Thursday, May 24, 2007

Geoffrey Rush sweet in stardom

Flicked on the telly this morning and what should I see but Geoffrey Rush cooking pavlova with Martha Stewart.
Good heavens. Geoff the chef.
Well, of course, it is uphill with Martha Stewart. She has an annoying habit of having to one-up her guests - so of course she was making a rival pav and decorating it with fruit in the American colours. How rude, when she is supposed to be demonstrating an Australian tradition. Geoffrey looked a bit nonplussed. Geoffrey put bananas and lashings of passionfruit on his - to which Martha raised her authoritarian eyebrows.
"I've never heard of anyone putting bananas on a pavlova," she snapped.
Well, she, of all people, would have heard!
Geoffrey looked nonplussed again - and politely explained that it was sort of, er, well, popular where the pav came from.

Rush has been doing the talk circuit this week, promoting the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
I get a rush of Rush pride whenever I see him - elegant and urbane Australian actor that he is.
And I get a little thrill in knowing that way back there in the beginning, I had a little hand in his success.
Not that he was not always an exceptional actor. He was based in Adelaide back in the 80s where I reviewed him in State Theatre Company productions, interviewed him on occasion and even, finding him alone at the bar in the legendary La Cantina restaurant , sat down and had a drink with him one late, late night.
I'd admired him from the first time I saw him in the theatre. He is an outstanding stage actor - somehow defying the extraordinary gaunt angularity of his build to embody a veritable panoply of diverse characters. 'Twas ever a pleasure to watch him work.

How did I have a hand in his success?
Well - I wrote the article that inspired the film that won him the Oscar!

May 28, 1986. Page 3, Adelaide Advertiser
Out of the gloom, a genius reborn

Meeting pianist David Helfgott is like tumbling out of everyday life into a softly eccentric wonderland of sounds.

But David, 38, is a world unto himself -- and his tale is one of genius, tragedy and triumph.

The extraordinary WA musician has recently returned to the concert platform after a decade of psychiatric treatment and musical obscurity, shepherded by a woman's love. He is in Adelaide to give a recital at Edmund Wright House tonight.

Peering myopically through milk-bottle-bottom lenses, he proffered a warm, long-fingered hand and his murmurous voice began a strange rhythmic exploration of the sound of new names: "Sssam-sam-samela-sam..."

Then, as if magnetically drawn to the piano, he sat at the sleek Steinway, caressed its keys and filled the ornate old room with the intricate sounds of Liszt's La Campella while transforming his name-refrain into friendly serenade.

Rocking on the piano stool, sometimes bowing his head to the keys, singing, sighing and occasionally asking for a cigarette -- yet never interrupting the fluidity of his music -- he resembled no other concert pianist.

As the musical prodigy son of impoverished Polish migrants, David Helfgott was, at 12, the youngest to enter the ABC's annual WA State concerto and vocal competitions, which he went on to win six times.

At 14, he was the youngest to reach the Commonwealth finals and he pursued a brilliant career to be assessed at 19 in London as a "near-genius" talent. His performance of the Liszt Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall received a standing ovation from an audience of 8000.

Soon afterwards Helfgott suffered a serious nervous breakdown. On his return to Perth in 1973, he was admitted to hospital and his psychiatric and drug treatments lasted 10 gloomy years.

He continued privately to play the piano, sometimes for 10 hours a day, in his cramped lodge where he lived with 60 other psychiatric patients.

His musical career was surprisingly revived in 1983 when a Perth restaurateur, Dr. Chris Reynolds, asked him to fill in for a sick pianist.

Nervously chain-smoking, he produced a few discordant two-fingered sounds on the restaurant's piano, and as the diners began to jeer, he launched into Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee.

It was an historic night at Riccardo's restaurant. Diners, drinkers and staff were stopped in their tracks. They gave a thunderous ovation -- and Helfgott played on for four hours of non-stop classics.

Helfgott was "adopted" by the restaurateur and it was while living in his home that he met visiting divorcee Gillian Murray. At their second meeting he proposed to her and within months they were married.

But he was subsisting unhealthily on 130 cigarettes and 25 cups of coffee a day and prescribed medication, while playing piano three times a week at the restaurant.

Since their meeting in 1984, Gillian has gradually limited his smoking to less than one packet a day, reduced his coffee intake to a maximum of five cups, eliminated his need for medication and strengthened his bowed and lean body with a shared regimen of swimming, jogging and yoga.

Mrs. Helfgott described her husband as "an absolutely unforgettable, irresistibly endearing, hopelessly impractical genius who does not know meanness or dishonesty."

She nurtures him like a rare flower, believing that "fine performers need special care and support so they can blossom to full potential."

Of his wife, Helfgott said she had restored his confidence and blessed him with the sweet fortune to resume the career he loved.

After his "return" tour of Australia, the Helfgotts will leave for a study tour of Britain and Europe and then, according to Mrs. Helfgott, Australia can look forward to hearing much more from "one of the few truly romantic pianists in the world."

On reading this story in the paper, film director Scott Hicks telephoned me and asked "is this man for real?" I assured him enthusiastically that David Helfgott was very much for real, had been quite the most extraordinary extraordinary to meet - and confirmed where Helfgott was playing that night. Scott subsequently excused himself from his wife's birthday party to leap off to hear Helfgott - and Shine was born - wherein, a decade later, Geoffrey Rush's name soared from the world of Australian theatre and into the shimmering lights of international movie stardom.

So, I like to think I was a little acorn...


Anonymous said...

It was a nice story to read and to get to know the person responsible for the Helfgott story. Thanks!

meeyauw said...

Thank you for doing your part in creating that movie. When I saw it I was stunned. Being a pianist (I shouldn't use that term but have no other), and having a son who is a genuine pianist, it has become one of my favorite movies. It continues to be on my mind at odd times in life (like when I am overwhelmed or worn out).

Thank you for your blog, also.