
sales staff of that vast shopping complex. If she didn't have the money she'd
put some item on higher purchase and pay it off (sometimes over years it seemed).
Or, she'd have them deliver it "cash on delivery." If they delivered during
a poor week we'd have to be as quiet as mice as the very patient Myer delivery man knocked
at our door. It was quite an adventure. The policy was that they'd attempt
delivery three times before they'd give up. If this happened, we'd go into the city
and order the very same thing to be delivered hoping that by luck the knock
would come at the door on a more prosperous day. My mother was a first-hand
example of perseverance and hope.
She had a smile for everyone and loved a chat. A trip with her to the corner
shops and back could take all day, as she'd stop and chat to each person
she encountered. It used to frustrate the hell out of me as I'd hear the
same stories 43 times in succession!
When she died, her dear friend Kathy Jansen described my mother's voice as
"the sound of joy." And so it was. I never once caught her being maudlin,
sorry for herself or depressed. To her, each say was a new adventure. Along
Along the way, she beat cancer and overcame heart problems - probably by
her positive disposition - and it was only a freak silly accident in the
house and a bump to the head that caused a blood clot, that signaled her
exit from this world.
Her stroke cruelly took away her ability to speak. To my mother, this was her
lifeblood. Every day I'd visit her she'd clench my hand with all her might,
look me in the eyes, and through sheer force of will force out three words,
I had no answer for her. We'd never lied to each other.
It didn't take long until she'd willed herself to death.
Years later when I was living in Los Angeles and having my own voice
problems caused by intense stress, my longtime friend John Capek
suggested that I go to an energy healer he knew on Laurel Canyon. I
took his advice and did so. During my first session, the energy guru
asked me to tell him a potted history of my life. I did so as best as I
could to which he replied, "Oh my God, what a hard life you've had!"
I was momentarily shocked as I'd never thought of it that way. Not in those
terms. After all, I had no other life to compare it to. It was what it
was. In fact, I'd felt that I'd many things to be grateful for. But when
I thought more deeply about it, given his statement, the tears started to
flow uncontrollably from my eyes in spite of myself. As though my body was
releasing the intense pain I'd suppressed since childhood in order to
just keep going. It was quite a cathartic experience. He then said,
"Oh, and your mother is still with you. She doesn't realise she'd dead.
She loved you so much she can't let go. You need to tell her to go away."
It was one of the hardest things I've had to do. The fact that her great
love for me had transcended death was so touching and yet I had to reject
her in order to breathe and begin to restore my own life. I have weathered
many great losses and loves in my life, and this was another loss I'd dealt
with. To everything there is a lesson, and I've learnt the art of icing my
heart to certain things. To quote a line from my film "Remembering Nigel,"
..."It's alright to love something, but you are damned if you love that
thing too much."
And I'll be damned if I wasn't right.
I've never been one of those men who looked down upon women or devalued
their opinions or didn't see them as an equal, and that's no doubt because
my mother was a very positive example to me. She was smart, wise, funny,
instinctively sharp, kind, true, strong and open-hearted to all other
open hearts. It's true that when some people die the world is diminished
in some way. And so it was for me and all those who knew Pearl Howson.
Not a day goes by...
(c) Frank Howson 2019
Where do you find someone
Who’ll give you their heart?
And won’t take it back
Just to tear you apart
Someone who is
Everything she seems
A dream you wake to
When you wake from dreams
I’ve been searching so long
And learned to live alone
You kinda park your life
In a holding zone
But I believe one day
If you keep on giving
You’ll stumble in the dark
And find your reason for living
For it’s a contradiction
That in the darkest night
We see in the faraway distance
The brightest light
Down here on this barren battleground
We have been issued no orders
We don’t even know who we are fighting anymore
Yesterday the fog was so thick
We mistakenly shot our own leader
And laid him to rest ‘neath a tree
Perhaps we should withdraw
Which is not a surrender
We mustn’t surrender
For there is too much to lose
But we’ve forgotten what
Send word back
That we have not thrown down our weapons
But we need back up
It seems we have gone weeks without sleep
As we sit in the dark every night
Waiting for the enemy to attack
But they never come
This is a very sophisticated strategy
That we have not been briefed on
For our leader is dead
And his family have not received word
For they will only grieve
And too many tears have been shed
Too many hearts broken
Too many roads taken
Too many widows haunting us
In the mists of dawn
But we are holding our position
And ready for action
Eager to do him proud
To fight to the last man
We have burnt our white flags
So we wouldn’t be tempted
Our enemy has a lot to answer for
We just haven’t been informed of what
But we’ve been told to hate them
I wonder if they’re scared like us?
