It’s a sad fact of the movie making machine that women of a certain age get sidelined while the blokes seem to get away with leading roles even as their faces crumble.
Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald set about righting that wrong with Cloudburst, adapted from his own stage play, casting Oscar-wining actresses 68-year-old Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) and 82-year-old Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck, Tales of the City) as a lesbian couple of 31 years forced to flee the US and get hitched north of the border when meddling family gets in the way.
Dot (Fricker) hasn’t got round to telling her daughter Molly (Kristin Booth) that she and Dukakis (the truck driving, no-nonsense Stella) are in love. Molly puts her mum in a home and tricks Molly into signing over power of attorney.
Tackling marriage equality, love and ageing ungracefully, it’s a fun, light-hearted romp that touches on serious issues through two gleefully potty-mouthed central performances. It feels like a genuine breath of fresh air.
“I know a lot of women like Stella who have lived a long, hard life, and are feisty, bold, butch and loud, and I really wanted to see such a woman as a movie hero,” Fitzgerald says. “There aren’t a lot of senior citizen protagonists, and not a lot of women senior citizen protagonists, but certainly when you get down to the butch lesbian senior citizen, Olympia’s probably the first.”
As stoked as he was to get them on board, they were worried about the liberal swearing, from the ample “fucks” right up to the C-bomb, although Fitzgerald admits only half made it from the stage to the screen.
“They both sat me down individually before the shoot and expressed concern about the language in the film, whether or not they could bring themselves to say it, and whether or not their loyal audiences would embrace it coming out of their mouths,” he says. “But once they were allowed to curse on set, I couldn’t stop them. It feels good to let it out. Halfway through I realised they were both really enjoying shocking the crew.”
En route to Canada, they pick up troubled young hitchhiker Prentice, played by cute French-Canadian Ryan Doucette, making for an unlikely trio, but one enthused with both comic gold and an endearing charm.
“The chemistry between the three actors is fun,” Fitzgerald says. “The people in this world I admire the most are those that have a great sense of humour in the face of adversity. I wanted to instil these characters with that.”
One of three actors carried over from the stage show, Nova Scotian Doucette ‘s previous experience was as a mime. This was his first ‘speaking’ role.
“He’s very charming,” Fitzgerald says. “It was a great gift to have such a funny person sit in that tiny little truck with the two women for a long, hot month of shooting. He kept them laughing, and they really took to Ryan like moms.”
The play ran for five successful weeks in April 2010, before filming commenced in July that same year, in something of a quick turnaround.
“It was a great gift as a director to see the material in front of an audience for five weeks,” Fitzgerald says. “It was like a long rehearsal period, and I made a lot of little tweaks and adjustments.”
Cloudburst has proven popular on the festival circuit, scooping several jury and audience awards. Fitzgerald attributes that to the simplicity at the heart of Stella’s goal. “She’s just trying to keep her family together. I think everybody understands that and roots for her.”
He cannot understand why anyone would write off an older actor. “They’re not like athletes. What they’ve learned over a lifetime is still at their disposal. It’s a strange injustice they are often relegated to smaller roles.”
With Canada having recently celebrated ten years of marriage equality, and Nova Scotia having legalised a few years before that, Fitzgerald hopes Australia will catch up soon.
“I hear from some audiences that it seems like a utopian dream of what it would be like someday,” he says. “In Canada it started to happen province-by-province, now in America it’s state-by-state. When the majority make the decision, then Federal government usually steps in. We hardly remember the controversy.”
Stephen A Russell
Limited national screenings from July 11