“All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be…” – The Ballad of Easy Rider.
I was recently saddened to wake to the news that Peter Fonda had died. At my age it has become a regular occurrence, almost daily, to hear about a dear friend, acquaintance, associate, or a boyhood hero checking out of this world.
When I lived in Los Angeles for nine years I was very fortunate to have met a large number of actors, musicians and directors that’d inspired me during my formative years. Some of them became friends, others I’d see around here or there and we’d give a nod and a smile. They were mostly nice people dealing with their own pressures, families, problems and all those things we too juggle. Just on a much bigger scale. The few I encountered that were mean or monsters were the pretenders. The ones who’d seized a spotlight or some power through bluff, marketing or manipulation.
The bigger the talent, the nicer the person is what I found. Mostly.
Which brings me back to Peter Fonda. I only met him once. It was in one of my favourite books stores, Book Soup, on Sunset Boulevard, and I was browsing the latest releases when Peter came in with some people and they began setting up a table for him to do some book signings for his autobiography, “Don’t Tell Dad.” The title referring to his father, the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who was described by his children as being strict, uncommunicative, and unaffectionate. He never told them, ever, that he loved them. One of those closed men from an era when it was deemed unmanly to show your feelings. Perhaps this explains why both Peter and his sister Jane became rebels. Pushing the boundaries, striving to achieve and seeking approval from others. Running wild in Hollywood.
Peter had nothing in common with his father other than looks. I chatted with him that day and he was a genuinely nice, kind, loving individual. Before the crowd arrived he even signed a complimentary copy of his book for me. He was a hippie, spiritually, until the end.
Carving out a film career had been difficult for Peter. When he started out he had to stand in the very large overpowering shadow of his father. Remembered not for his work, but for being Henry Fonda’s son. Then later, he would be referred to as Jane Fonda’s brother. It must’ve been a creatively lonely and humbling existence for him. In fact, in most of his early films he looks stilted and uncomfortable, devoid of any identity of his own.If the trick to great acting is total relaxation, he was a long way from it.
Not making much of an impression in movies such as “Tammy and the Doctor” “The Young Lovers” and other forgettable fluffy fare, the offers dried up as he sat on the sidelines watching his father continue to shine in major movies, and his sisterJane soar in one film after another. It must’ve hurt Peter to have been thought of as the “loser” of the family, but perhaps those forces also shaped him as the gentle, unassuming, empathetic, kind man he became. He knew, in his own way, what it was like to suffer. To be ignored. Or dismissed.
Like many outsiders of the big slick Hollywood machine, Peter stumbled into the conveyor-belt Roger Corman “B” grade movie productions churned out for drive-in market. These exploitation films had budgets less than what real movies spent on catering. Some of them were shot in two days! And those that worked on them, usually had two or more jobs to perform. But Peter joined an illustrious company of other young, eager outsiders who couldn’t get a break in mainstream movies either. People like Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Dern, etc.
The brilliant thing about the Corman movies was that you learnt on the job, from experience, seeing yourself on the big screen and seeing what worked and what didn’t. You can now observe in these mostly crappy movies how Fonda and Nicholson go from stilted, self-conscious actors to guys whobecome so comfortable in front of a camera, their true self shines through and magic is born. We see this in Fonda’s performances in “The Wild Angels,” and the LSD fuelled “The Trip.”
And so it was, with a small budget film called “Easy Rider” (directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter, who also co-wrote the script and co-produced it) that Peter Fonda became a huge international star in his own right, and a cultural icon to a whole generation of baby boomers. His character Captain America oozed quiet confidence and the cool factor in abundance. The way he moved, how he dressed, the manner in which he spoke, had us boys all trying to emulate him. He became our martyred hero who, like us, was so lost, confused and despairing about the world, that we dropped out of the ranks of what was expected of us.
One of the last lines his character utters in the film, just before his date with destiny is, “We blew it.” He doesn’t elaborate. It is a beautiful, sad, famously enigmatic line that in a way is a eulogy to a lost generation.
Although Peter went on and starred in many movies and won Golden Globe awards and nominations for Oscars, it is his character in “Easy Rider” that still haunts us. That cool, disenchanted, silent-type loner, searching for the meaning of life on the coolest looking motorcycle we ever saw.
The advertising by-line to the movie “Two men went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere,” best sums it up.
Peter screened the final cut of the movie to Bob Dylan hoping that the famous troubadour would give permission for his recordings to be used for the movie’s soundtrack. But Dylan was so angered by the movie’s tragic ending, he said he’d only give his songs to the movie if the final scene was reshot and the bikers won. But Peter explained that the two leading characters had to be martyred. That’s what happened at that time, at that place, in America. Young people couldn’t beat the system.
So Bob took a piece of paper and scribbled these lines on it, “The river flows to the sea. Wherever that river flows that’s where I want to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town…” He handed it to Peter and said, “Give it to Roger McGuinn to finish. He’ll know what to do with it.”
