PORTRAYAL: Left, Paul Bernasconi, and right, file photo of William Dobell. Main Bernasconi picture: Jeff WestonIT’S the usual set of coincidences that happens when you’re an expat. I’ve been interested in Dobell’s life since I was a a kid growing up in Belmont. We went on a school excursion to his house in the mid ’70s and I remember being amazed that a world-famous artist lived right across the lake from me.
I borrowed the 1964 James Gleeson monograph from the library when I was in high school at St Pius and have read everything about him since. I worked in advertising in Sydney in the ’80s with Siimon Reynolds and moved to New York in 1990 to set up his American offices.
In 1993 I opened my own agency in New York City, Oasis, and sold it 10 years later to Dentsu, the Japanese communications giant.
A few years ago I promised myself that the first thing I would do when I stopped working would be to write a movie about Dobell. Last year, I began work on the screenplay and finished it this summer.
I formed a production company, Exhibit D Films (named after the court records of Dobell’s controversial portrait of Joshua Smith) and we are gathering a core group of investors and producers to help get it made.
I have connections at the Sydney Theatre Company so the first step will be workshopping the script with actual actors – we hope to begin this December.
Through a friend at the ABC I heard about Scott Bevan’s book and we’ve had a few email chats. I’m just so happy that Dobell’s torch is being carried by another Newcastle lad.
The working title for the film is A Reasonable Likeness and will trace Dobell’s life from his early days in Sydney and London – through the trial – to his breakdown, recovery on Lake Macquarie and his acceptance into the pantheon of Australian artists.
As for my dream cast; Russell Crowe as Dobell, Rachel Griffiths as his sister Alice, Magda Szubanski as Margaret Olley and Geoffrey Rush as Garfield Barwick KC. If you know any of them, let me know.
There have been books, documentaries and plays about this great man. It’s time for his close-up.
Although this will be my first feature project, I was an associate producer on Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia which came out last year. My next project will be a very fictionalised account of the people and events that led to the 1979 Star Hotel Riot in Newcastle.
The working title is Last Night at the Star – but it’s early days yet.
Weekender asked Bernasconi some questions about his Dobell project. His answers follow.
Have you got a budget in mind?
We’re still finalising budgets and locations. The film covers more than 50 years and takes place in four locations – Newcastle, Sydney, London and Wangi Wangi – so there are some efficiencies to be worked out.
Melbourne may have to stand in for Sydney in the ’40s because of the trams and such. The story begins in Newcastle in 1920 and ends there in 1970 – Dobell’s last major exhibition was at the Newcastle Civic Art Gallery, which back then was inside the War Memorial Building on Laman Street.
Will you consider a play, or film only?
There was a stage production about the trial, Art War ’44 developed and performed by University of Melbourne students in 1999, and there have been several biographies of Dobell beginning with James Gleeson’s 1964 monograph.
I always thought Dobell’s story would make a great film – it’s a classic hero’s journey: talented outsider with humble origins, achieves early acclaim, is persecuted for his art, suffers a major breakdown, recovery, redemption and finally, respect.
Interestingly, Dobell’s story parallels that of two of his contemporaries – America’s “Father of the Atomic Bomb” Robert Oppenheimer and Britain’s wartime “codebreaker” Alan Turing. Both were geniuses working in the service of something greater.
Oppenheimer was accused of being a communist spy and ostracised from the scientific community before finally being exonerated. His story was the basis for the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy starring Paul Newman.
Turing was convicted of homosexuality and, tragically, committed suicide. A movie about his life, The Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley), is due out in December.
Do you have your own version of the ‘‘truth’’ of Dobell’s life? Would you fictionalise any aspects? Would you mention or deal with his sexuality?
The script is about 70per cent factual. Licence has been taken with certain characters, dates and events. Dobell’s sexuality is definitely dealt with in the film, it would have been disingenuous not to.
He was understandably circumspect about his sexuality, considering the times, but it is generally accepted that he was gay. It’s been suggested that one of the reasons his nervous breakdown after the trial was so severe was because of the nature of Garfield Barwick’s aggressive and suggestive questioning during his cross examination.
Words like, ‘‘subversive’’, ‘‘sick’’, ‘‘abnormal’’ – classic code words for ‘‘homosexual’’ – were used to describe Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith and, by association, Dobell himself.
Dobell does have a London love interest in the movie, based partly on written and painted evidence, partly on pure speculation. It’s nobody well known, but one might be able to work it out from two of Dobell’s paintings from that time. That’s all I’m saying.
The Archibald Trial is, of course, a pivotal piece of the story. Australia in the 1940s was a nation struggling with its own identity – was it still part of the British Empire or did its future depend on developing a cultural identity of its own?
The trial was as much about the forces of Australian conservatism battling the progressives. Even though it happened 70 years ago it’s a conflict that still resonates today.
Do you own Dobell artworks or memorabilia?
I have a signed first edition of the Gleeson book, which I treasure, but no paintings as yet. Maybe if the film makes a buck I’ll shout myself a sketch.
Why do you think Dobell is a great artist?
I’m no expert, but I think the reason Dobell’s works are so loved is because he was able to find something new and fascinating in so many of his subjects, yet at the same time something familiar and reassuring.
You can look at a painting as startling and ethereal as his 1969 The Tired Lady and still find warmth and humour – she could be my grandma.Continue Reading →