November 17, 2007
Australia's globe-trotting hippies of the 1960s are making war, not
love, over a movie version of their lives, writes Paola Totaro.
THEY were creative, fearless and used a mordant satire in their war
against, well, everything. Nothing was sacred, not the Queen, the
prime minister, the military, religion nor race. In the end, they
were arrested, charged and locked in the slammer, and made front-page
headlines in two hemispheres.
This was not The Chaser but the legendary Oz magazine, launch pad of
Australia's hippie intelligentsia, 1960s firebrands, artists and
anti-establishment rebels all.
Until Hollywood came along, keen for permission to rewrite their
stories for the big screen - and armed with fat cheques to smooth the way.
The movie's script, based loosely around Oz editor, Richard Neville's
memoirs, Hippie Hippie Shake, was written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot)
and filming has just finished in London with a star-studded cast
including Sienna Miller, Cillian Murphy, Max Minghella and Emma Booth.
Neville sold the film rights, reportedly for six figures, more than
10 years ago. "Suddenly, a couple of years ago, it all happened and
exploded," he told the Herald yesterday. "The script kept changing
and I made some changes myself on the last draft, but I have not seen
it since. I am watching from afar. I've got my fingers crossed that
they'll do a good job and if they don't, I'll be disappointed."
But many of Oz's other luminaries and protagonists, including
Germaine Greer, the Sydney artist Martin Sharp and the film director
Philippe Mora, have questioned their former colleagues' decision to
allow their personal lives - and history - to be rewritten in a movie
funded by General Electric, produced by a Universal Studios-owned
British production house and played by non-Australian actors.
Greer, portrayed in early drafts of the script as a joint-smoking
nymphomaniac, fired the first salvo in her Guardian blog, saying the
writers had fashioned her likeness "out of their own excreta".
Others, like Richard Neville's then girlfriend, Louise Ferrier, had
suffered an even worse fate on film. Greer said Ferrier had been
dubbed a "siren with a penchant for threesomes" because she once
posed naked with Jenny Kee for an Oz cover: "She was actually better
known for her Sunday lunches, roast leg of lamb Australian-style
(grey to the bone)."
Greer describes Richard Neville as "one of the least talented people
on the London scene in the '60s", while his book of memoirs and the
revisiting of Oz was a "continuing search of the fame and fortune
that continue to elude him".
Neville says he toyed with responding to Greer but decided against
it: " I feel I have been ennobled by Germaine's comments … I've been
jammed somewhere between Steve Irwin, Princess Diana and the stingray."
At home in Sydney's Bellevue Hill, Martin Sharp, one of the artistic
powerhouses behind many of Oz's most famous covers, told the Herald
he allowed the reproduction of some of his artwork but had signed no
waivers to the movie's producers, accepted no money for his
portrayal, and continues to be appalled by the script.
He counted 55 scenes in which his character appears and which he says
were concoctions: "It was complete fiction. It is not even about mere
historical inaccuracy. That is the inherent problem with this sort of
filmmaking. I was really shocked when I read the first one [script]
and I am not much less shocked now.
"They are trying to use real people as an anchor for their fantasy …
it is a theft of one's life and is a very uncomfortable feeling. If
they want to make a fantasy, why don't they use fictional characters."
According to insiders, the director, BeebanKidron, flew to Sydney in
July for a series of quiet crisis meetings and met several
protagonists, including Louise Ferrier, the designer Jenny Kee and
Neville's Oz co-editor in London, Jim Anderson.
Dozens of script changes were made, incidents and events rewritten
and even relationships and sex scenes were amended after being
branded "fictions" by other real protagonists. Further, say insiders,
some characters who did not appear in the early script drafts were
added as their waivers were signed and cheques - for "research" - accepted.
At least four of the original Oz types, including Kee, Ferrier and
Anderson, are said to have been paid $25,000 each for their
characters to be fictionalised on screen while Robert Whitaker, the
London photographer, has reproduced his famous nude Oz cover placing
the actors in place of Ferrier and Kee.
The film director and former Oz illustrator and artist Philippe Mora,
who lives in Los Angeles, says his colleagues havesold out.
"The issues of the '60s were freedom of speech, integrity,
anti-hypocrisy from the 'establishment' … personally, I don't think
you can be against the war on terror, as Richard Neville has
continued to write, and then go and sell your life story to General
Electric. I'm no saint nor am I holier than thou, but if you sell out
part of your life story, do you sell out to the parties you publicly
opposed using moral and political arguments?
"Accuracy in history is another point but no one seems to care about
that. And if real names are being used, why not keep it factual? I
also think this was a very Aussie story because our perspective as
outsiders was part of the impact we had on London at the time … so
why use English actors in the main roles? Can't Australians act as
Australians? … The script I read is a cliched attack on artists and hippies."
Mora directed Trouble in Molopolis, a fictional portrayal of the
Australians' storming of London, shot in 1969 and funded by his then
flatmate, Eric Clapton. Still held in the national archive in
Canberra, it starred many of the Oz protagonists, including Greer,
Neville and Sharp, as themselves.
Oz burst onto the Australian publishing scene in 1963 and launched
the work of some of Australia's best-known authors, critics and and
artists, from Robert Hughes and Greer to Sharp, Mora, Lillian Roxon,
Bob Ellis and Michael Leunig. The first edition, published on April
Fool's Day, contained irreverent drawings by Sharp of the Queen on
roller skates. Later, launched in London in 1967, Oz quickly gained a
huge underground following.
The movie focuses on Neville, Sharp and Jim Anderson's move to London
and the years following when Sharp drifted away. Felix Dennis, who
had then joined the group, brought in a group of high school students
to guest-edit the May 1970 issue. They produced a parody which
featured a highly sexualised image of Rupert Bear. Known as
Schoolkids OZ - and mistakenly interpreted as a publication for
children - issue number 28 came to the attention of the Obscene
Publications Squad, sparking a landmark legal battle in the Old
Bailey which was defended by John Mortimer, who was assisted by the
young Australian Geoffrey Robertson. It became the longest obscenity
trial in the history of English law.
The boys from Oz, who once turned up to court in school uniforms,
were initially sentenced to hard labour, but appeals led to their
sentences being commuted - so long as they ceased publication.
Neville says he was impressed with director Kidron's approach and
that she seemed determined to throw herself into it "and make a great
film … if it's not a good movie, nobody blames the book's author, anyway".
"And of course the film has the chattering classes chattering," he
said. "More than ever. That is how it should be, and why not?"