And do he did. Roger added the lines, “All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be.” And “The Ballad of Easy Rider” was born. Dylan declined a credit as he’d given the lyrics to Peter, and the film, as a gift.
Peter Fonda was born to be wild. He is now free from the chains and restrictions of this earthly world. Free to ride the wind. To be a part of that beautiful dawn. To be as still and wise as the trees. And to flow with that river to the sea.
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.
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.
I sit in this room, this crumbling room I grew to love, cluttered by the mementoes of a crumbled life. Framed photographs of friends, lovers and family, all long gone. My bookshelves filled with the greatest wisdom the world can offer, written in the most eloquent of ways, and yet all it did was lead me here. And very soon lead me somewhere else because of a landlady who is in my opinion certifiably insane and subleased apartments to me and several others without having the authority to do so. I would’ve thought that was fraud but it seems the police have no interest in fraud these days. I guess there’s too much of it to deal with.
So good luck out there trying to deal with people in good faith. I have written in the past about the death of common sense. But I also believe we have lived to see the death of basic common ethics. All of this of course is flamed by apathy. Nobody cares anymore. We are too emotionally burnt out by watching the end of the world live on the internet.
Einstein could see things the rest of us couldn’t. And yet quite often was unaware he had odd socks on. John Lennon was so acutely insightful and sensitive about himself and yet could not pick a mad man who meant him harm. We can, allegedly, put men on the moon and yet so much of ourselves is left untouched. How deep does that darkness go? That inner space we fear to go lest there be no coming back?
They say to kill someone also kills a part of ourselves. So, after a few more what is it to kill six million? It just becomes a number. We live in a society that does much to take away our dignity, dehumanise us, mock our integrity, and reduce the truth of our lives to third hand gossip because we have lost the will, the pride and the energy to correct it. No wonder we have become the most dangerous species of all. In fact, if we went away the world would thrive. What a sad epitaph to our existence. The proof that there is intelligent life elsewhere is their very reluctance to make contact with us.
Is it easier for us to hate than to love? Yes. But we weren’t born like that. The act that creates us, most times, is love and we are programmed to be born into it. But if that love is not waiting there, and all we get from a mother is regret and tears, and from a father anger and blame, how could we ever wish for the capacity to hope, or know of its existence? Monkey do as monkey see.
Some of us are born into great love and a warm bed. We are shielded by our parents in our formative years so that we don’t experience too much hurt, rejection, violence, and any physically harmful mishaps. They sing us lullabies and read us stories about heroes who laid down their lives for something bigger than themselves and are loved for it. We are nurtured like this until we are old enough and adequately delusional to go forth into this world in search of a love of our own. For we’re told we are not one until we are two. Complete. Our better half. Ready to be wedded to each other and to a mortgage, a job that pays us enough money to sacrifice our self-esteem, 500 pay channels of crap and fake news to dumb us down, and a long slow road to that retirement village and watery vegetable soup until one day we surrender back into that inner space. And if we have lived that accepted life without complaining we are deemed to be the lucky ones in society’s eyes.
But what happens if you are full of love for everyone and yet never find the right partner? Or waste your best years on the wrong ones? Well buddy, you’re on the scrap heap of life. Banished to Regret on the outskirts of Shame. Always finding yourself standing in the rain on somebody else’s property, constantly being moved on. Looked at suspiciously. Labelled a possible future threat. Told that we just don’t “fit in.” A gypsy. A fugitive. An unwanted man. As doomed as Jeffrey Dahmer.
I once wrote the following lines for a Keith Potger song, “The cowboys pine for the open range, the sailors stand looking out to sea, the gangsters get gun-shy and start acting strange, and the lovers end up like me.”
So, if the very foundations of our existence are either gone or, at the very least, shaky and unpredictable, is it any wonder we make such poor decisions in regard to everything else? And to the many of us who have lost all hope and are locked away in our rented tombs, are we not ticking bombs? The most dangerous person in this world is the man who has nothing left to lose. In effect, he is already dead. He no longer fears the police, or jail (he’s been living in his own for far too long), pain, slander, or meeting God. The government hate this person because they are considered a wild card and their actions cannot be predicted. You cannot bargain with him or her for there no longer exists anything they want. All those desires and needs and beliefs died long ago. The seeds were planted when we got too close to Santa Claus and realised he was just an out of work actor in a padded suit designed by Coca-Cola, hiding behind an ill-fitting false beard. In most cases this disillusionment make the disenchanted confrontational. They demand answers. If we have been expertly lied to about Santa for years where do the lies stop?
Man kills anything he can’t understand. And one of those things is love. We have a long history of murdering the messengers who preach it as our salvation. But if you promote hate and genocide and are paid big bucks to invent sophisticated lies a government can sell, you’ll most likely have a long life and die in your bed.