I wonder if they sleep?
I wonder if they just want to go home
Like we do?
I wonder if they’re still there?
Perhaps the war is over
I wonder who won?
It is Sunday. A sweltering day in St. Kilda. I am seated under a shaded canopy in pink paradise – “Good Love” on Acland Street. I’m chatting over tea and banana bread with the imitable Frank Howson – Screenwriter, Producer, Theatre Director, Film Director, Artist, Performer, Poet and list goes on. I first met Frank way back in 2007 in a fleeting hallway passing during his rehearsals for the short play “The Replacement Son” he was directing for Short and Sweet. I recognised his name.
Frank’s colourful life has had more dips and turns than Luna Park’s Scenic Railway – so my chat with him was highly energetic and elaborate to say the least. I suggested that we visit one of his old haunts, his childhood home in the adjourning street – 51 Fawkner Street – to trigger some memories. So as we strolled down the street, accompanied by our ever reliable photographer, our conversation back to those years and onwards. “When I was a small boy, I began to dream. These dreams weren’t like normal ones in my sleep, these were my awake hours. Some of these dreams were bigger than me,” he said, adding, “And a few would turn out to be so big they would eventually run me down. In some of them I was Davy Crockett, and others Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Zorro. All you had to do was find a park bench, close your eyes and lift your head until you felt the warm rays of the sun, and let your mind go off to exotic locations. I dreamed that I was bigger than my dad in height, temperament and wealth, and I lived to achieve all that only to discover how meaningless it all was.”
As our photographer snapped photos of Frank in front of the house, I was thinking to myself, “I wonder how he is really feeling about being here again?” He didn’t give much away, but a smile and no revealing emotions except for a few tales of yesteryear, “Living in Fawkner Street back then, the neighbours were just ordinary battlers, sly grog salesmen, gangsters,” he remembered. In that street Public Enemy Number 1 – nicknamed The Beast (Norm Bradshaw) for good reason lived there when he was not on the run. “Next door to us lived the Aussie equivalent to Bonnie Parker, the gangster’s moll, pretty (but deadly) Dulcie Markham (known as “The Angel of Death” reported The Truth). One bullet came through our wall,” said Frank with delight. But to be expected Pretty Dulcie got a bullet right in the thigh. “There’s bloody blood everywhere, Bastards!” She spurted to The Truth reporter. Apparently another altercation left Pretty Dulcie with a broken leg and her hoodlum ex-boxer boyfriend Gavin Walsh was shot dead during the six o’clock swill at the Barkly Hotel.
Henry (Jack) Howson, Frank’s dad, was in charge of the O’Donnell Gardens for thirty or so years and was promoted to overseer of the entire St. Kilda Foreshore not long before his death. His tiny office was under the biggest dip in Luna Park’s Scenic Railway. His mum, Pearl, worked across the road “in the best lolly shop in the world” – Candy Corner. Young Frank spent his years hiding in the O’Donnell Garden’s Sherwood Forest, climbing trees to attack Santa Ana’s soldiers at the Alamo, and re-enacting every John Wayne movie. At the sweet age of seven he started his life in show business as a singer, tap dancer and actor. His first public appearance was at the St. Kilda Town Hall performing a rendition of “Give My Regards To Broadway.”
