Melbourne | ideal place for a film about the end of the world
If you are like me, you have always wondered whether Ava Gardner actually said.. Melbourne was the ideal place for a film about the end of the world.
Then I spotted this article in TheAge, which answers it..
SONGS FOR AVA
It was the film that brought Hollywood to town and spawned an apocryphal comment from Ava Gardner that would leave locals squirming for decades. As a new show revisits the making of On the Beach, Philippa Hawker charts one man's musical journey into an extraordinary moment in Melbourne's history.
'' I came to realise it was a story about Melbourne growing up.''
It all began with the release of a Frank Sinatra album. It had been a famous bootleg, circulating for years, but in 1997, Blue Note Records officially released it. It was a recording of performances in Australia in 1959, and it presented the singer at his free-wheeling best, swinging with an almost unprecedented looseness. For musician and composer Eric McCusker, it seemed an inspiration . But the more he thought about the recording and its circumstances , the more it receded into the background. Someone else took over. Actor Ava Gardner, he says, ''waltzed to the centre of it all'' , and stayed there.
Ava (At the End of the World) is the result of more thana decade of thinking about Sinatra, Gardner anda time and place; about infatuation , transformation and independence . It is being performed in the Spiegeltent on March 30, and audience members are invited to stay for a Q&A afterwards. It's McCusker's mostly musical account of what happened, and what he imagined might have happened, during the course ofa week in Melbourne half a century ago. It's the first performance ofa work that is still very much in progress; it's an event that represents both an end and a beginning.
Sinatra came to Australia because Gardner asked him to. She arrived in Melbourne in early 1959 to star in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, the movie adaptation of Nevil Shute's celebrated anti-war novel about nuclear apocalypse. It isa much-mythologised time, McCusker says, and it's hard to sort fact from fiction. He's chosen to combine legend and imagination with the results of his research, with serendipitous discoveries and coincidences .
Gardner and Sinatra had been married but were divorced: Sinatra had left his first wife for her, and the pair were condemned by everyone from the gossip columnists to the Catholic Church. They had a turbulent relationship, but they remained close all their lives.
According to McCusker: '' The wayI understand it, she'd been here a while and she rang Sinatra. She said he was bored. He'd bailed out ofa toura couple of years earlier, so he got in touch with promoter Lee Gordon to set up some performances in Sydney and Melbourne.''
Gardner, McCusker says, apparently sat in the front row, and he sang several songs specifically to her, among them Angel Eyes, his nickname for her. The pair were probably ''the loves of each other's lives'' , McCusker adds, but Gardner was an uninhibited figure who prized her freedom.
McCusker came up with the idea that she might have hada fling with an Australian singer while she was here. Then, talking toa fellow musician , he discovered that such a story was already circulating. The subject of the rumour was a wellknown local jazz singer named Joe Lane, who died in 2007.
'' I knew Lane; I used to see him at the Basement in the 1970s, scat singing,'' McCusker says. He was a talented singer, '' an old bohemian, anda very interesting character. This gave me the third side of my triangle.''
In his obituary of Lane, John Shand mentions an encounter between the actor and the singer at a performance, and Gardner's attendance at an all-night party at Lane's house. But according to musician John Pochee, who was also at the show, '' the story of a romantic fling between Lane and Gardner is a myth'' .
She never uttered the notorious 'quote' to the effect that Melbourne was the ideal place for a film about the end of the world. It was dreamt up by journalist Neil Jillett, later an Age film critic, who was asked to writea story for Sydney's Sun-Herald . He explained many years later that he incorporated it into a paragraph at the end ofa story as a joke, at a time when Gardner was not giving interviews. He assumed this would be understood because of the way he signalled the quote as hypothetical; instead, it was printed as fact.
In telling his story in music, McCusker has years of experience to draw on. He isa singer, songwriter , musician and composer, who played with Ross Wilson in Mondo Rock and wrote some of their biggest hits. But there's adifference , he says, between creating individual numbers and constructing a narrative.
He has been writing songs since he was 14, '' and it's still completely fascinating and as mysterious as always'' . In the three-minute popular song, he says, '' What people look for is constantly changing. There are no rules, there are forms and approaches that are constant, but people always want freshness, so it's always reinventing itself.''
Ava (At the End of the World) is, he says, '' the most challenging thing I've ever done. Not just one song at a time, but a bunch of them that have to have balance, variety, story, characterisation.'' He wrote about 40 songs to end up with the 14 that make up the show.
He recalls readinga memoir by Meredith Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the stage musical The Music Man. '' He said he wrote 40 drafts, and at no stage did he not think that the draft he was working on was the final one.''
After writing and making demos of 10 songs six or seven years ago, McCusker gave himself a crash course on how to develop his material further.
'' I read 100 books on screenplay writing and musicals and tried to understand the process of how you musicalisea story.'' He asked himself , '' Why bother talking about these events? What was important about it? And I came to realise it wasa story about growing up - about Melbourne growing up, and, I think, about Ava growing up, too.''
