Mention Judy Davis, and immediately many women (and men) will say “My favorite actress.” I’m one of them. Born in Perth, Western Australia, her explosive debut at 23, straight from Sydney drama school, was the lead role in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), the story of a 16-year-old aspiring writer determined to get out of the bush. The movie launched both their careers, and instantly etched Davis as a unique screen presence. She represents the quintessential woman of her generation—firebrand existentialist defining herself on her own terms, striving not to mold herself to another’s image. Which is, of course, a paradox for an actress, but one from which, through her masterly acting skills, Davis is able to draw an electrifying tension. As the lead again in Armstrong’s High Tide (1988), about a back-up singer who’s reunited by chance with her long-abandoned teenage daughter in a coastal trailer park, Davis thrills with her portrayal of powerful complex emotions.
Not surprisingly, in spite of international acclaim, Davis’ aptly selected supporting roles show a preference for auteur films—Harriet in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Burroughs’ slain wife and a Jane Bowles pastiche in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, a ghostwriter-lover in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink. They also show a decided literary bent—the repressed Adele Quested in A Passage to India, (for which she received an Oscar nomination), Harriet Herriton in Where Angels Fear to Tread, the intransigent George Sand in Impromptu. On the screen (I didn’t get to meet her in person) Judy Davis’ face rivets with its lunar pallor and full-lipped sensuality. Yet a Judy Davis character—strong-willed, high-strung, contrary—radiates an emotional intelligence that’s always on the qui vive, edgy, subtle and intense, with an inner truthfulness that compounds her erotic appeal.
After a number of American films, Davis’ lead role in the current Children of the Revolution, also starring Sam Neill and Geoffrey Rush, seems ideally suited for her. It won her the Best Australian Actress Award for 1996. In this epic satire, set over four decades, Davis plays Joan Fraser, an ardent Australian communist who pens impassioned letters to Stalin (F. Murray Abraham). Her visit to Moscow and tryst with Stalin engenders a monstrous offspring who becomes head of the biggest law-enforcement agency in Australia, driving the country to the brink of civil war. Earlier this spring, seemingly eons after Communism’s global capitulation, I resignedly spoke long-distance to Davis in Los Angeles about this film’s revolutionary swan song and other matters pertinent to our full-blown capitalist times.