Shirley Barrett obituary: ‘She never stopped being the life of the party’ | australian movie

When Shirley Barrett’s feature debut, Love Serenade, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1996, she briefly found herself star of the month in Hollywood. Airlifted to Los Angeles for drinks and dinner with Warren Beatty and friends, Shirley went on to describe the visit as a series of hilarious embarrassments:

“Just as I was about to get in the car, he suddenly stretched out his arms in what I interpreted as a giddy way to be Warren’s way of saying ‘Let’s hug.’ everything, that’s what Americans do, isn’t it? I threw myself headlong into the arms of Warren Beatty. And just as I did, I was suddenly gripped by a terrible thought : Warren was just stretching.”

Respected filmmaker, television director and author Shirley Barrett died in Sydney on August 3 after a long illness.

Set in a small northern Victorian town called “Sunray”, Love Serenade tells the story of two off-world sisters, Dimity (Miranda Otto) and Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith), who are bewildered by the arrival of the new DJ in town, Ken Sherry (George Chevtsov). Sherry is aloof, controlling and predatory – although by the end of the film, we don’t know who is hunting who. Throw in a heart-pounding 1970s soundtrack from Barry White and you have an unlikely mix that perfectly captures the auteur’s sensibility.

Initially more popular overseas than in Australia, Love Serenade became canonical. Critic Guy Rundle described it in 2017 as “the best film made in Australia, a wise and perfectly judged thing”.

Shirley Barrett was born in 1961 and grew up in Melbourne. A sickly child, she was often required not to attend school. She and her older sister, my wife Karen, created stories and developed games. When Karen’s class studied Egypt at school, Shirley looked forward to her coming home each afternoon so they could continue to care for their dolls through the tribulations of Tutankhamun’s curse. From an early age she kept a journal, specializing in nonsense verse, an interest she maintained into adulthood, often regaling a captive audience at family lunches with the rhyming adventures of 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 in love with Chris – she fell in love with everything about Chris; Robinvale, the eventual location of Love Serenade, was his hometown. The couple moved to Sydney in 1985 when, on her third attempt, Shirley was accepted into the Australian Film Television and Radio School. She and Chris were married in Las Vegas in 1992 by an Elvis impersonator.

Love Serenade has earned Shirley praise, but also tough life choices. Hollywood came to woo, and while Shirley was flattered by the attention, she decided to stay in Australia. She and Chris had a baby girl to think about, with a second on the way. More importantly, she wanted to write and direct her films – and, as the misunderstanding with Beatty humorously illustrated, the United States was not a culture in which she thought she could write effortlessly. Although Shirley never regretted the decision to stay in Sydney, she understood it meant she was being overtaken by some of her contemporaries.

Yet David Geffen of DreamWorks wrote a hefty check for his next feature, Walk the Talk, released in 2001. Set in the seedy clubs and bars of the Gold Coast, it’s about dreamers and schemers, losers at two bit and rogue. -to hire. Like Love Serenade, the film is sui generis, and attracted many admirers. But DreamWorks lost its investment and did not release Walk the Talk in the United States.

Shirley’s third feature, South Solitary (2010), is a change of pace. Set in 1927, it again stars Miranda Otto 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 pier with lighthouse keeper Jake. Fleet (Marton Csokas), a damaged World War I veteran. Again, the film did not make any money, but it pleased many critics, and Shirley’s screenplay won numerous literary awards.

Meanwhile, Shirley had built another career in television, directing numerous episodes of shows such as Home and Away, Offspring and Love My Way. While not cultural milestones like her films aspired to be, Shirley enjoyed the camaraderie of the television set and was proud to get along with her crew as well as her cast.

But Shirley saved her biggest surprises for last. While researching an idea for a feature film on whaling culture in Eden on the south coast of New South Wales in the first decade of the 20th century, she realized that the challenge of raising investment for such a project would be overwhelming. Her mother suggested doing it as fiction instead, and the result was her 2015 debut novel, Rush Oh! George Davidson is Moby-Dick meets Pride and Prejudice meets My Brilliant Career.

Shirley’s second novel, The Bus on Thursday, is an original horror rom-com set in Talbingo in the Snowy Mountains (another location with Norris family ties). Its hero, Eleanor, a breast cancer survivor, travels to Talbingo as a substitute teacher for the holy Miss Barker, whose disappearance is one of many deep mysteries sucking her into their vortex.

The book was inspired by the experiences of Shirley’s friend Kate, who underwent surgery for breast cancer as a young woman, recovered, but struggled with the after effects. By a dark coincidence, Shirley herself was diagnosed with breast cancer while finishing the book, in 2017. As she later wrote:

“I would put ‘don’t write a cancer book’ right there with other government health guidelines, like how much alcohol you should drink if you don’t want to get cancer (none). Can writing a book about cancer give you cancer? Apparently! So that’s my first piece of advice: don’t do it. »

Shirley remained a source of delight and support for her family and friends throughout her illness, even as the disease spread through her bones and brain. Until her final weeks, she never stopped being the life of the party and was able to celebrate her 60th birthday with her extended family in November last year.

I’ve known Shirley Barrett since she was 15. While discussing this article with her, I asked her if she had any words to conclude:

“I feel like I’ve had a lucky and privileged life, even though I’m dying a little earlier than I would have liked.

“I had a loving family, a wonderful husband, beautiful children and a career where I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.”

Shirley Barrett is survived by her mother, Frances; his sister Karen and his brothers Graham and Andrew; and by Chris and their adult daughters, Sabrina and Emmeline.

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