Perth, Australia, 23 April 1955.
Married the actor Colin Friels, 1984, son: Jack.
Attended the West Australia Institute of Technology; National Institute
of Dramatic Art, Sydney.
Joined the South Australia Theatre Company; 1977—film debut in
Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role,
1979, and British Academy (BAFTA) Awards for Best Actress and Best
Newcomer, 1981, for
My Brilliant Career
; AFI Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role, for
, 1986; National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) Award for Best Actress,
, 1988; New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) Award for Best Supporting
, 1991; Independent Spirit Award, for
, 1991; NYFCC Award for Best Supporting Actress, for
, 1991; NSFC Award for Best Supporting Actress, Los Angeles Film Critics
Association Award for Best Supporting Actress, and National Board of
Review Award for Best Supporting Actress, for
Husbands and Wives
, 1992; AFI Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for
On My Own
, 1993; AFI Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role, for
Children of the Revolution
Shanahan Management Proprietary Ltd., P.O. Box 478, Kings Cross, NSW 2011
c/o Colin Friels, 129 Bourke Street, Woollomooloo, Sydney, NSW 2011,
High Rolling ( High Rolling in a Hot Corvette ) (Auzins) (as Lynn)
My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong) (as Sybylla Melvyn)
Hoodwink (Whatham) (as Sarah)
The Final Option ( Who Dares Win ) (Ian Sharp) (as Frankie Leith); Winter of Our Dreams (Duigan) (as Lou); The Merry Wives of Windsor (David Jones—for TV) (as Mistress Ford); A Woman Called Golda (Alan Gibson—for TV) (as the young Golda Meir)
Heatwave (Noyce) (as Kate Dean)
A Passage to India (Lean) (as Adela Quested)
Kangaroo (Burstall) (as Harriet Somers); Rocket to the Moon (John Jacobs—for TV) (as Cleo)
Georgia (Lewin) (as Nina Bailey/Georgia); High Tide (Gillian Armstrong) (as Lilli)
Alice (Woody Allen) (as Vicki); Impromptu (Lapine) (as George Sand)
Barton Fink (Coen) (as Audrey Taylor); Naked Lunch (Cronenberg) (as Joan Frost/Joan Lee); One against the Wind (Elikann—for TV) (as Mary Lindell)
Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen) (as Sally); Where Angels Fear to Tread (Sturridge) (as Harriet Herriton); On My Own (Tibaldi) (as Mother)
The New Age (Tolkin) (as Katherine Witner); The Ref (Ted Demme) (as Caroline)
Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (Bleckner—for TV) (as Diane)
Children of the Revolution (Peter Duncan)
Deconstructing Harry (Allen) (as Lucy); Blood and Wine (Rafelson) (as Suzanne); Absolute Power (Eastwood) (as Gloria Russell)
Celebrity (Allen) (Robin Simon); The Echo of Thunder (Wincer—for TV) (as Gladwyn Ritchie)
Dash and Lilly (Bates) (Lillian Hellman); A Cooler Climate (Seidelman) (as Paula Tanner)
Gaudi Afternoon (Seidelman) (as Cassandra Reilly)
"Judy Davis: An Actress of Raw Nerve," interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview (New York), October 1992.
"Judy, Judy, Judy," interview with Leslie Bennetts, in Harper's Bazaar (New York), October 1992.
"'I Go to the Core,"' interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1992.
Clark, John, filmography in Premiere (Boulder), February 1992.
Current Biography 1993 , New York, 1993.
Biskind, Peter, "Punchin' Judy," in Premiere (Boulder), October 1994.
Thomson, D., and others, "Who's the Best Actress in Hollywood?" in Movieline (Escondido), vol. 8, November 1996.
Bear, L., "Judy Davis," interview in Bomb , no. 60, Summer 1997.
* * *
Judy Davis's intermittently brilliant career effectively began with My Brilliant Career , her first film after drama school and her first starring role, which won her immediate international attention, establishing her as among Australia's leading stars and opening up prospects beyond. Critics compared her to the young Katharine Hepburn, and although the resemblance has proved transitory (it was a resemblance of role as much as personality) the comparison suggests certain characteristics basic to Davis's persona: a strength, activeness and determination conventionally perceived as "masculine," a resistance to domination (especially by men), and a refusal of conformity to social convention. The film itself was overrated, the kind of "safe" feminist movie that threatens no one: Davis's own comment, though perhaps overly harsh, is accurate enough ("I thought it was a children's film, it was so simplistic"). The characteristics have remained fairly stable, but Davis has (rather surprisingly) had few opportunities to develop the positive, Hepburn-like aspects of this early role, its exuberance and untrammeled energy. Increasingly, in both the Australian and American films, the strength and nonconformity have been complicated, at times canceled out, by other factors: neurosis, desperation, defeat. It is interesting that, two years after My Brilliant Career , she was chosen to play the young Ingrid Bergman (as Golda Meir) in A Woman Called Golda —her
It is sometimes the case that an appearance in a bad film can reveal more of an actor's essence than many performances in better ones; a case in point, in The Final Option . The film's project is clear: a simpleminded, blatantly right-wing drama about good guys vs. evil terrorists. Davis's remarkable performance almost turns this on its head: in the context of the colorless and boring spokespersons for law and order and the status quo, she gives such force, conviction, and passion to the leading terrorist that the film comes close to being dangerously subversive.
