Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits

Australian movies behind the scenes, icons and storytelling with the stills photographer.

Mel Gibson as Max (1981) by Carolyn JohnsNational Portrait Gallery

Behind the Scenes

Portraits taken during filming are historical records of the cast and crew suspending audience disbelief, allowing audience immersion into the world of visual storytelling. Filming is intense: the days are long, shooting schedules are tight, with actors repeating take after take.  A production crew spending weeks on location soon becomes like a family. These portraits become a nostalgic record. 

Crew filming Michael Pate as Shane in the storm scene (1949)National Portrait Gallery

Sons of Matthew tells the story of determined pioneer family, the O'Riordans, and their endeavour to tame the wild frontiers and dense rainforest of Queensland's Lamington Plateau.

The film's depiction of pioneering hardship parallels the making of the film, which was an epic of frustration, delay, rising costs and a fight against the unforgiving elements.

This image captures both the reality and fiction of the Sons of Matthew cast and crew battling the elements.

Here they are pictured filming in a windstorm manufactured using aeroplane propellers connected to electrical generators.

Stunt riders, Gerald Egan, Ken Connley, Bill Stacey, Louis Trifunovic and Bill Willoughby (1982) by David ParkerNational Portrait Gallery

The Man from Snowy River was based on the iconic poem of the same name by Banjo Paterson, 1890.

The climax results in a dramatic chase as the stockmen pursue a herd of brumbies through the Australian Alps.

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko's side,

Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough;

Where a horse's hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,

The man that holds his own is good enough.

And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,

Where the river runs those giant hills between;

I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,

But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.

Tom Burlinson as Jim Craig (1982) by David ParkerNational Portrait Gallery

This scene was full of action and daring on the part of our leading man, or so it seems...

What do you think the director and camera operator did to make the scene look more dangerous than it really was?

This 'downhill' shoot was made to look steeper than it was in reality.

The trees were tethered and the cameras tilted.

Director Scott Hicks lines up a shot through his viewfinder on actor Geoffrey Rush (1996)National Portrait Gallery

Photographer Lisa Tomasetti captures the first time Scott Hicks, director of Shine, saw Geoffrey Rush in character as David Helfgott.

Hicks reflected that, 'the joy of this moment was fabulous.'

Scott Hicks lines up a shot through his viewfinder on actor Geoffrey Rush for the movie Shine.

Rush visibly transitions into character as he begins to resemble Helfgott.

He then appears to go further inward to reach deeply into the character he is playing.

David Helfgott (1987) by Geoffrey McGeachinNational Portrait Gallery

Shine is based on the struggle between David Helfgott’s musical genius and his mental illness.

Can you recall other movies which are based on autobiographical material?

Jack Thompson as Foley and Robert Bruning as Tom (1975) by John ChatterisNational Portrait Gallery

Australian Icons

An icon is a person, animal or object that symbolises representative characteristics or values of a culture or group. In the case of defining an Australian icon, the cinema has represented numerous versions of how Australians see themselves.

Proof sheet from “Sunday Too Far Away”National Portrait Gallery

This is a proof sheet from Sunday Too Far Away.

A proof sheet is a contact print taken directly from the negative film.

Using a magnifying glass, the photographer can select the best quality image before printing and enlarging it. This reduces time and waste.

How might this photographic process differ from digital photography?

Look closely at the proof sheet.

Can you find evidence of any Australian icons here?

What makes them icons?

The Story of the Kelly Gang Film Poster (1906)National Portrait Gallery

Ned Kelly and his gang are folklore in the European Australian identity.

The Story of the Kelly Gang opened in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1906.

Over an hour long, it is thought to be the world's first feature-length film.

Today only a quarter of this epic film survives. Some of the stills included on the daybill are from lost scenes.

Leslie Hay-Simpson billed as Hay Simpson as Ned Kelly (1934)National Portrait Gallery

This photograph taken in 1934 of Leslie Hay-Simpson as Ned Kelly is one of many depictions of the infamous bushranger on film.

Heath Ledger was the last actor to play Ned Kelly in 2003.

Ned Kelly has been the subject of poems, songs and commercial and contemporary Australian art.

