Retro Review: Don’s Party

Don’s Party (1976)

Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by David Williamson
Produced by Phillip Adams, David Barrow
Starring Ray Barrett, Clare Binney, Pat Bishop, Graeme Blundell, Jeanie Drynan, John Hargreaves, Harold Hopkins, Graham Kennedy, Veronica Lang and Candy Raymond

Review by David Morgan-Brown:

Director Bruce Beresford began his film career with an ocker comedy (The Adventures of Barry MacKensie and its sequel), as did writer David Williamson (with Stork). With the two combined, they created a movie that mixed the crassness of the sub-genre along with a biting satire of the middle class. Don’s Party, based on Williamson’s stageplay, is a “bottle film” standing on the strengths of its fine acting and dialogue, as this film takes place over the course of one night at one location and is completely enthralling from start to finish. The premise is simple: Don is throwing a party at his house, in celebration of the ’69 election and in hopes the Labor party with Gough Whitlam will win against the Liberal party with John Gorton (who makes a brief one-shot cameo at the beginning of the film). Many of his guests are Labor supporters, though two are Liberal supporters and some others are indifferent.

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It’s only in the first third of the film that there is plenty of commotion about the election, which dominates the relatively sober conversations. In the second third, it’s forgotten about as the characters get even more drunk and rowdy, but it is brought up at one point (while the fellows are pissing on Don’s plants) that their preferred PM might not be elected after all. The third act is entirely without political talk, the conversation shifts to more personally prickly discussions. Tensions and emotions boil and rise the more the characters consume their unending supply of alcohol. For such intense drama to occur in such a confined space makes these characters more vulnerable to letting their secrets slip, as if the characters’ inner urges can’t help but unashamedly flaunt themselves around (as best demonstrated in the scene where the men arrive naked from the neighbour’s pool and run around the shocked women). By the end of the film, the atmosphere is so hostile, the characters yell in excruciating detail their inner disappointments and resentments to each other. And many of the characters have their disappointments with life: Don is a failed novelist, his wife Kath is annoyed by him and his “excuse for a piss-up”, Mal is a bitter lecturer, Mack has recently been divorced, Simon is visibly unpleased about his plastic pressings job, Evan is dismayed by his wife’s promiscuity, she is unsatisfied with his wooden persona, and in the most heartfelt scene Jenny reveals to Don her fearful recognition of her age and lost opportunities. It seems the only real happy campers are the young ones, like Cooley whose biggest problem is getting caught cheating with someone else’s wife, or his tag-along “girlfriend” Susan, the 19 year old who seems too young and carefree to have any visible regrets yet.

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What’s so important about this fantastic screenplay is that it reveals everyone’s basic details early on in the film — having this set in a party setting, seeing people get to know each other or catch up is a deceptively clever way of divulging personal information (their jobs, income status, marriage status). With this sort of small talk out of the way, the film can use this to later expand on the characters as their personalities become even more recognisable and exuberant. Although the play was centred on more or less the one room in the house, the advantage of film is utilised well by Beresford to cut between different rooms (that contained otherwise off-stage sex scenes), which is a good way to pace between the different characters in this thoroughly well edited film that never makes any of its focus on scenes or characters feel too stuffy or exhausting for the viewers. There are plenty of characters and plenty of character storylines (or conversations) to switch between in these carefully paced and acted scenes.

This is one of the best ensemble casts ever put together for an Australian film, each actor knocks it out of the park with their character, whether it’s the bawdy Mal and Mack, the boyish Cooley, the deeply unsatisfied Jenny and Kath, or the uptight attitudes of Evan, his wife, and Simon. This cast were only given three days of rehearsal (and four weeks of shooting, mostly at night, leaving everyone exhausted), yet they are perfectly believable as friends and acquaintances in the film. Some of the cast had played their characters already on stage, so they had a wealth of practise for their screen realisations already, though they’ve done a commendable job bringing them from the stage to the screen. Though actor Harold Hopkins hadn’t played Cooley before, that character had been performed by Ray Barrett on stage, who then played Mal in this version – likewise, Pat Bishop, who plays Jenny in the film, had originally played Kath on stage. Some of the actors appear to be evidently playing against type: Graham Kennedy is playing a devious aging hedonist against his affable television personality, and on the other hand Graeme Blundell is trying to shed his ocker image (as Alvin Purple) with his uptight and prude stand-offish character.

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At the end of the night, Don’s Party is (like Williamson’s other screenplays) a bit of a pessimistic and slightly misanthropic little film that lets just about none of its characters off the hook. But it doesn’t wallow in cynicism, it’s one of the most affecting Australian films because of how much the characters open up throughout the course of the film. It’s a film about men and women not living up to their aspirations and the film at least gives them the floor to vent and sympathises with them without being mawkish.  On top of all this, Don’s Party is one of the great drinking movies. Unless you’re in a program, grab a six pack and get as numbingly drunk as these characters in near real-time.

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