Gardner was 36 when she made On the Beach. Her performance is one of the strongest elements of the film: she's a vivid, sensual, yet vulnerable, presence. She had spent most of her adult life as a contract player at MGM. '' This was the first film she made out of contract,'' McCusker says, '' and she made a hell of a lot of money out of it. She was paid $400,000 then- more than the other stars of the film: more than Gregory Peck or Fred Astaire or any of the others. And, ina way, it set her up for life.
'' Her career had been based so much on her beauty and she didn't really believe in her acting talent, althougha lot of other people did. She got better and better over the years.''
Something that influenced McCusker quite early, he says, was the actor's autobiography, Ava -My Story, which he came across among a selection of books being sold at his local library. '' Every time my energy was flagging,I found something to keep me going.
'' It's conversational and frank. It was as if she was in the room talking to me. She came across as a really believable, interesting person , who stayed independent to the end. She was very bright, and she didn't care what anyone thought of her.''
According to Lee Server, in a recent biography: '' She liked jazz and driving too fast and nights that went on forever. She loved gin and dogs and four-letter words and Frank Sinatra. Once upon a time, she was thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world.''
A country girl born in North Carolina on Christmas Eve in 1922, Gardner was the youngest of seven children. Hollywood, it seems, wasn't exactly her dream. She wasn't star-struck and she had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to her astonishing beauty.
She told Movieline magazine that in her early days, '' I spent a lot of time doing publicity stunts. Sitting with skis on a sand dune down at the beach, posing ona block of ice, crap like that. So there are 10 million photographs of me. There was no terrible, great ambition to be a big star. It sort of just gradually happened without my doing very much about it.''
With movies such as The Killers, The Barefoot Contessa, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and The Night of the Iguana, she proved herself as an actor.
McCusker suggests Sinatra came to Australia '' to maybe try to win her back. He was still besotted with her and he came because she called.'' When they were married, he was at a low ebb and she helped him get back on track and land the role in From Here to Eternity that ignited his acting career at the time of his legendary recordings with Capitol Records. McCusker imagines Sinatra thinking '' maybeI deserve her now I'm a star. But she preferred him the other way. As a star, he became pompous.''
At one point, McCusker envisaged his narrative as a film script. On singer Jane Clifton's recommendation , he sent it to producer Michael Lynch, who has helped bring the work to the Spiegeltent.
What he now has is a concert piece, with four singers and four musicians and a bridging narrative between the principal elements of storytelling- the songs. They are written in the style of 1959, drawing on the '' big-band jazz that you might have heard on In Melbourne Tonight"or modern jazz, or the bebop Joe Lane was known for.
Wilbur Wilde plays the saxophone , but he also appears as the older Joe Lane and provides some of the narrative. McCusker plays guitar and has a small amount of dialogue playing two different guitar players. The young Joe Lane is played by Josh Kyle, '' a brilliant jazz singer'' , McCusker says.
For Sinatra and Gardner, he adds, he has been very lucky with the performers he has found. '' We haven't tried to slavishly copy Sinatra, but we have Dave Bowers, who can doa good Frank. He has a great personality and bright-blue eyes.''
McCusker says Gardner was underrated as a singer. '' They dubbed her voice in Showboat, although she had fought to have her own voice in it. She was serious about her singing, she loved music, she hung out with musicians.''
His Gardner is singer Hetty Kate. She was working on another project with Jake Mason, one of the musicians in Ava (At the End of the World), who has co-written four of the songs and is joint musical director. McCusker says that when Ava was mentioned to her, '' she told him she already hada thing about Ava. And she's magnificent- it's one of those lucky things that came out of the blue.'' He recently discovered his friend Ross Wilson even had a connection with the story - '' he was in On the Beach as an 11-year-old Boy Scout. He got a cheque for £12, and he liked it so much he didn't bank it for six months.''
McCusker is looking forward to performing at the Spiegeltent, and to hearing the audience response at the Q&A afterwards. '' The feedback will be great to have. In musical theatre, they say the audience is almosta co-writer . Nobody knows anything in show business, they say - and you really don't know anything- until you play something to a group of people in a room.''
After that performance, who knows? McCusker likes to think it will become '' a one-hour cabaretjazz-arts festival piece, an ensemble work with these particular people'' . He's not keen to expand on it too much. '' I would bea bit hesitant about turning it into a stage musical. That's buying into a world where suddenly you need a million dollars.''
Yet, he says, he would like to get the chance '' to makea slightly noirish , stylised, smallish film. An Australian story with international interest.'' And he would like to think that his experiences of serendipity and coincidence will continue.
Eight years ago, he '' found a Bakelite recording machine called a Recordon at a second-hand shop. In the lid was an envelope with a note that said this is a recording machine used by Ava Gardner during On the Beach.''
He believes she had such a device to help her practise an Australian accent, something she tried to do but decided she couldn't manage. Two months ago, at Camberwell Market, he found a matching microphone. He likes to think it might be Ava's , too.
Ava (At the End of the World), Spiegeltent, March 30, 2013. spiegel.artscentre melbourne.com.au.
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