Ned Kelly Death Mask Ned Kelly Death Mask by Dr Maximilian L. KreitmayerNational Portrait Gallery

Take a moment to view Ned Kelly's Death mask, with a few words from Angus Trumble, previous Director of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sidney Nolan, Western Australia (1962) by David MooreNational Portrait Gallery

Have a good look and discuss Sidney Nolan's paintings of Ned Kelly and his story.

Why do you think Ned Kelly is such a long-standing Australian iconic figure?

Chips Rafferty as JimNational Portrait Gallery

Actors of the 1930s - 1950s such as Chips Raffety portrayed nostalgic and adventurous characters.

Chips Raffety was the quintessential Aussie Digger, giving people a fair go and helping his mates.

Strictly Ballroom Film Poster (1992)National Portrait Gallery

Iconic films such as Strictly Ballroom reflect the changing face of Australian culture.

What does the poster make you think this film is about?

Explain why, using the images and design of the poster as evidence.

Paul Mercurio as Scott and Tara Morice as Fran (1992) by Philip Le MasurierNational Portrait Gallery

This portrait was shot during the film's climax at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix dancing championships.

In the scene, Scott and Fran cast aside old dance rules and their personal fears to perform a stirring paso doble.

The tuxedo-and-glitter Cinderella story ends with the couple triumphant in dance and in love, embodying the film's most important message: 'A life lived in fear is a life half lived.'

How would you describe their expressions?

Compare their expressions with their poses.

Do you think this portrait embodies the message of this film?

If so, in what way?

Phoenix as Blue (2016) by David DarcyNational Portrait Gallery


The stories told on film are unique to their culture and country. Australian film allows us to explore our culture, history and physical landscape so that we can make sense of who we are as individuals and as a community. 

Nicky Yardley as Snow with dog Kanga (1947)National Portrait Gallery

'Like actors they walk into a room and change the temperature.'

We have a long history in Australian film where the relationship between animals and people is depicted.

How does this image highlight a connection between Snow and Kanga?

Levi Miller as Mick with Blue (2016) by David DarcyNational Portrait Gallery

A prequel to the film Red Dog, Red Dog: True Blue, chronicles the early days of the ‘Pilbara Wanderer’ and tells the coming-of-age tale of his best mate Mick.

What does coming-of-age or rite of passage mean?

Why would these themes make a good story?

Why would an animal be important in such stories?

Levi Miller on the set of Red Dog: True Blue (2015) by David DarcyNational Portrait Gallery

This photograph of Levi Miller captures the moment of realisation that he would no longer be working with his canine co-star.

It was photographed after the last scene was filmed.

Greg Rowe as Storm Boy holding Mr Percival (1976)National Portrait Gallery

The plot of Storm Boy revolves around the rescue of a baby pelican (Mr Percival) from hunters, and the friendship formed between Mike (Greg Rowe), Mr Percival and Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil).

Greg Rowe as Mike 'Storm Boy' and David Gulpilil as Fingerbone Bill (1976) by David KynochNational Portrait Gallery

'[I] live alone… and then the little boy came… You must be Storm Boy, you're running like the wind,' said Fingerbone Bill.

David Gulpilil remembers...

'They're both telling the story; from me how I loved the pelican because it was my Dreaming and the little boy loved it too.'

What is the significance of animals and Dreaming in Aboriginal culture?

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson at Hamelin Pool (2013) by Matt NettheimNational Portrait Gallery

Many movies have been adapted from fiction and non-fiction literature.

Tracks was based on the 1980 memoir by Robyn Davidson.

On the day that this photograph was taken Robyn Davidson and Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who took the original photographs during her journey, were there.

How do you think both Davidson and Smolan were feeling about history being repeated?

Ryan Corr as Timothy Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo (2015) by Ben KingNational Portrait Gallery

Modern cinema is credited with including minority groups in films as an intrinsic part of our society.

Rudd Family in Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938)National Portrait Gallery

The first depiction of a homosexual in Australian film was that of Mr Enwistle in the film Dad and Dave Come to Town.

This character worked in the women’s section of a department store and was able to communicate better with women than with men.

He was a stereotype of how homosexuals were perceived by heterosexual society.