The most obvious, and least interesting, of her "neurotic" or "desperate" roles are her two appearances in E. M. Forster adaptations ( A Passage to India and Where Angels Fear to Tread ), where the character is warped by sexual repression. Far more interesting, because they allow her greater range of expression and opportunities to express her energy, are her recent roles in three consecutive films of some distinction: Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives , Ted Demme's The Ref , and above all, Michael Tolkin's The New Age . Allen's film gives her the chance to "let rip" as a frustrated wife going increasingly out of control: energy expressed as hysteria. The Ref , in which her role is a comic variant on this, allows her a rare opportunity to display a quite wonderful gift for comedy, her impeccable timing matched by that of her two male co-stars. The New Age is very closely related to Tolkin's previous (and even more remarkable) film The Rapture , which drew from Mimi Rogers one of the greatest performances in all of Hollywood cinema. Davis's character in The New Age closely resembles that of Rogers, but without allowing the actress to push things quite as far; nevertheless, Davis matches it as far as the film's relative limitations allow, emerging gradually as its true emotional center, revealing an authenticity in a character defined initially as incorrigibly inauthentic. Both of Tolkin's films are driven by their characters' sense of the meaninglessness and emptiness of their lives and the desperate search for meaning in a world that seems to have abandoned its very possibility: a theme that perfectly suits Davis's persona and abilities.
Davis has frequently played women from real life; since her casting as the young Golda Meir she has taken on two particularly celebrated or notorious historical figures, Frieda Lawrence in Kangaroo (thinly disguised as "Harriet Somers"), and George Sand in Impromptu , on both occasions with conspicuous success. Kangaroo is not a satisfactory film; though, to be fair, its weaknesses derive from D. H. Lawrence's inferior novel, and the filmmakers have made some halfhearted attempts to mitigate them. The subject is Lawrence's brief flirtation with, and eventual—if perhaps only temporary—repudiation of, fascism (as dramatized in an imaginary Australian political movement). He did not live to witness fascism's worst consequences, and it might have been possible to regard the flirtation more sympathetically in the 1920s; today it is difficult not to feel very impatient with the time it takes Somers/Lawrence to see through its spurious attractions, and extremely dissatisfied with his grounds for rejecting it. In the novel (as in certain of his others) Lawrence seems to make a determined effort to give his representation of Frieda an effective "voice," but as usual it tends to be shouted down by his own. In the film—thanks largely to Davis at her most mesmerizing—Harriet/Frieda's challenge to her husband becomes so strong that our impatience with his obtuseness is intensified. Though she is absent through many of the later episodes, and though Colin Friels (her real-life husband) gives a very intelligent performance as Lawrence, it becomes very much Davis's film, the triumph of a brilliant actress over dubious material and even more dubious ideology.
Davis's George Sand is another splendid assumption. Striding through most of the film in men's clothes and asserting her right to the kinds of recognition that men take for granted, her Mme. Sand falls hopelessly in love with Chopin (Hugh Grant)—clearly because he is gentle, passive, "feminine," and probably gay. Although the film does not suggest that Sand was other than heterosexual, the gender ambiguity is fascinating in relation to the Davis persona, and it is interesting that Davis eventually played a lesbian (as Glenn Close's lover in the television move Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story ).
Richard Lippe has suggested that there is a fairly consistent difference between Davis's status in the Australian films and in her Hollywood ones: in the latter she is usually part of an ensemble (if often a dominant member), whereas the former seem conceived as star vehicles that she is expected essentially to carry. Several of the American films may be superior to any of the Australian, but to fully appreciate Davis's strength one must certainly take into account Heatwave and what are to date her last two Australian movies: High Tide , which reunites her with Gillian Armstrong for the first time since My Brilliant Career , a powerful melodrama about intergenerational conflicts among women; and the intriguing but ultimately disappointing Georgia , in which she plays both mother (in the past) and daughter (in the present).
There seems no space in the Hollywood cinema of the late 1990s where Davis's particular kind of distinction can be accommodated and given space to flourish. She was tempted back to Australia for the lead role in Children of the Revolution , a film one watches in a condition of steadily growing stupefaction. It seems to believe itself some kind of political satire, but it never finds a consistent tone (lurching from a Monty Pythonesque absurdity for the Russian sequences with Stalin to vague gestures toward tragic loss in its final scenes). Here, Davis's passion is made to appear merely ridiculous. It is arguably her worst film.
Nor has she fared much better in America. Her adoption into the Woody Allen (cinematic) family (four films for him so far) has proved at best a mixed blessing. Allen's more personal films (the ones in which he appears, either in person or in Kenneth Branagh's remarkably accurate impersonation) have become increasingly hysterical and embarrassing, following his by now familiar stratagem of presenting himself as contemptible within a contemptible milieu, then suggesting that we should love him anyway because, finding it simultaneously irresistible, he cannot imagine any other. In the course of Deconstructing Harry Davis (in a mercifully small role) delivers the key line, telling him that he "spins gold out of human misery," yet we are expected to find the misery funny. Davis is used both here and in Celebrity as the central victim, with the hysteria that has become increasingly the dominant aspect of her persona driven to grotesque extremes.
She has been able to do herself some justice only in supporting roles in two greatly superior films: Bob Rafelson's intense and disturbing Blood and Wine , its narrative and characters at once fascinatingly unpredictable yet wholly convincing, and Clint Eastwood's critically underrated Absolute Power . Rafelson's films are notable (amongst other things) for the respect with which he treats his actors, and Davis is permitted to bring her characteristic strength and dignity to another potentially hysterical role.