“When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless.” His introduction to books was by his old Irish grandmother who would sit him on her sturdy lap and read aloud “Noddy in Toyland.” Later, the first book he actually managed to finish all by himself was ironically “Little Women” then came, of course, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, The Secret Seven and then graduated to Biggles. In his later teens it was “The Great Gatsby,” Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Huxley, Wilde and many others. After leaving Christian Brothers College in 1967 his first job was office boy at Radio 3UZ. Soon he was promoted to panel operator and worked on “Radio Auditions,” Johnny McMahon’s extraordinarily long-lived talent show in which participants were awarded up to three “gongs” – if it rained and there weren’t enough acts for the program, Frank was called upon to perform under made-up names. When he was invited to perform on a TV talent show pilot by (the late) Jimmy Hannan and told to come up with a mad act he became known as “Magical Frank” – a singing and tap dancing magician who’s tricks all went wrong. Eventually he acquired a record deal and produced and performed on his first Top 40 hit “Seventeen Ain’t Young.” This was followed by other singles “This Night” and “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.”
Before turning twenty-one, Frank had already appeared in over twenty-one major productions. Two highlights during this prolific period were notable Australian productions of “Oliver” in 1966 at Her Majesty’s Theatre with a young John Diedrich, Toni Lamond and the (late) Terry McDermott; then the legendary original production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Palais Theatre with Marcia Hines, Robin Ramsay, Reg Livermore, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young and (the late) Jon English.
Standing around, we talked a little about his film career. The photographer kept snapping away with me avoiding getting in the way. Apparently, during its heyday, Boulevard Films was one of Australia’s most successful film production companies. Numerous people became resentful of the company’s success and worked against it unfortunately. Left to its own devices, the company became undone by the relentless pressure and enormous responsibility to keep bettering the last film and raising the bar amidst disappearing money. In 1997, after a very prolonged falling out with his business partner, Frank dissolved the company in order to extricate himself from the situation.
The company’s films included; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” which starred John Waters and Kim Gyngell and was nominated for 7 AFI Awards including “Best Film” and won 2 – Waters for Best Actor, and Gyngell for Best Supporting Actor. Others films followed, including the AFI nominated “Heaven Tonight” that was Guy Pearce’s debut as a movie actor and sold to the giant American Broadcasting Corporation; the AFI nominated “What The Moon Saw” which became the first Australian film sold to Miramax; “Hunting” screenplay and direction by Frank and starring American actor John Savage, Kerry Armstrong (nominated for an AFI as Best Actress, and Guy Pearce, sold to Paramount Pictures; “Beyond My Reach” starring David Roberts, American actress Terri Garber (whom Howson would later marry), and Alan Fletcher, sold to Warners; and “Flynn” starring Guy Pearce, Claudia Karvan, internationally acclaimed stage & movie actor Steven Berkoff, and John Brumpton in his first screen role. The film depicted the early life of Errol Flynn, and was directed and co-written by Howson. In 1989, he was awarded the Producer of the Year Award from Film Victoria, and since then has received several Hall of Fame awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards at numerous international film festivals.
Frank relocated to Los Angeles where there the experience he received working with and for such talents as Martin Landau, Mark Rydell, Helen Mirren, Sharon Stone, Amy Ephron, Arthur Hiller, Michael Richards, William Friedkin, Ryan O’Neal, Eric Idle, Joe Eszterhas, Jackie Chan, Patricia Clarkson, Heath Ledger, Jacqueline Bissett, Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, Bernard Fowler, and many others elevated him to a whole new level. He was commissioned to write several screenplays, and script doctor some script written by others. His beloved screenplay on the tragic life of the Australian boxer Les Darcy entitled “Winter In America” was put on hold by Heath Ledger for three years as he desperately wanted to play the lead. It has not, to this time, been made, but was described by the Age as “the best unproduced screenplay in Australia.” Between 1998 and 2001, Frank served on the board of the L. A branch of the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
Returning home to St. Kilda after nine years of a self-imposed exile from his homeland he arrived back to no job offers, a tattered reputation, and found no opportunities whatsoever at his feet. So, he began again.
