Down Under on Top

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When at last it became clear that, after 132 years, Australia II was going to pry loose the venerable America's Cup from its clannish protectors at the New York Yacht Club, the sirens on Rhode Island Sound off Newport wailed and wailed. As the sleek 12-meter yacht sliced across the finish line, the crew dropped the sails and embraced, and pandemonium spilled over the water. Boats filled with joyful spectators hurtled toward Australia II and all but swamped their darling. Approaching the dock area, aswarm with all manner of craft, from rubber rafts and kayaks to jammed cabin cruisers, the victors were greeted by a tuxedoed wind surfer toasting them with champagne, as well as by their faithful fan Kev Koala, who was prancing about with a scantily clad blonde dolled up in a kangaroo cape. In the eye of the madness, Ben Lexcen, designer of the secret, winged keel that had made all the difference, was an island of calm. When asked how he was, he said, "Starved." Asked why his boat goes so fast downwind, with a puckish grin he replied, "God."

Lexcen's answers were just right. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win in the seventh and final race, thereby severing the skein of 24 consecutive American victories since 1851, the Aussie yacht did seem divine. And certainly, Australia II, the dazzlingly white, $3.5 million symbol of a country with a heretofore profound inferiority complex, was hungry—no, "starved"—for victory.

Yet the truth is—to lapse for the moment into "Oz," the going argot in "Oz" tralia—we've not said hoo roo (bye-bye) to the folks Down Under. Rather, it seems that we've just begun to exchange giddays (hellos). For the Aussies have not only vanquished the pride of our armada at Newport, they have also landed on a flood tide of records, movies and books to establish the Age of Australia. Not that they weren't always charmingly among us. Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees are no strangers to the Top 40; actors Peter Finch and Errol Flynn were dinkum (authentic) stars in the Hollywood firmament; and, of course, there were always those fabulous tennis players, Evonne Goolagong, Rod Laver and that like.

But we're talking invasion here. The Aussies may just be the hottest thing to hit these shores since the Boys from Liverpool in the 1960s. Only the Aussies want to do more than hold our hand. The bow wave from Australia II should wash a raft of Aussie artifacts into U.S. stores in the next few months—everything from Vegemite (a yeast-extract sandwich spread the Down Under types wolf down like peanut butter) to Swan Lager (from the brewery owned by Alan Bond, Australia It's millionaire team captain) to fashions inspired by the Outback's austere splendor. "Paris has haute couture," says prominent Sydney designer Linda Jackson, 33. "And Australia has Bush Couture." For men, Outback Chic will consist of stockman's raincoats (long waterproof cowboy coats that snap closed at the leg for easy riding), moleskin trousers (durable brushed cotton jean-like pants), sheep shearer shirts (woolen oversize long-sleeved ones) and slouchy-looking digger (soldier) hats. For sheilas (girls), there will be the likes of Linda Jackson's designs, which she describes as "big shapes with definite oriental flavor"—although the inspiration is aboriginal. Jenny Kee, 36, Jackson's former partner and the other Aussie designer starting to have international impact, performs her magic in silk: She weaves kangaroo designs and Outback scenes through a maze of colors. Filene's in Boston (contemplating a storewide Australian promotion), trendy New York boutique Farfalla's (featuring Aussie fashions and jewelry) and Koala Blue in L.A., owned by none other than Newton-John, have already taken a punt (gambled) on Bush Couture. Livvy's place, which opens this week, will run an Australian-style milk bar on the premises and carry a range of books and magazines perpetrated in Oz, as well as handpainted fabrics and wooden bracelets of the Tiwi, an aboriginal tribe from Melville Island. Says Diana Stirling, Livvy's store manager, "This is the first time a whole country is represented in a boutique."

As everybody who's not a bloody galah (stupid person) knows by now, a far better place to see more of Australia is at the movies. Impresario Michael Edgely, co-producer of Phar Lap, a new $7-million film (Australia's most expensive ever) based on the story of the fabulous horse that was shipped to the U.S. in 1932 and died mysteriously, remembers his first visit to America a dozen years ago. "Everyone thought that kangaroos hopped down the main street of Sydney," he says. "Now people know there's something more going on than that." Since then Australian films have been almost ockerish (tending to overdo the Australian bit) in mining the nation's past. There have been projects like the syndicated TV miniseries Against the Wind, which have explored the nation's first years as a penal colony, as well as films such as 1977's The Last Wave and 1978's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which have paid homage to the aboriginals and examined their conflict with the Europeans who came to displace them. Lately, the plight of the pioneering sheilas has been examined in 1977's The Getting of Wisdom and 1979's My Brilliant Career. In the still blatantly chauvinistic Aussie business world, as in the U.S., few female film directors have risen to prominence. One who has is Gillian Armstrong, 32, director of Career and, more recently, Starstruck, a punk-rock musical comedy. She remembers a film school instructor looking directly at her in class one day and saying, "You are all going to end up butchers' wives in Nunawading"—referring to an especially blah suburb of Melbourne.

