I looked into the man’s face. It was etched with suffering. He had no doubt fallen many times in his battles with Life. It looked to me like the greatest pain had not come due to the falls, but from the effort required to rise, and rise again. I also observed the deep laugh lines that’d gathered around each eye resembling a spider’s web. Yes, this man had lived life to the full. He had triumphed many times and learnt nothing from it. That’s because the recipe for success changes frequently. No. It was from his failures he’d learnt everything. And the reason for them had been simple – he’d gone against his instinct.
He’d survived many things in his life. Wars, plagues, floods, marriages, injury, slander, lawsuits, success, failure, gambling, death threats, betrayals, great wealth, poverty, love, broken hearts, rejection, addiction, vicious dogs, adultery, asthma, poisoning, tightrope walking, gangsters, drive-by shooters, merchant bankers, and long debates with actors. As such, these days, it was difficult to get him excited much, or fearful at all.
He’d beaten his demons, and was proud of it. But it’d been some of his friends who’d done him the most damage. They’d posed as friends but were really opportunistic spiritual vampires, sucking off his life force in order to live through him. And when they’d been found out and cut like a cancer out of his life, they had flayed about like dying sharks biting at his reputation with lies, exaggerations and groundless accusations. Most of what they accused him of were acts they’d done. The fact that they were so blatantly hypocritical was what hurt most of all. And from then on, he’d rationed his loyalty to those who’d proved theirs to him.
Now, he spent much of his time looking for things he hadn’t found. It made him as expectant as Jungle Jim on a safari.
He’d once stopped a cab and gotten out to wander through a desolate, ravaged field that beheld the remains of what’d once been a theatre. The taxi driver was bewildered as to what his frantic passenger was looking for. Whatever had been here was long gone, he thought, as his meter ticked away. But his forlorn travelling companion was searching for something only he could see. His youth.
Sometimes, late at night, he wished he was dead. But there was a safety net in knowing God never granted his wishes. This knowledge scared him with the recurring nightmare that he may live forever. And that’d be his punishment for having lived too well for a few years at the peak of his success, when he was too young and too busy to have enjoyed it. He’d once had immense power and never abused it. He’d also held the key to many vulnerable hearts and never used it. The facts, as opposed to the gossip, would show that his integrity was never bought. So God took these opportunities away and seduced someone else with them.
In exchange, the man in question, was given a rented studio apartment and enough food to get by. He was also granted the solitude to reflect on the follies of life, and write about them with a rich appreciation of God’s sense of humour.
He’d figured out the secret to God – He is passive. Having granted us free will he sits back and watches what we do with it. If you wanted action, you had to consult his competitive estranged brother, Satan. But that loan shark had interest rates that’d severely cripple your life, and could never be repaid due to the compounding penalties given only passing mention in the very small print.
And if you accepted that deal, you’d end up worse than alone.
The man who sat in front of me, felt many things.But he’d given up feeling what didn’t matter anymore. He told himself that he had enough heart left for one more great love. But she’d have to be an extraordinary woman, and he now suspected that such a perfect match only existed in dreams. Or delusions. He wasn’t sure what the correct word was anymore. All he knew was that God loved to tease him with possibilities that went nowhere that only foolish younger men or, those older bodies on the brink of madness, pursued.
He laughed out loud at how younger women now delighted in taunting him. They took so much but gave very little in return. They knew the art of getting away Scott free, and would only be able to get away with it a few more years before they too ended up alone. It was all about the promise and how much could be taken in the shadow of that. While one could. He knew all their tricks now and that rendered the game too predictable to hold his attention long. They hadn’t known him in his prime, nor would they’ve had the opportunity to. But these were different times. There were very few who could see past surface layers to find true love. Soul to soul.
How much do you have to hurt before you feel nothing anymore?
How much do you have to love before it means nothing anymore?
This man hasn’t aged from living. He’d aged from giving. And now all those who’d taken from him could celebrate the fact that there was nothing left.
They’d conquered something that felt important to them, but they couldn’t analyse what it was, or why they’d felt such compulsion to deplete it.
After all, they were good people, weren’t they? I mean, they wouldn’t hurt a fly.
The man now, each day, felt his spirit leaving his body and wondered what kind of life his shell would have. He thought, perhaps, he might be more socially accepted in this zombie-like state.
But who knew such things? And who the hell would even think about it? Other than a man with too much time on his hands, who’d stopped momentarily at the crossroads.
That was when I realised I’d been observing myself and the extraction had been successful.
The emptiness of night followed me through a maze of situations that could’ve only been conceived by a drunk.
There were rivers of regret that sprang from my life. But they were not things one could’ve sensed at the time would turn to swamp. Having crocodiles biting at my heels from an early age readied me for what would become my life. Once my parents were gone I felt like an orphan on the run. Perhaps, from myself. Sometimes heading here. Sometimes heading there. Sometimes resting my head on your breast for comfort until the dawn called me on, to face another confrontation. Another battle. Another disappointment in the human condition. Shedding skin after skin, always evolving into the person you see here today.