Ever restless Frank began writing his own songs which were ultimately performed and/or recorded by Little River Band. Richie Havens, Eric Idle, Stephen Cummings, Marc Jordan. Bernard Fowler, Judith Durham, Keith Potger, Andre Rieu and many others. In September 2005, Frank was approached by a producer to direct the Melbourne premiere of Caryl Churchill’s play “A Number” at fortyfivedownstairs and received the best reviews of his career. He was back. Shortly after, he ghost wrote Rhonda Burchmore’s best selling memoir, “Legs 11” and then Rhonda toured with her hit one woman show “Cry Me A River – The World of Julie London” that was specially written for her by Frank. He then wrote and directed two sell-out seasons of “Genesis To Broadway” at Chapel Off Chapel, and was asked to direct the two music videos to celebrate The Seekers 50th. Anniversary. One of the clips opened their show on their international farewell tour and was screened at their Royal Albert Hall performances. And this isn’t even a quarter of his astounding creative accomplishments. So, there were so many questions I wanted to ask, so I did:
Q) Why do you do the work that you do, Frank?
A) “Because it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do, and the only thing it seems I was any good at. It can be a very hard, very lonely life. But if there is a higher power it is no doubt purposely conceived to be that way. Almost like God removes all happy distractions from our life so that we are forced to save the very best of us for the page, or the stage. Or as Dylan said, “Blood On The Tracks.” Looking back on Fawkner Street, I think all that young boy ever wanted was to have a happy family where no one fought and had terrible degrading arguments, and have a nice little house, and be friends with all the neighbours and know that he was safe and that tomorrow would be just like today. And to wake and find that the woman he loved still loved him. But none of that was to be. Well, not in any lasting sense. So he just keeps writing and occasionally directing and hoping that somehow that will get him home. Wherever that is.”
Q) Which people inspired you to work in showbiz?
A) “The biggest and most influence on me getting into showbiz was the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring James Cagney. I was only seven, but that movie showed me a whole new world to the one I was born into. My dad was the loveliest man in the world – up to ten drinks! After that he would wander the house looking for something to blame. I guess, for the emptiness within himself. So, there were most nights some horrible ego destroying verbal abuse that effected and infected those of us who lived at 51 Fawkner Street. When I saw “Yankee Doodle Dandy” its influence on me was profound. I saw that you can invent a new world through creativity. The movie’s depiction of showbiz was, of course, highly romanticised but very intoxicating to a boy from St. Kilda whose whole world at that time was Fawkner Street, the O’Donnell Gardens, Luna Park and the occasional trip to the city with my mum to patiently watch her shop at Myer. That movie told me there was a place for those who didn’t fit in. The camaraderie, the risk taking, the loyalty of a long business partnership between two men where the only contract had been a handshake, the opening nights of triumph. Yep, it hooked me on its bullshit and although it wasn’t all champers I have lived to experience some amazing things, and people. At a cost. Along that hard long and winding road of showbiz I have seen the very best and the very worst of human nature. And thus it gave me much to write about.”
Q) What happened after “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”?
A) “After that, I made so many films, it almost killed me. You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” Well, my business partner and I had spent five years trying to get into the film industry and knocked on every door there was and got most of them slammed in our faces. The industry at that time didn’t want any new blood competing with them. It was virtually a closed shop with the same old guys getting all the grants and making the same old types of Australian movie. But Peter and I were the two most determined bastards and finally by sheer youthful energy, determination and perseverance we gate crashed the party and they hated us for it. After “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” there was “What The Moon Saw,” “Heaven Tonight,” “Hunting,” “Beyond My Reach,” “Flynn,” “The Final Stage,” “A Slow Night At The Kuwaiti Cafe,” “The Intruder,” “Crime Time,” “Blue Roses,” “Guy Pearce – The Music Videos,” “The Making of Heaven Tonight,” “The Making of Hunting,” “The Making of Flynn,” and “A Thin Life.” Five of those films were made in virtually a year. When the stage & screenwriter Patrick Edgeworth read about my schedule he told his wife, “That man will either be dead or insane within a year.” I’m still here, so I guess I’m the latter.”
Q) Do you think you might have been a casualty of the tall poppy syndrome, Frank?
