SEX­U­AL­ITY AND THE CITY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

CAR­LOTTA, the story of how a work­ing-class boy called Richard By­ron grew up to be­come a fa­mous show­girl, a Kings Cross leg­end and a coura­geous sym­bol of gen­er­a­tional change, push­ing the bound­aries of sex­u­al­ity and gen­der, turns out to be a sur­pris­ingly ten­der fairy story. And the supremely tal­ented Jes­sica Marais brings off the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble task of play­ing a man who is re­ally a woman in­side a man, who wants to be­come a woman. She does it with a sub­dued but un­quench­able sen­su­al­ity while at the same time por­tray­ing the high­est camp with dis­arm­ing un­af­fect­ed­ness.

Un­der Samantha Lang’s won­der­fully evoca­tive di­rec­tion, Car­lotta also brings back mem­o­ries of the Syd­ney of the late 1960s, with the hip­pies, the Chil­dren of God, the old-timers with their walk­ing sticks and poo­dles and the bodgie busi­ness­men with strip joints and drag shows and blue movie houses. ( A round of ap­plause, too, dar­lings, for pro­duc­tion de­signer Mur­ray Pick­nett and di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Toby Oliver.)

At the cor­ner of Roslyn Street in Kings Cross, near the foun­tain end of Dar­linghurst Road, to the right was the site of the Pal­la­dium and the once-leg­endary Les Girls trans­sex­ual re­vue (“Ever been picked up by the fuzz, girls? It bloody hurts, doesn’t it?”). The se­quins, feath­ers, vel­vet and glit­ter balls have dis­ap­peared, along with the po­lice who took ex­cep­tion to the girls’ sense of virtue, but they all come crowd­ing back so lustily in Car­lotta. I some­times dropped in when I used to stay at the Sebel Ho­tel, just down ad­ja­cent Ward Av­enue.

The Sebel was re­garded by the film, tele­vi­sion and ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­tries as a pri­vate sana­to­rium in the pub­lic place of the big city. Its show­biz bar was the cheap­est form of en­ter­tain­ment in town. There was wickedly bent hu­mour, too, at Les Girls. “My name’s Car­lotta,” the cock­tail-frocked front act said. “I’m your com­pere. Don’t worry, we won’t close the door and make you one of us.” Mi­cro­phone in hand, she pa­raded out to the ta­bles. “How are you, dar­ling, you gor­geous thing? Lot of bleach hap­pen­ing at this ta­ble. There’s enough to clean the bath­rooms at the Sebel.”

Car­lotta’s sly wit and las­civ­i­ous in­nu­endo are on full dis­play in this fine pro­duc­tion from Ric­cardo Pel­lizzeri ( Un­der­belly) and Lara Radulovich ( Went­worth), but it’s less scabrous than I had imag­ined, more a sen­si­tive story about iden­tity, the in­dis­sol­u­ble bonds of fam­ily, as well as the of­ten unlovely places found within, and es­pe­cially tol­er­ance and ac­cep­tance.

In 1959, 16-year-old Richard, a lit­tle fond of his mother’s lin­gerie, flees his abu­sive, in­tol­er­ant step­fa­ther, the stolid Peter (Ryan John­son), and sub­mis­sive and con­fused mum Eve­lyn (Anita Hegh). He finds a wel­com­ing home in racy Kings Cross, al­ready a myth­i­cal place where free­dom and de­bauch­ery could be pur­sued at the same time. Cross-dress­ing and per­form­ing, the once sex­u­ally con­fused in­no­cent be­comes Carol Lee, and af­ter il­le­gal hor­mone treat­ment the ir­re­press­ible Car­lotta is born. De­sired, im­i­tated and feted, she reigns at shady im­pre­sario Sammy Lee’s (Alan Dukes) Les Girls for three decades.

There is a qual­ity of fairy­tale in David Han­nam’s sleek, un­clut­tered script and fre­quent ev­i­dence of a fine di­rec­tor who un­der­stands this story and em­pathises with it. There are clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood-style cam­era move­ments, ef­fec­tive with­out call­ing at­ten­tion to them­selves, the di­rec­tion and pho­tog­ra­phy al­ways at that point where life and art meet, and from which any veer­ing off in one di­rec­tion would spell drab nat­u­ral­ism.

Lang gets the dark magic of the fairy story just right, the slightly stylised scenic treat­ment of the cruel mother and cru­eller step­fa­ther, self­ish and drab, and then the ap­pear­ance of fairy god­mother, Miss Cruz, the cabaret mis­tress (Caro­line O’Con­nor). With her fu­ri­ous, clenched en­ergy she res­cues the con­fused, be­lea­guered child and trans­forms her into a princess. Then, in­stead of a hand­some knight, she gives her a won­der­ful vo­ca­tion, a pur­pose.