It’s painful when one realises that today the only truth is found in TV commercials. Everything else is a lie. At least the advertisements are honest about what they are. And what they want. We now have a Scared New World where material possessions are becoming less and less important as we’re forced to look inward for our satisfaction(s). For some of us, perhaps a first time visit to the inner world. It will be a confronting experience for quite a few who’ve filled their outer lives up with frivolous people and trinkets to distract from the reality of who they are. The bullies will discover that they’re actually scared little boys who’ve, for some time, avoided responsibility by targeting the lives of others. Some will hit a brick wall with the harsh reality that they’re not the nice, kind, giving people they have publicly projected without any actions that live up to their invented persona. This will irreparably break many and they’ll never be the same. Some will suicide rather than living with the hell of who they really are. Leaders will realise their old tried and true ways do not work, and become followers. Out of the flock will rise real leaders who’ll command not from ego, but from a true inherent spiritual wisdom.
Some will grow through adversity. It has been that way throughout history. Plagues and wars and disasters have thrown up heroes from the ranks of the ordinary.
Some will die. But this was already written, as all deaths are. Lives come to an end. It’s just a matter of when and how. Others will live on, because it was not their time.
My whole life as a creative person has prepared me for this seclusion. As a boy I’d withdraw from the world into my room to write, draw, play records and dream. I’d been born with the affliction of feeling things too deeply. A curse for my personal life, although a great bonus for my work. Where others saw beauty, I saw horror. Where others saw ugliness I saw splendour. Where some saw only desolation, I saw possibilities.
In my times of moral dilemma when one is confused as to what is the right decision, not only for you but taking into account its effect on those around you, I have sometimes thought of my literary heroes, both real and fictional, and wondered what decision they would’ve made. I’ve also thought of my historical heroes both political and spiritual for guidance. There are some decisions that are right at that moment but time eats their skin and fat away like a vulture and leaves only ugly bones that do not tell the whole picture. Yes, to fully understand, you had to be there. In that lonely moment. Yet, other decisions, thought foolish at the time, grow in rightfulness through the years, like a fine wine ripens to reveal its many magical textures until it reaches its optimum year to be savoured and appreciated.
I wonder what went through the minds of the passengers on the Titanic on that fateful, icy night when they realised there were not enough lifeboats. No doubt amongst many there’d have been panic, anger, frustrationand fear. Yet, in others I believe there would’ve been that silent resolution, and acceptance,that this was it. The great mystery solved,and their ending revealed, as they stood motionless amidst the fanfare of screams and cries that encircled them. I imagine that quite a few would’ve looked around at the manic hysterical scene being performed all around them, and its contrast of the band calmly playing their scheduled after dinner musical programme, then, perhaps, noticing the moon and stars and night for thevery first time. I mean, really seeing them. Sometimes we have to be shaken awake by tragedy to see things right under our nose that we’d never fully comprehended before. Sadly, we go through life in a half-dream state, following our standard daily motions and emotions like a blind person seeks the darkness as a level playing ground.
Sometimes we don’t even see the ones who truly love us. Such is our desperate rush to and fro seeking love in all the wrong people, as if purposely inviting disappointment to await us at each schedule stop upon our runaway train.
So, back to our time of solitary confinement. A time of soul searching (for some that won’t take long) and re-evaluation as to what we really need (now that the opium of bullshit in the material world has been stripped from us), to go forward into a new world. Hopefully. Now that the present Scared New World is ebbing, let’s hope it will be replaced by a Kind New World.
We can only hope.
In the meantime, we pass each other on the street wearing masks to protect us from the invisible enemy. We can’t tell whether the person approaching us is smiling behind their mask, or grumpy. To define that, we have to look into their eyes for the truth. But I guess that was always the case. Anyone can fool you with a smile. It’s hidden many broken hearts in the past. So, it’s the eyes that tell the real story.
“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yes Paul, look at them. Perhaps you’re one of them tonight. Ain’t life strange?
Don't stop me from having some fun
Fun is in such short supply these days
When I was a child nothing made sense
And the school system shut me out
I was too busy dealing with things at home
To be expected to think during classes
All the lessons I needed to learn were there
Within my family
And I soon excelled at observation
And the devastating power of words
Achieving an A every year
My senses heightened to love
And other dangers
So I befriended broken people
Some were too broken and betrayed me
So they could claim credit for breaking me some more
But others bloomed when they received the loyalty
Of a friend
And I was nothing if not loyal
For loyalty has been my greatest gift
And my deepest flaw
It has undone me many times
In the light of day
The most important thing we can learn
Is that we know very little
We can send men to explore the outer realms of space
And yet so much of us is unchartered
If the moon landing was faked
It is probably the most revealing comment one
can make about human beings
God would smile at our arrogance
Attempting to create on such a grand scale for ants
It seems, to me, that it's not what we do that counts
It's what we appear to do
So, perhaps we have finally accepted
That we are just B grade actors
On a huge soundstage created by the Almighty
And each day we rise to go through the motions
And play our roles as convincingly as possible
For the amusement of God
You see, the poor bastard is so bored
Living in the great darkness he shares with Satan
Where there is no time
And not even the relief of commercial breaks
In my opinion that would make sense
Of the nothingness
And we'd at last know who we are
And where we are
Like the Joker
One has to go insane to see
the insanity of the truth
(c) Frank Howson 2019
The Jewish are very smart. They tend to be suspicious of new people until they prove themselves.