A) “I think there was a great love of our films by the Australian public but the fat cats in the industry and their associates, especially in Sydney, influenced or pressured local critics to be so much harsher on our films than any other homemade films (and let’s face it, some of these other films by approved producers who were in the clique were appalling but received good reviews.) When I returned home from living in Los Angeles for 9 years, I was out somewhere and a young filmmaker came up to me and told me how much he’d been influenced by my movies and believed there had been a government conspiracy to destroy Boulevard Films. I laughed as I’d never thought in those terms, but after considering the question, I answered that, “I don’t think there was an official focussed conspiracy to destroy us. But the industry did nothing to help us. Perhaps that was the conspiracy.” And if so, they should hang their heads in shame. These films I made were all sold to Miramax, Paramount, Warners, Disney, etc., at a time when you couldn’t give Australian films away on the international market. Some of those films also played at every major film festival in the world, except Melbourne. Everywhere except the place where they was made. They also garnered rave reviews overseas and awards, but were savaged by most local reviewers. When one of them received a scathing review in The Australian, I wrote to the critic Evan Williams and asked him why there were so many inaccuracies and misquotes of dialogue in his review, to which he replied, and I still have the letter, that he’d been unwell that day at the press screening so had to leave 10 minutes into the film but asked a colleague some days later how it ended. Based upon that he wrote a horrible review that no doubt turned potential customers away from a local film that went on to be lauded and praised overseas. Alan Finney of Village Roadshow also stated to witnesses that he hated all my films. This was before the first five were even finished and no one had seen them yet. So, he had a negative opinion sight unseen. But those idiots are all gone now and their power diminished to nothing and yet my films continue to be re-released on DVD worldwide. So I guess I win. I sometimes think I get more respect in L.A or London than I do in my own country. David Mann of 3AW asked me recently if I’d been honoured by my country yet. Again, I laughed. No. Just bloodied, humiliated, spat on and shunned. They even came at me with a trumped up charge that because a film of mine had changed from the original synopsis to the final cut that it was somehow a different movie and I’d somehow done something illegal. It was like a Franz Kafka absurdist nightmare I had to live through and the pressure of defending myself against this insanity took a huge emotional toll on my last marriage and ruined it. I had to try and explain to public servants that Art is an ever evolving process. I also named over 1000 Hollywood films that started as one thing and ended up quite different from the original concept. This is the same government that were later happy to steal my original idea and concept of “G’Day L.A” which went on to become the most successful promotion in the history of Australia. The “Honourable” John Olsen, the then Australian Consulate in Los Angeles, whom I presented my idea to, later received the highest award the Australian Government can bestow on one of its citizens for this superb idea of “his.” But you know something? It’s made me all the tougher. And that’s why I’m still here. They have, in fact, empowered me.”
Q) What do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?
A) “Probably revealing too much of myself in it. It’s amazing but even though you come up with what you think is a piece of fiction from your mind, you look back later and realise it was in some ways autobiographical, sometimes in a symbolised way, but there it was. And there it is. I can look at some of these films now and tell you exactly what I was going through at the time. They are almost like a diary to me. The spookiest thing is that some proved to be a premonition of what was to come. But apart from that, my work has supplied me no negatives, in fact it has been my friend, my family, my saviour, and my way out of the darkness and confusion. It has been the various people my work has attracted into my life that has on occasion been a severe negative. Perhaps because they were attracted by the wrong thing. The idea of a quick buck, rape what they couldn’t understand, and depart leaving others to clean up the mess. Light attracts darkness unfortunately.”
Q) What’s been the positives in your work?
A) “Finding myself. Realising I was at last good at something and could relax all those inner fears that I was the idiot my school teachers thought I was. Because I was a ‘change of life’ baby I was a big surprise to everyone, my mum considered me a miracle and that everything I did was genius. On the other hand my sisters were so angered by my intrusion into their lives they didn’t speak to my mother and father for a year! As there was a twelve year gap between me and my youngest sister, and I was the only boy, the chill and resentment still continues to this day and will never end. So, in effect, I was given a good grounding to become level-headed about myself. Everything I did my sisters considered crap, and everything I did my mother thought was genius. The genius thing was a very heavy burden for a young boy from St. Kilda to carry on his shoulders. Looking back now I realised I strived so hard to live up to her exulted view of me and not let her down, that I denied myself a normal youth. It’s interesting to note that when my mother died, so did a lot of my ambition. I guess in my mind I had no one to impress anymore. So I relaxed and went about becoming a human being.”
