When Shirley Barrett’s first feature film, Love Serenade, won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1996, she found herself briefly flavour of the month in Hollywood. Flown to LA to wine and dine with Warren Beatty and his friends, Shirley later portrayed the visit as a series of hilarious embarrassments:
“Just as I was about to get into the car, he suddenly held out his arms wide in what I dizzily interpreted to be Warren’s way of saying ‘Let’s hug’. After all, that’s what Americans do, don’t they? I threw myself headlong into Warren Beatty’s arms. And just as I did, I was suddenly gripped by a terrible thought: Warren was just stretching.”
A respected film-maker, television director and author, Shirley Barrett died in Sydney on 3 August after a long illness.
Set in a small northern Victorian town called ‘Sunray,’ Love Serenade tells of two unworldly sisters, Dimity (Miranda Otto) and Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith), who are discombobulated by the arrival of the town’s new DJ, Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov). Sherry is aloof, controlling and predatory – though by the film’s close we are uncertain who is hunting whom. Add a throbbing 1970s soundtrack from Barry White and you have an unlikely mix that perfectly captures the sensibility of the auteur.
Initially more appreciated overseas than in Australia, Love Serenade has become canonical. Critic Guy Rundle described it in 2017 as “the best movie made in Australia, a demure and perfectly judged thing.”
Shirley Barrett was born in 1961 and raised in Melbourne. A sickly child, she was often kept home from school. She and her older sister, my wife Karen, created stories and elaborate games. When Karen’s class was studying Egypt at school, Shirley waited impatiently for her to come home every afternoon so they could continue to nurse their dolls through the tribulations of Tutankhamun’s Curse. From an early age she kept a journal, specialising in nonsense-verse, an interest she maintained into adulthood, often regaling captive audiences at family lunches with the rhymed adventures of the household pets.
In 1981, while studying at the University of Melbourne, Shirley went to a party and met an art student, Chris Norris, who became the love of her life. Typically for Shirley, she didn’t just fall for Chris – she fell for everything about Chris; Robinvale, the eventual location for Love Serenade, was his home town. The couple moved to Sydney in 1985 when, on her third attempt, Shirley was accepted at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. She and Chris were married in Las Vegas in 1992 by an Elvis impersonator.
Love Serenade brought Shirley acclaim, but difficult life-choices as well. Hollywood came courting, and while Shirley was flattered by the attention, she decided to remain in Australia. She and Chris had a baby girl to think about, with a second on the way. Even more important, she wanted to write as well as direct her films – and, as the misunderstanding with Beatty humorously illustrated, the US was not a culture she felt she could effortlessly write into. Though Shirley never regretted the decision to stay in Sydney, she understood it meant she was overtaken by some of her contemporaries.
Still, David Geffen from DreamWorks wrote a large cheque for her next feature, Walk the Talk, which was released in 2001. Set in the seedy clubs and bars of the Gold Coast, it tells of dreamers and schemers, two-bit losers and thugs-for-hire. Like Love Serenade, the film is sui generis, and attracted plenty of admirers. But DreamWorks lost its investment and did not release Walk the Talk in the US.
Shirley’s third feature, South Solitary (2010), is a change of pace. Set in 1927, it stars Miranda Otto once again, as Meredith, a lonely young woman with a complicated past who accompanies her uncle George (Barry Otto) to take charge of a lighthouse on a remote island, where she is thrown with lighthouse keeper Jake Fleet (Marton Csokas), a damaged WWI veteran. Again, the film did not make money, but it pleased many critics, and Shirley’s script won a number of literary prizes.
Meanwhile, Shirley had been building another career for herself in television, directing numerous episodes of shows such as Home and Away, Offspring and Love My Way. While these were not cultural milestones in the way her films aspired to be, Shirley loved the camaraderie of the TV set, and prided herself on getting along with her crew as well as with her cast.
But Shirley saved her biggest surprises for last. Researching an idea for a feature film on the whaling culture in Eden on the NSW south coast, in the first decade of the 20th century, she realised the challenge of raising the investment for such a project would be overwhelming. Her mum suggested doing it as fiction instead, and the result was her first novel, Rush Oh!, in 2015. Primly narrated by Mary Davidson, spinster-in-waiting and eldest daughter of Eden’s heroic whaler George Davidson, it’s Moby-Dick meets Pride and Prejudice meets My Brilliant Career.
Shirley’s second novel, The Bus on Thursday, is a quirky horror-romcom set at Talbingo in the Snowy Mountains (another location with Norris family connections). Its hero, Eleanor, a breast-cancer survivor, goes to Talbingo as a replacement teacher for the saintly Miss Barker, whose disappearance is one of many deepening mysteries that suck her into their vortex.
The book was inspired by the experiences of Shirley’s friend Kate, who had surgery for breast cancer as a young woman, recovered, but struggled with the after-effects. In a grim coincidence, Shirley herself was diagnosed with breast cancer as she was completing the book, in 2017. As she later wrote:
“I would put ‘don’t write a book about cancer’ right up there with other government health guidelines, like how much alcohol you should consume if you don’t want to get cancer (none). Can writing a book about cancer give you cancer? Apparently! So that’s my first tip: don’t.”
Shirley remained a source of fun and support to her family and friends throughout her illness, even as the disease spread through her bones and her brain. Until her final weeks she never stopped being the life of the party and was able to celebrate her 60th birthday with extended family in November last year.
I’ve known Shirley Barrett since she was 15. Discussing this article with her, I asked if she had any words in conclusion:
“I feel I’ve had a lucky and privileged life, even though I’m dying a bit earlier than I’d have liked to.
“I’ve had a loving family, a wonderful husband, beautiful kids, and a career where I’ve been able to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do. I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything.”
Shirley Barrett is survived by her mother, Frances; her sister Karen and brothers Graham and Andrew; and by Chris and their adult daughters, Sabrina and Emmeline.