Phillip Noyce directs a scene in his film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Phillip Noyce: Backroads to Hollywood

By Ingo Petzke

Pan Macmillan, $45

The arc of Phillip Noyce's career as a filmmaker is fascinating. As the director of Newsfront (1978) and to a lesser extent Backroads (1977) and Heatwave (1982), he came to prominence as an important figure in the so-called 1970s renaissance of Australian cinema.

Unlike some of his peers, he wore his politics on his sleeve and was best known for Newsfront. Starring evergreens Bill Hunter, Chris Haywood and Bryan Brown, as well as Gerard Kennedy, it's a film that epitomises something of the spirit of the times, with its celebration of an Australian industry determined to succeed on its own terms.

Backroads and Heatwave were both genre films, but they pulled no punches in the way they dealt with some of the controversial issues of their time. Co-starring Hunter and black rights activist Gary Foley, Backroads is a road movie forthright in its depiction of the tensions between white and black Australia. And featuring Judy Davis alongside Richard Moir, Heatwave is an adventurous thriller loosely based on the case of Sydney publisher, heiress and activist Juanita Nielsen, whose 1975 disappearance turned the spotlight on big business, organised crime and police corruption.

But then, after Dead Calm (1989), shot off the Queensland coast and pitting Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill against a deliciously psycho Billy Zane, Noyce went to Hollywood. What followed in the decade from 1989 to 1999 were half a dozen comfortably budgeted thrillers, the most popular of which were Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), both adapted from the Jack Ryan series by right-wing novelist Tom Clancy.

For some, Noyce had sold out, setting aside his politics in order to further his career. There might be some truth to the accusation, although it also reeks of the erroneous notion that Hollywood films never leave room for politics. These days he responds to the charges by simply shrugging his shoulders, indicating that with films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), a drama about Australia's "stolen generation", and The Quiet American (2002), based on Graham Greene's novel about underhand US activities in South-East Asia, he's now returned to the paths of the righteous.

Whatever one makes of Noyce's move to America and what happened afterwards, one shouldn't look to Ingo Petzke's book for any special enlightenment about it. Backroads to Hollywood certainly earns its place on the bookshelf, but remains far too close to its affable subject. It also lacks the critical methodology to deal with his work in anything other than the most superficial way. There are few insights into Noyce's films, as Petzke is content to skim across their surfaces rather than look beyond them.

There are no wide shots here. Rather than seeing Noyce's career in any broader cultural context - as one of countless filmmakers who've been drawn to Hollywood from afar since the birth of the cinema, or even as one of the many Australians who've travelled there in the past 25 years - everything is presented in close-up.

A stronger editorial hand might have helped. We clearly could have done without some of the material included in the ill-advised introductory chapter about "Phillip Noyce - The Man". The personal profile presented here would be at home in any gossip magazine.

A brief sample, dealing with Petzke's visit to Noyce's Los Angeles home: "Unexpectedly, perhaps, there are no maids, cooks or other domestic servants. Instead we often sat at a small table in the kitchen and ate food Jan (Noyce's wife) had prepared. Afterwards Phil would wash the dishes.

"The routine is the same even when more illustrious guests than this author are invited to dinner. Unless it's a barbecue of course. Then Phillip, the true-blue Aussie, will take over the cooking and throw another steak on the barbie." Oh, please.

That fan flattery out of the way, though, close-ups can sometimes be revealing too. And to the extent that Petzke's book provides, as promised in the introduction, "a good old-fashioned oral history", it is a worthwhile enterprise. It includes production histories for all of the 54-year-old filmmaker's work, including extensive interview material that allows Noyce to recount his experiences in the film and TV industries on either side of the Pacific and to reflect on his work for both.

He's a good tale-teller and he speaks at length about the production forces that have had an impact on his films (there are some great stories about his fun and games with Clancy and the CIA) as well as about various of his collaborators (such as Harrison Ford, on the Jack Ryan films, and Joe Eszterhas and Sharon Stone, on Sliver). Anyone interested in the kinds of pressures under which filmmakers go about their business will find plenty of meaty first-hand testimony.

The book has also been impressively researched, Petzke seeking out several of Noyce's collaborators for comment (although there are some notable absences, such as Gary Foley, his daughter's godfather). And, on the CD neatly packaged into the book's back cover, there's a fine collection of photos and a comprehensive filmography - including Noyce's TV credits for series from The Dismissal to Tru Calling - and also a remarkably detailed bibliography.

One is left with the nagging feeling, however, that Noyce's fascinating career might have been better served by an autobiography. Given the absence of any probing critical perspective in Petzke's account, his journey from Backroads to Hollywood and then back home again (where he is working on an adaptation of Tim Winton's Dirt Music) might have been more effectively presented in the first person.

Tom Ryan is film reviewer for The Sunday Age.