Q) Whats been your favourite achievements up to this point?
A) “The only reason I became a producer, a job I in fact hate doing, was to protect the integrity of my work. I’d had a very bad experience, or introduction to movie making, with a film called “Backstage” starring the late American singer Laura Branigan. I co-wrote the script with Jonathan Hardy and it was sold to a large production company. They tampered with my original vision so much that I walked off the movie before a single frame was shot. I was embarrassed to have any part of it. Hardy sold out and compromised but not me. My instincts were right and it was, in my opinion, one of the worst films ever made. Becoming a producer wasn’t some lust for power by me, I just wanted to ensure that anything that had my name on it contained some resemblance to what I had written. The latest thing I have written, the big budget theatre musical “Dream Lover” which tells the Bobby Darin story and starred David Campbell, I think is my proudest moment. Simon Phillips, the director, and I worked so closely and so well on two workshops and then an intense rehearsal period that it became the dream working relationship we always hope for. We’d only had to see something being acted out and we’d exchange a look and I’d know what he was thinking and visa versa. And of course the topping on the cake is that the people responded. We were a smash in Sydney and then broke the all-time historic attendance record at the State Theatre in Melbourne. It had taken years of frustration waiting for the production to happen, but when Darin’s son, Dodd, flew into Sydney with his wife to see it, he walked up to me afterwards, with tears in his eyes, to hug me and said, “You got every detail right. All my life I’ve wanted a legacy for my father and you’ve written it.” And I replied, “What you’ve just said to me was worth the whole 9 years.”
Q) What are you currently working on?
A) “After “Dream Lover” I took 12 months off to travel and not think about anything. And it’s hard for me to not think about things and new ideas, but I did. I shut it off. And just roamed around and took in new experiences. I also didn’t want to make the mistake that many do after a huge hit by quickly cashing in with a new show. I wanted to make sure that whatever I did next was as high a standard as “Dream Lover” had been. So, now I’m back at it full steam and I have another theatrical work ready. This one is even more emotionally moving. It’s about those last, very sad and revealing years in the life of Elvis Presley. It is a piece of pure theatre. Not one of those lookalike, soundalike shows. This script goes deep, way deep, into Elvis’ soul. We have already had one workshop on it and The Seekers’ Bruce Woodley attended and afterward said to me, “I teared up about six times and for the first time I felt I really knew him.” Aleks Vass, owner of The Alex Theatre, was there and publicly stated that what he saw was “musical theatre genius.” I loved Elvis so much that I have really worked hard to get it right and cut to the very heart, soul and mind of the man in those final confusing years. I think it will be a very cathartic night in the theatre for all those who loved him and it will explain a lot about what happened.”
Q) If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed, Frank?
A) “Well I’ve had two very successful art exhibitions at Fad Gallery over the past two years, and I must admit that painting seems to relax my restless mind. I find peace and comfort in it. I guess I’d be a painter. The only two school subjects I was any good at was English and Art. So there you have it. If it wasn’t for those two things I’d be fucked. Of course I would love to do another film, but even given my stellar track record, no one asks me, so I guess I’m still blacklisted from that old brigade closed shop. And they’re the reason the Australian film industry has been woeful for so long, because those old power brokers never encouraged new blood. They never encouraged anything other than more money into their bank accounts and now live in mansions in Tuscany. In a perfect world though, I guess I’d have a very happy life writing a book a year and having a couple of art exhibitions of my paintings and sketches. I wouldn’t have to deal with business partners who take care of the business so well there’s no money left, financiers, horrendous deadlines, producers and actors asking me, “What does this mean?””
Q) Tell me a funny story or joke that involves your work or life?