And in true fairy-story fash­ion she finds ac­cep­tance in the end. “It’s al­ways been about love and ac­cep­tance,” she says. “But when it’s all said and done, the only love that mat­ters is mine. And if some­one else chooses to love you, well, that’s a bonus.” She gives us a fin­ish wor­thy of any great diva, launch­ing into a fab­u­lous rou­tine to Shirley Bassey’s This is My Life.

And, as in all fairy­tales, there is good and evil, em­bod­ied in sim­ply drawn char­ac­ters, and a lin­ear plot that of­fers as­sur­ance all dif­fi­cul­ties in life can be mas­tered by the right at­ti­tude and courage. It may sound sim­plis­tic, but Lang turns Car­lotta into a highly in­tel­li­gent, warm, funny and morally en­gag­ing piece of classy TV.

Few gen­der il­lu­sion­ists were as skilled as Car­lotta at cop­ing with so­cial marginal­ity; she made a ca­reer out of cel­e­brat­ing it, daz­zlingly ne­go­ti­at­ing her con­tra­dic­tory sta­tus of ad­mired yet alien­ated per­former. “The stage is our boudoir; the au­di­ence is our lover — do it right and it will be the most en­dur­ing of love af­fairs,” Miss Cruz tells her as she be­gins train­ing Carol, trans­form­ing her into the stat­uesque, li­bidi­nous Car­lotta. “If you give them ev­ery­thing, your imag­i­na­tion, your body, your beau­ti­ful face, you can be any­thing you want to be.” ANDREW Win­ter, host of the pop­u­lar and award-win­ning se­ries Sell­ing Houses Aus­tralia, knows about sell­ing, too. I first saw him un­cov­er­ing in­ter­na­tional property hor­rors in Bri­tish se­ries Sell­ing Houses Abroad. A se­ries of res­cue mis­sions, as Win­ter tried to help home­own­ers who couldn’t sell their prop­er­ties, it was ir­re­sistible re­al­ity tele­vi­sion. He was com­pellingly frank and of­ten al­most com­i­cally bru­tal in his as­sess­ments. And his crit­i­cal ap­praisal was usu­ally met with op­po­si­tion, wherein lies the en­ter­tain­ment of much of the property TV genre.

If Sarah Beeny of Property Lad­der fame made a for­tune by say­ing, “I wouldn’t do that; I’d do this if I were you” — Win­ter ac­quired his with ex­cla­ma­tions of “Oh my god, what is this?” Or “Get rid of it all.” And, per­haps most per­ti­nently, “This house won’t sell for any more than it’s worth.” All re­cur reg­u­larly on Sell­ing Houses Aus­tralia in which Win­ter and his team, in­te­rior de­signer Shaynna Blaze and land­scape de­signer Char­lie Albone, take on ex­treme cases, the hard­est-to-sell houses in this coun­try, the “plain Janes” as Shaynna calls them.

It’s the high­est rat­ing pay-TV se­ries out­side of sport. Win­ter and his cronies have turned property into a new spec­ta­tor sport, some­times fright­en­ing and deeply hum­bling for any­one who thinks they know any­thing about their own home. They re­turn in In­side Sell­ing Houses Aus­tralia, seven years af­ter they ap­peared on our TV screens, re­liv­ing their big­gest chal­lenges and trans­for­ma­tions and swap­ping their war sto­ries. They’ve sold 70 sup­pos­edly un­sellable prop­er­ties, more than $40 mil­lion worth of real es­tate. It’s taken 10,000 litres of paint, 4000 hours of land­scap­ing hours and 40,000 plants, about 300 new floors and, says Win­ter, “at least two mil­lion cush­ions”.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing for­mat, as much ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary as quasi-ed­u­ca­tional property se­ries, with Andrew, Shaynna and the re­doubtable Char­lie of­ten sort­ing out own­ers’ per­sonal prob­lems as well: the no­tion of TV as so­cial worker is of­ten at play. The con­fected melo­drama is al­ways nicely con­trolled and never over­pow­ers the sense of re­al­ism — though you al­ways won­der just how many ex­tra trades­men are on call dur­ing the three days of film­ing.

It’s a struc­ture that al­lows the ex­plo­ration of hubris, where fail­ure is a valu­able part of the show; af­ter all, no one wants to ad­mit they made a mis­take or botched a de­ci­sion. This is a show that op­er­ates in a moral world where those who ig­nore ad­vice are pun­ished by fate and those who don’t are hap­pily re­warded. It’s clever TV, as big on en­ter­tain­ment as it is on prac­ti­cal in­struc­tion. As Win­ter and his en­gag­ing team drive their in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the avail­abil­ity and emo­tional and fi­nan­cial suit­abil­ity of var­i­ous houses, they never lose sight of the im­per­a­tive of send­ing them­selves up.

Jes­sica Marais plays Car­lotta

in Samantha Lang’s film

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