SEXUALITY AND THE CITY
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