A) “I remember when I was seventeen and I’d recorded a single called “Seventeen Ain’t Young” and the record company (without asking my permission) credited me on the label as Frankie Howson. I don’t remember anyone before then ever calling me “Frankie” but there you have it. Anyway, a few months had passed since that record slipped out of the charts and I was on a tram one day, when a girl walked up to me and asked. “Didn’t you used to be Frankie Howson?” That’s how tough this life in showbiz can be. A few months can go by and you’re a has been. Yes. I used to be Frankie Howson.”
Undoubtedly, Frank Howson is one of St. Kilda’s most precious icons. He is blessed that creativity has been his life. His lifelong and prolific contribution to the arts and our entertainment is simply phenomenal. The fact that he and his work has been underrated, undervalued, belittled and ignored is also phenomenal. It is truly shameful, truly disgraceful and most of all – embarrassing. When I thanked Frank for his time and bid him farewell he certainly left me with an indelible Mark. On the journey home I thought to myself, this man’s dazzling talent is only outshone by his humanity and accomplishment. Thank heavens, we have him.
I’ve been holding out
Thinking you’d let go
But your shadow tails me
To faraway parts of my heart
I’ve stopped waiting for our Messiah’s return
And watch the football
And all the moves you make
In your quest to break me with jealousy
Trouble is I don’t get jealous
But it’s cool
I ain’t complainin’
The crops look good
And it’s rainin’
Nothing to fear
Unless it floods
I watched another cowboy movie
But it came out all wrong
The good guys got away with murder
Then the credits rolled and they played a song
And I got to wondering
Just who the savages were
History is rewritten by liars
Then exaggerated by Hollywood hacks
And given awards
For burying the facts
Me? I don’t know nothin’
Except you love me
We live in a world where voicing the truth can have you socially banished.
Where children from the time they can walk are taught to not trust grownups. Then we grow up to not trust anybody.
Where Satanists teach the word of God.
Where marriage is for a few years at best and then you have the house to yourself.
Where an allegation can end your career.
Where originality will get you remembered after you die of hunger.
Where friendship is seen as an “investment”.
Where it’s okay to lie about everything and invent your own realty. This was once called “delusional” but now it’s called “faking it till you make it”. Make what?
Where giants are brought down by dwarves.
Where the mainstream media no longer has any credibility.
Where music is disposable and no one cares who wrote it, produced it or played on it.
Where the majority of movies are based on comic books.
Where integrity is seen as old fashioned.
Where you can steal someone else’s idea and not only call it good business but be able to look at yourself in the mirror without flinching.
Where to win at any cost is admirable.
Where a text message may offend unless you post LOL after it.
Where we know everything about ourselves and zip about others.
Where justice is not blind it is biased.
Where if your political candidate loses you must hate, riot, rally and unsettle things so that the winner can’t do their job. In the old days this was called being a sore loser after the majority of the people (which is democracy) have spoken.
Where our heroes are edited out of history because they were flawed in some way that doesn’t sit comfy with our current PC beliefs. Even Jesus lost his temper and took to moneylenders with a whip. Proving nothing other than he was human.
Where wars are invented for profits or to take the heat and attention off homeland scandals.
Where the past is never learned from because it is not respected.
Where people gleefully buy the lies that will bring about their own demise.
Politicians reach out to the poor in their election campaigns but cynically know they won’t resolve their situation as to do so would lose them their voter base. Keep the needy needing.
Where TV reality shows teach the young that if you lie, deceive, backstab, and play everyone against each other, you will win.
Where people fear the existence of a God because they fear being judged.
Where sex is mistaken for intimacy.
It started out like a normal day for the man of the house. He had breakfast with his wife. She was no warmer or cooler towards him than she had been for a long time. He read the morning paper, donned coat, picked up his briefcase and left for the office.
She reminded him that there was no office anymore. He had to acknowledge that all that is now part of “the past”. Putting aside momentary chagrin at the loss of anticipated freedom he feels safe. There will be no more journeys into the outside world.