Me, probably due to Irish blood on my mother’s side, I treat everyone as family until they prove different. The upside of this is you have a lot of wonderful people in your circle. The downside is, when one, or two, or three of them betray your trust, or work against you out of meanness, it is a devastating jolt to your heart. I end this year with a very weary heart, so weary it murmurs.
This is a result of befriending a man who had very few friends. In fact, most people went out of their way to tell me how much they disliked him. This was mainly due to his own self-destructiveness, opportunism, or snobbery, depending on his mood or his snap judgement of someone. He rarely made an effort, choosing to act aloof, or just plainly not acknowledge others at all. I remember once him coming to Hong Kong with me, and clearly annoyed by the fact that I had/and have a strong group of dear friends here. Most of them he ignored. And when asked a question by a sociable/polite person, he’d assassinate the budding conversation with a blunt “Yes” or “No” answer. Sometimes just a grunt if he thought you were beneath him. This didn’t win him any friends. So, his loneliness is some weird self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, I remember going out to one of the islands and meeting a long-time friend for lunch and my fellow travelling companion didn’t utter one word throughout the whole lunch. Even when he was asked something. It was so embarrassing it made one’s teeth ache. So much for common courtesy.
When he was propelling people away from himself at a terrifying rate, I asked him what his problem was. At first, he blamed the humidity! Then when that didn’t wash, he went for the sympathy vote, claiming he was very shy. My in-built shit-detector went off because I’ve seen this man when he meets someone with huge wealth or a person who could be helpful to him. Or a celebrity. Bingo! Suddenly he has a personality and would attempt to talk their ears off, mainly about himself and what a genius he is and how he can do anything brilliantly, etc., etc., etc. Well, everything that is, except make an effort to converse with normal people. At one New Year’s Eve Party held at a huge mansion, the person in question was so impressed he cornered the wealthy host and talked and talked and talked about himself and how marvellous he was at everything until the normally polite host had to tell him that he had a party to run and quickly exited.
This walking contradiction gets even weirder considering this person-in-question had come from very humble roots and was staunchly left-wing, supported the Democrat, etc., etc., etc., and yet, was too much of a snob to start up, or keep going, or add to a conversation with anyone he thought was beneath him. I don’t object to anyone’s politics, but I do object to hypocrisy. People who passionately believe in a cause, and who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk, I have much time for. Even if I disagree with certain political agendas they support. But hypocrites, nope, count me out.
One day I realised that this person-in-question had some huge internal, psychological, social contradictions. I came to the conclusion he hated himself and was ashamed of his family background. Hence in recent years he’s become a wine and food snob. I would always undo this façade when he’d hold court criticising someone’s wine, by saying, “Y’know, I knew this guy when he used to drink warm beer.”
And it was true.
Somebody I know, a very spiritual person, explained to me that certain people, like the person-in-question, are cling-ons. They don’t actually have a life. They live through you. There’s a great scene in the brilliant movie, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in which Jesse looks at Ford one day and says, “You don’t want to be like me, do you? You actually want to be me.” A chilling moment. I had another weird moment when the person-in-question berated me for going to a Bob Dylan concert and not taking him! I calmly tried to reply with some logic like, “But you don’t like Bob Dylan. In fact, you’ve ridiculed him for years. And I took a female companion. One who likes Bob Dylan. You…arrr…have a wife? If you wanted to see the concert so much why didn’t you buy two tickets and take her?” I’m still waiting for an answer. Because there is none. It is mental. Dark. Bizarre, and seriously creepy. But I do tend to attract these people. Perhaps because I’m one of the few who has ever given them my time and concern.
Since distancing myself from this person-in-question, he obviously can’t own up to why I have done that. So, the oldest trick in the book, albeit very cliched to anyone with a thinking brain, is he now tells people invented stories about me and accuses me of everything he does. Yawn. Someone with as many things to be ashamed of as he possesses, should be very careful. As that Jewish prophet once said, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”
I came from a working-class background and my formative years were spent in, at that time, one of the toughest streets in St. Kilda. But unlike my ex-friend, I’m not ashamed of it, nor do I pretend to be something I’m not. I’m actually proud of where I came from and the experiences, both good and bad, that helped shape me into the person I am, as they were invaluable. I also have the greatest respect for battlers, people like my mum and dad who struggled on very little and yet made their kids feel that we were rich. We were rich, in so many ways. Both my parents were unique. Originals. Characters. The type of which we don’t see much of today. But they were genuine. Big-hearted. Told it like it was. And didn’t try to be anything but themselves. Perhaps that’s why they were both so well loved by everyone they met.
I miss them. I think the world misses what they possessed. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re remembered for.
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
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.