My Brilliant Career: 'I want to be a writer'

My Brilliant Career: 'I want to be a writer'
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Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) has waited two years for Sybylla (Judy Davis) to agree to marry. As drought grips the land again, he comes for an answer, but Sybylla explains why she cannot. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Anna Senior received a nomination for Best Costume Design for My Brilliant Career at the 1980 Academy Awards.

Note the difference in Judy Davis’s performance between the early part of the film and this scene. She ages the character of Sybylla considerably. Note also the superb medium close-up on Sybylla – an absolutely unforgettable image.

My Brilliant Career synopsis 

During the drought of 1898, headstrong and vivacious Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) dreams of escaping the drudgery of farm life for a career as a writer. On an extended visit to her aristocratic grandmother (Aileen Britton), she meets Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a well-to-do grazier. Sybylla must decide if love will interrupt her plans for a brilliant career.

My Brilliant Career curator's notes

My Brilliant Career introduced two startling new talents to the Australian public. It was the first feature of Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) graduate Gillian Armstrong, one of the first women to break into feature directing in the 1970s, and the first time most Australians had seen the astonishingly talented Judy Davis, who had recently graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), in Sydney.

The timing was perfect, as was the choice of subject. Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel, published in Edinburgh in 1901, was a ground-breaking feminist text from an earlier era that perfectly dramatised the concerns of many women in the late 1970s. The period setting only served to underline the idea that the dilemmas had not changed that much for modern women. Career or marriage was still a difficult choice, and Sybylla Melvyn presented a powerful role model – a feminist warrior, in the same year that produced a masculine fantasy in the road warrior, Mad Max.

Judy Davis’s performance is a large part of what audiences responded to – Sybylla’s blazing self–assurance, her courage and youthful anger, her refusal to settle for anything less than the moon. The film’s cinematography has great contrast – the flat, barren landscapes of the Melvyn family’s farm in the midst of drought gives way to green and verdant homesteads of the landed gentry.

Cinematographer Don McAlpine gives some of these scenes an impressionist look, emphasising the sense of privilege. Armstrong showed a great pictorial sophistication, a kind of visual sensuality. The film remains one of the high points of the 'new wave’ of Australian cinema in the 1970s and a leading influence on women who followed in film in the 80s and 90s.

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Education notes

The clip shows Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) and Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) in a paddock at the Melvyn farm discussing the topic of Harry’s marriage. Sybylla, who believes Harry wants to marry her sister Gertie, is hurrying away as Harry blurts out a proposal to her. A medium close-up of Sybylla shows her looking back at Harry, her face a mixture of regret and sadness. In the next shot Sybylla, sitting on a tree stump, tries to make Harry understand her reasons for refusing him.

Educational value points

  • My Brilliant Career is considered a classic of Australian cinema. It charts the growing self-awareness of the headstrong and passionate 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn and her desire to escape the drudgery and genteel poverty of her family’s dairy farm to make something of herself. She spurns the offer of marriage from a wealthy suitor in favour of independence and the chance to pursue a career as a writer.
  • My Brilliant Career is based on Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Informed by feminism and nationalism, the book was published to critical acclaim in London in 1901 after being rejected for publication in Australia. Franklin continued publishing under both her own name and the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin, but only achieved notable success again in 1936 with her prize-winning All That Swagger. A passionate supporter of Australian literature, she bequeathed her estate to found the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award for Australian fiction.
  • In the film, Sybylla makes a radical decision in choosing a career and independence over marriage. In the late 1890s, women were often forced through economic necessity into menial work or work associated with nurturing, such as nannying, nursing or teaching; they were not otherwise expected to have careers beyond being wives and mothers. However in this period in Australia, first-wave feminists were campaigning for the rights of women to have a profession as well as to be educated and to vote.
  • Sybylla believes that a career would be impossible within marriage, even to a sympathetic Harry, and that she must make a choice between marriage and a career. This choice resonated with audiences in the late 1970s when more women entered the workforce and faced the competing demands of work and family. The Greater Union Organisation, which had invested heavily in the film, pressed for a conventional ending to the story, arguing that audiences would want the couple to end up together. Producer Margaret Fink resisted and the film went on to be a huge success.
  • Many critics noted that in the film, Sybylla’s suitor Harry Beecham is more attractive and intelligent, and the attraction between him and Sybylla more believable, than in Franklin’s book. As such, her rejection of him underlines the strength of her desire for independence and a career. Like Judy Davis, Sam Neill was an unknown when cast in the film, and the role of Harry established him as a leading actor in Australia.
  • Sybylla is very different from the bush heroine of Australian films of the 1920s and 1930s, who was portrayed as a capable, outdoor type who could ride, shoot, and brand cattle and who always married the hero. The director set out to capture the harsh realities of bush life for women like Sybylla. In this clip she has just rescued a stranded calf and is dressed in a grimy and faded pinafore and old straw hat and her hands are covered with mud. It is clear that Sybylla’s creativity will be completely stifled by marriage and life in the bush.
  • My Brilliant Career was Gillian Armstrong’s first feature film. Armstrong had only recently graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School when producer Margaret Fink approached her to direct the film. Its success established Armstrong as one of Australia’s leading directors and among her feature films are Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Little Women (1994), High Tide (1987) and Mrs Soffel (1984). The film also launched the career of lead actor Judy Davis.
  • The film had an all-female production crew. In addition to Fink and Armstrong, the production crew included associate producer Jane Scott, production designer Luciana Arrighi, costume designer Anna Senior and writer Eleanor Witcombe. It was the first commercially released Australian film directed by a woman since the 1933 release of Paulette McDonagh’s Two Minutes Silence, and it paved the way for women filmmakers at a time when filmmaking was the preserve of men.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Margaret Fink Films
Margaret Fink
Associate Producer:
Jane Scott
Gillian Armstrong
Eleanor Witcombe
From the novel by:
Miles Franklin
Musical director:
Nathan Waks
Julia Blake, Aileen Britton, Max Cullen, Sue Davies, Judy Davis, David Franklin, Robert Grubb, Alan Hopgood, Wendy Hughes, Patricia Kennedy, Sam Neill, Marion Shad, Carole Skinner, Peter Whitford, Aaron Wood