It's not all that hard to figure out why we septic tanks (rhymes with Yanks) have lost our blocks (heads) over Aussie movies. The common language helps, of course. But there's more to it. Says Phillip Noyce, director of News-front and Heatwave: "The low budgets have forced Australians to make films about people and their private moments because they can't afford to stage big battle scenes or make expensive special effects." What's more, for Americans, the feeling of intimacy is laced with nostalgia. Says Kirk Douglas, who starred in this year's The Man From Snowy River: "Australia gives you an idea of how it might have been in America 55 years ago. There's a rougher, more genuine feeling to that country." Stone the crows (Wow)! You can go home again!

There is a strong sense in the Australian cinema of ensemble playing. Nevertheless, certain names generate greater wattage than others. Especially hot just now are Mel Gibson, 27, a transplanted American who found fame in the after-the-apocalypse thrillers Mad Max and The Road Warrior, and Bryan Brown, 36, who went from Breaker Morant to the Masterpiece Theatre production of A Town Like Alice to TV's The Thorn Birds. (An up-and-comer is Judy Davis, 27, of My Brilliant Career.) Both are sought after by Aussie and American producers alike. The irony is that many homegrown actors had to leave Australia to get their first work. Says Bryan Brown, who fled to England at 24, "When I grew up there was no such thing as an Australian actor. Australians either sheared sheep or became doctors—we didn't consider the creative arts as an alternative. Actors to me were John Wayne, Rin Tin Tin and Lassie."

Surprisingly, most film historians credit the Aussies with making the first feature film—a 66-minute, 1906 epic entitled The Story of the Kelly Gang, about the country's most notorious outlaws. But by the end of World War II, with U.S. studios in the ascendancy, homemade films were crowded out of the marketplace. Or, worse, they became bland imitations of Hollywood. Then in the early 1970s, the government tried to revive the industry by awarding grants and creating the Australian Film and Television School, which turned out an extra grouse (first-rate) lot of directors: Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi and Noyce. "We now have established that Australians can make movies about the way they live for the rest of the world," says Beresford, whose credits include Breaker Morant, Puberty Blues and Tender Mercies. "The momentum won't stop."

The momentum has carried over, in fact, to the music industry, where it has reached a crescendo in the extraordinary success of Men at Work, whose smash-hit single Down Under was the unofficial national anthem at Newport. The band's first album, the breezy, reggae-inspired Business As Usual, sold over four million copies in the U.S., and the follow-up, Cargo, has just reached the two million mark. But Men at Work's success is no overnight triumph. Like many other Australian groups, the band started out in the pubs of Sydney and Melbourne, the country's twin centers of pop. "It's a very competitive market," says Russell Deppeler, the group's manager. "Bands have to be able to play well to survive in it." Adds Colin Hay, the group's lantern-jawed lead singer: "Australian rock has that hungry, wired, live feel. It comes from playing in pubs for three or four years. That kind of makes you mean." Naturally, Men at Work, like other Aussie bands, traces its origins to the Beatles, who lobbed (dropped) into Australia in the mid-'60s and proceeded to set the place on its ear. "We did consciously ape America and England until we found our own sound," says Glen Baker, Australian correspondent for Billboard magazine. "But we had the best parts of it—we were very selective." What was exported from those years, however, was a kind of middle-of-the-road sound—the music of the Bee Gees, for instance—which pleased English and American ears but which, according to Baker, missed the Australian pulse. "The Australian tradition," he says, "is guts, blood, sweat and kicking ass. What Australian music comes down to is a thunderous roar."

And where better to practice it than in the pubs, where the mates hunker down with the singing syrup (booze) and cop (ogle) the Charlie wheelers (rhymes with sheilas)? Indeed, says Peter McIan, Men at Work's LP producer: "There is an element of Darwinism in the bands that survive the pub scene. All the music needed to be successful in the U.S. was a place to be heard."

That came in 1982, when Men at Work met MTV, America's 24-hour cable-TV music channel. Luckily, the pioneering Australians had already perfected their videos for Down Under domestic TV. When Men at Work appeared on MTV, there was instant response from the American record-buying public—and the group's career in the U.S. was launched.

Now, inspired by Men at Work's success, other groups are waiting in the wings: INXS (pronounced "in excess"), a stylish dance band; the Oz art-pop band Split Enz; the electro-pop group Icehouse; political rockers Midnight Oil; the hard rockers of Cold Chisel; the cheery pub-rock wise-guys called Mental as Anything; and the Divinyls, whose female lead singer, Christina Amphlett, 27, has been described as Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann doing Patti Smith. All these groups still play the pub circuit as a way of staying in touch with their audience. "You can't have corporate rock in Australia," says INXS singer Michael Hutchence, 23. "In America, you have to convince your audience you're way above them—the bigger your ego, the more they love it. In Australia, they don't like it at all. You've got to be a regular bloke."

For years the land of Oz has suffered from what natives called "cultural cringe"—the feeling of being inescapably second-rate. Now, suddenly, thanks to a secret keel, a handful of splendid films and a winning sound, Australians need no longer think of themselves as drongos (slow learners) with defective melons (heads). Yet a certain nervousness persists. "The great fear is that the creativity may fade," says director Peter (The Year of Living Dangerously) Weir, "that the nucleus of people may lose the drive, inspiration and madness that has carried us so far." Adds producer Michael Edgely, "We're in a wonderful position to capitalize on the impact we've made. We must grasp that and use it to our benefit. Now, I don't know what the answer is, but we seem to be the trendy country these days. Americans look on Australia as the last great frontier—and that must be terribly attractive."

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