Hugo Weaving as Mitzi (1994) by Elise LockwoodNational Portrait Gallery

Traditionally, homosexuals were portrayed as outcasts from society, often behaving outrageously, and usually in a subplot.

In Priscilla Queen of the Desert whilst the characters are outrageous and seen as outcasts, they are also multi-dimensional.

Each character has their own personal journey, which is revealed as the film unfolds.

Louise Lovely (1921) by Boover Art Co., Los AngelesNational Portrait Gallery

Women in Australian Film

Women such as Louise Lovely, Lottie Lyall and the McDonagh sisters were acting in films as early as 1911 in Australia, and often writing, editing and producing them as well. The Australian film industry grew until in the 1920s it was thriving with up to 50 films made per year. The 1970s saw the commencement of Australian government funding which allowed a new generation of filmmakers to thrive, including many women.

Lobby card featuring Lloyd Hughes as Daubenny Carshott (1937)National Portrait Gallery

Between the 1930s and 1960s, women characters were seen as supporting roles for the leading man. There was an assumption then that films with women as main characters would not return a profit.

Publicity still of Shirley Ann Richards (1937)National Portrait Gallery

Shirley Ann Richards' stance as Lorna 'Jim' Quidley is confident and casual. At first meeting, the film's hero, Daubenny Carshott, mistakes her for a young man and the androgynous deception becomes a seductive plot device.

Judy Davis as Sybylla (1979) by David KynochNational Portrait Gallery

My Brilliant Career is based on the book of the same name by Miles Franklin.

The London Sunday Times described the film as 'A strong, confident, modern love story even though set in the 1890s. Like many recent Australian films, it speaks out with a real woman's voice – a sound rarely heard in the cinema, since the women we see are usually creations of male fantasy, wishful thinking, sentimentality or even hatred.'

Sam Neill, Judy Davis and Gillian Armstrong on fold-up chairs on location at Michelago (1979) by David KynochNational Portrait Gallery

Gillian Armstrong by Stuart CampbellNational Portrait Gallery

Producer Margaret Fink appointed emerging director Gillian Armstrong to direct My Brilliant Career. She cast Judy Davis, freshly graduated from NIDA, as the film's hero.

Helen Morse as Caddie (1976) by Jeff NeildNational Portrait Gallery

Whilst there is still a large gap between female/male lead roles in Australian film, here are some examples of films with female leads.

Morse plays Caddie as a middle-class woman who has fallen on hard times – a departure from the real-life working-class Caddie, but nonetheless a characterisation that emphasises the harsh double standards for abandoned women of the late 1920s.

It remains the longest-running Australian film on a single screen in cinema history.

Cate Blanchett as Susan Macarthy and Japanese internment camp vocal orchestra (1997) by Jasin BolandNational Portrait Gallery

Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road tells the story of a group of women held captive in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War.

When they form a choir, the music they make redeems the brutal conditions, scarce food and cruel punishments they endure.

Beresford remembered feeling compelled to make a film about the women’s ‘heroism, resourcefulness, creating this choir with extraordinary music, creating beauty out of these surroundings.'

Abbie Cornish as Heidi (2004) by Matt NettheimNational Portrait Gallery

Set in Jindabyne, NSW, Somersault is a coming-of-age film that intimately explores fragility and innocence through the character of Heidi.

Matt Nettheim highlights director Cate Shortland's use of red in the film – with its connotations of blood, passion and gothic fairy tales – as a deliberate motif to contrast the film's warm interiors with the reduced palette of the bleak snowy landscape.

Colin Friels as Javo and Noni Hazlehurst as Nora (1982) by Ian PotterNational Portrait Gallery

Based on Helen Garner’s eponymous novel, Monkey Grip portrays the emotional lives of some young people living in a 1980s group house.

It shows a single mother carving out a career in the music industry, and the friendships, relationships and betrayals that are a consequence of the sexual freedoms of the era.

Rosalie Kunoth (Ngarla Kunoth) (1953) by an unknown artistNational Portrait Gallery

To find out more about Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits visit us on our website.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by Leigh Renneberg, Learning Facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery.

It was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator at the National Portrait Gallery.

Thank you to all artists and organisations for permission to include these works.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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