Recently a man who’d died for some time during an operation and brought back to life, was interviewed about this experience. During his dead time he said he’d had the usual white light sighting but then travelled on into the heart of it. He then became suddenly aware of a powerful presence behind him. He could sense it. When he went to turn, a voice of great authority said to him, “Don’t turn. For if you see my face you cannot return. And trust me you wouldn’t want to see me angry.” (The last statement proving God has a sense of humour.) The man asked, “Are you…?” To which the voice replied, “What do you think?” The nervous visitor then said, “May I ask you a question?” And the reply was “Yes. Of course.” The great presence was then asked, “What is the meaning of life?” There was laughter and then the response, “I get asked that a lot. It is very simple what life is about. Love. Love one another and be loved in return. This is not your time. You need to go back and appreciate the love you have. But when you return we will have much time to talk and you can ask all the questions you wish.”
The man was then hugged by the presence and the feeling of unconditional love filled him with a joy so intense he feared he was going to explode. And then he was back in this life. He weeps to this day because he misses that feeling of unconditional love. It seems that a love that pure without agenda could be addictive if we ever experience it.
Perhaps Life really was meant to be that simple. And man through his over-inflated ego has sought to make his own impression by complicating the natural balance and looting everything he can for his own benefit. In this lust to sell the world, pure true love has been replaced by how many women you can con into your bed for bragging rights to impress other con artists. But there is no love in carnal conquest just as there are no riches in financial wealth. Those who have acquired huge fortunes by walking over people often, at the end of their days, talk about the hollowness they feel inside. Having killed many lives with their fountain pens, and the excuse, “We’re just doing our job” they then attempt to fill their dead centre with booze, drugs, and sexual perversion. But that leads to feeling even less. “Pity the man who inherits the world but loses his soul”. You can lie to your conscious but not to your subconscious, for it records every con, lie, hurt, betrayal, etc,, until one day you cannot take any more, and so you don’t. The suicide rate is astonishing amongst the extremely wealthy. This doesn’t get much press because the power brokers of this world who push for more and more productivity are scared to inform us that our goals are wrong and that money is a false god.
I fear it’s too late for us to reprogram ourselves. This bullshit is too ingrained in our DNA. Or is it?
There’s a very insightful lyric by that mystical troubadour Bob Dylan, “Man has invented his doom, first step was touching the moon.” We have now invented technology that gives us the internet which we were told would open our minds, make our lives easier, and that the answers to every question would be at our fingertips. So how come the ignorance level has never been higher? We also don’t need to have to go to all that trouble inviting someone over to participate in sex because we have every porn clip in the world depicting every sexual fantasy anyone could possibly imagine, all performed by beautiful people. It saves being rejected, as well as all that energy. But should we be inspired by the sexual acrobatics upon our screen, we can get into Tinder and have a total stranger knock on our door within the hour. As easy as ordering a pizza. Too busy to establish personal friendships? Not a problem, grown men can play online games. It’s very exciting.
So, we become more and more isolated within ourselves, and reality is conveniently invented and programmed for our personal needs as easily as switching on the air conditioning to our perfect temperature. If there is a Satan could he have invented a more effective device to bring about our own hell?
But that’s where we are now. Perhaps the world has ended and nobody told us? Where are those madmen in the wilderness when you need them? Oh yes, that’s right, we probably killed them. Or at the very least, locked them up. Discredited them with a phoney scandal. Silenced them. This modern world doesn’t tolerate freedom of speech anymore. Yet it was those opposing voices and radical opinions that triggered spirited debate that led to positive changes. Today all the truth tellers have been very effectively silenced for fear of being labelled a Nazi, a sexist, a fascist, a racist, a bully, or just plain crazy. And in the present day world, if enough people unfriend us do we really exist anymore?
How clever of a higher being who initially gave us free will, to also have allowed us to orchestrate our own doom.
In spite of it all I still believe in love. And in the inherent good in the majority of people. We have just lost our way, that’s all. And the road back is very difficult to find in the dark.
The heavy decrepit bodies of the great and not so, mingled with their offsprings, children too young to realise that this too would be their fate. Pathetic men way past their glory days paraded pretending that they still had it, while bored defeated women looked on knowing they didn’t.
It was another day at the enclosed perfectly temperatured salt baths. The warmth was comforting to the skin and the soul and made old bones and muscles feel rejuvenated. The inhabitants floated safe in this maternal womb away from the business deals that no longer mattered in a world that no longer cared and was on its last legs. Some old guys studied the racing form while younger middle-aged men preferred the stock market. Some gambled with their own money while others ventured with what they had married into, or had inherited. All in all there’d be few winners that day. There were no more lucky numbers to be had, or surprise gold and mineral funds in a world that had been looted, raped and gang banged so many times there was nothing left. Certainly not energy for outrage. Only resentment from natives who had been trampled under foot and squashed by the invaders who destroyed paradise without ever having taken the time to truly look around and realise the greatest wealth was above the ground. But like rats they burrowed lower and lower into darkness desperate for any shiny morsel of opportunity. Never thinking any further ahead than that.
We had destroyed the world without realising that such an abomination also destroyed ourselves. What we project outwards also implodes us. Given time.
I stood in the warm salt water as the floating bodies of the dead and the dying circled me.