Book review: Cast Mates, Sam Twyford-Moore

An examination of the relationship between Hollywood and the Australian film industry, via actors who have straddled them both.

At first glance it may seem that Sam Twyford-Moore has selected rather an eclectic group of Australian actors to be the focus of Cast Mates: Australian Actors in Hollywood and at Home. Where are the likes of Heath Ledger, Paul Hogan, Cate Blanchett, Chris Hemsworth, Hugh Jackman or Margot Robbie, you may find yourself asking. But it soon becomes apparent that this is a very considered and rigorous approach. Yes, he’s exploring the lives and careers of Errol Flynn, Peter Finch, David Gulpilil AM and Nicole Kidman, but the aim here is to contextualise them and their work in relation to Australia’s on and off relationship with Hollywood.

Chronologically, and in other ways that become clear as the book progresses, these are the perfect actors to investigate the local film industry and how, almost since the birth of cinema, Australian performers have tried their luck in Hollywood with greater or lesser success. How Hollywood has responded to them and what that then meant for their standing back home has varied over the decades, depending on the performer and, more pertinently, the state of the local industry at the time.

In this way, the book is a very different proposition to Aussiewood: Australia’s Leading Actors and Directors Tell How They Conquered Hollywood, Michaela Boland and Michael Bodey’s 2004 book, which focuses on a wider range of individuals, but also concentrates on their experiences in the US and the mechanics of their success there.

Twyford-Moore does have one notable name in common with Aussiewood – Nicole Kidman – but most of those other famously successful acting exports merely make cursory appearances along the way in his book, and then only as comparisons or to illustrate a point – a particularly pertinent one in the case of Hogan and his career trajectory contrasted with Gulpilil’s, for instance.

Cast Mates is divided into four main parts: ‘The Perfect Specimen’ (Errol Flynn), ‘The Forgotten Elite’ (Peter Finch), ‘The Right Stuff’ (David Gulpilil AM) and ‘The Interpreter’ (Nicole Kidman), along with a prologue ‘Sydney to Los Angeles and Back Again’ and an epilogue ‘Westward Expansion’. Twyford-Moore then dives deeply into each one of those chapters to illustrate where that actor sits in film history and why they exemplify those chapter headings.

He kicks off with Flynn – who was a huge star in his day, but today it’s debatable whether he’s best known for his glorious work in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood or his famously reprobate behaviour – the rape trial, the drinking and the early death. Twyford-Moore digs a little deeper than that to offer a portrait of a ne’er-do-well whose on-screen charm probably covered a multitude of, if not sins, then at least fairly self-centred motivations. And that’s not even touching on the accusations that Flynn may have been involved in slave trading:

‘Flynn cycled through a number of jobs in Papua New Guinea. One of them was certainly that of a “labour recruiter” or “blackbirder”, tasked with sailing up rivers, scouting for workers for a plantation on the volcanic Umboi Island.’

The chapter on Finch was perhaps the most revelatory for this reader, contextualising the actor’s legendary discomfort with Hollywood by revealing his most unconventional childhood and formative experiences. The fact that he wound up his career with that posthumous Oscar for being ‘as mad as Hell’ in his performance as Howard Beale in Network now all begins to make complete sense.

Disheartening, but sadly unsurprising, the experiences of Gulpilil reveal the forces of systemic racism and paternalism that overshadowed much of his career, but also the actor’s perspicacity, stoicism and wide-ranging talents – leading to those eventual triumphant roles with long-time collaborator Rolf de Heer.

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What’s especially pleasing about the book is the way Twyford-Moore has managed to balance his thorough research with reader-friendly information about the work, lives and loves of his subjects. But it’s never prurient or gossip magazine worthy. When he discusses the relationship of Kidman and Tom Cruise, he’s not doing it through a TMZ or even a New Idea lens; he’s only focusing on details that inform his overall analysis of the Australian film industry, the Hollywood film industry and how the two have met, diverged and briefly perhaps even merged across the last 90 or so years.

So the book is a terrific and juicy read, but it never feels like an intrusive or tacky one. Recommended.

Cast Mates: Australian Actors in Hollywood and at Home by Sam Twyford-Moore
Publisher: UNSW Press Ltd
ISBN: 9781742237541
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320 pp
Size: 210 x 135mm
Release date: July 2023
RRP: $34.99

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.