He and his wife relapse into a conversational sortie we know they have ventured into often before, their discourse, though completely Australian, throws up the cliches and truisms of everybody wisdom and in almost Pinteresque way introduces echoes of Oscar Wilde’s sublime parable “The Happy Prince”.
A telephone rings but nobody answers. It has no dial – like the clock face in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”
There is an unexpected knock at the door and a man with failure written all over him seeks admission. He has about him the air of a failed vaudevillian/cabaret performer. Like T. S. Eliot’s narrator he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker…but…”I am not Prince Hamlet…”
The dialogue is cryptic, enigmatic, redolent with oblique references to poems, books and cultural assumptions, skirting banality while continuing the Pinteresque reference to the daily metaphors which have been the cliches while still retaining their nugget of “the truth” and providing many moments of genuine “comedie noir”.
Another visitor bursts in, this time no stranger. Stinky Radford is an actor, lover, a forceful extrovert character, beloved by both Man and Wife. Asked about his life, he bravely lies while we see that he too is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be.
While the husband muses upon the remembrance of the past, Stinky makes love to his wife, who was once his wife too. Then, girding up his loins, he leaves to…try again?…to solve the riddle?…face the music?
By the time the audience have accepted the essentially metaphoric nature of this work of cinema: the room is none other than the stage on which Sophocles presented his vast and mighty tragedies, or Aristophanes his satires: the same stage which Shakespeare saw as emblematic of the world, “on which stars in secret influence comment”.
Another visitor – a youth, streetfighter, violent, working-class poet and thug – shades of Jean Cocteau here – bursts in and now we are given our first inkling of the exact nature of the metaphor we have been watching. Despite his bravado and overt displays of machismo, he is terrified by the wife’s advances. We are justified at this point feeling that perhaps all of the male characters are aspects of the husband’s psyche and that we are witnessing a revelation of Everyman/Everywoman in a decidedly contemporary encapsulation.
A plain-clothed detective arrives. Perhaps he is in pursuit of the streetkid but doesn’t reveal his quest, as he attempts to interview each of the people present. But the more he strives to get to the bottom of things, the lower the foundation of his beliefs and view of the world descend.
The wife reminisces volubly about a lover, a lawyer with an earring in one ear.
Stinky Radford returns, having failed to discover anything. The streetkid wants to go back but Stinky assured him “there’s nothing out there”.
The husband has already asserted “we are kindred spirits,” and “this is the room of the lost”.
Finally, Music and Light and mysterious opening of a door heralds the moment when Man and Wife must Face the Music in an upper room (the Upper Room?). He is the Happy Prince, denuded now of all his finery, and she, the Swallow who will not leave him. They are translated into Light.
Immediately they are gone, another figure bursts through the front door, demanding explication. He is obviously the Lawyer who has been the wife’s lover, and in the manner of lawyers he threatens to sue everyone until “you’ll wish you were dead!”.
As his four auditors laugh and laugh we now know exactly where we are and the form of the film, which has been hovering at the corner of our consciousness now snaps into place – and everything makes sense.
“The Final Stage” is, at its deepest level a work of art covering in an original and ground-breaking way the same philosophic and metaphorical terrain covered by Jean Paul Sartre in “No Exit”. It is also a funny, sad, poignant, piquant, witty and disturbing story which amuses us while it reminds us of the – dare we say? – eternal verities of Life and Death.
Because of the way “the story” unfolds – similarly to the creative method employed by Peter Carey in his best short stories – the film is decidedly out of the ordinary – its unusualness and the charm and variety of the performances, induce us willingly to suspend our disbelief. Those viewers familiar with poetry, the theatre, and great literature will find echoes of those other forms and discovery of such connections gives the film’s delightful tension. Theatre-goers, one hopes, will appreciate more fully the slightly theatrical edge to the dialogue. But everyone should be able to see that “The Final Stage” makes a significant, even historical contribution to our understanding of film form in the deepest sense.
– Adrian Rawlins
Critic &. Poet
Review written for Farrago.
Produced, Written & Directed by Frank Howson starring Adrian Wright, Abigail, Tommy Dysart, Michael Lake, Zachary McKay & Tiriel Mora.