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John B. Murray
Richard Franklin is one of Australia's greatest filmic exports, working his way from low-budget thrillers and horror pictures to overseas hits such as the Hitchcock-approved Psycho 2 (1983) and the arthouse smash Hotel Sorrento (1995). Like all successful filmmakers, however, he's bound to keep a skeleton or two in the closet (anyone remember James Cameron's Piranha 2: Flying Killers?). Ask him when he's in a cagey mood about his first film and he will wax lyrical about the ESP chiller Patrick (1977). Dig a little further and he may admit to a scandalous duet of R-rated oddities, the first of which is the only full-frontal `Aussie Western', the 1976 period comedy The True Story Of Eskimo Nell.
Max Gillies plays Deadeye Dick, peeping tom, foul-smelling bullsh*t artist, failed bushranger and all-round hopeless sack of sh*t. He teams up with champion d*ck-wrangler Mexico Pete (Serge Lazareff) after a disastrous liaison involving an irate husband, and together they go searching for Dick's sexual El-Dorado, the mythical first-rate whore and `Queen Whomper' named Eskimo Nell. They eventually come across `Nell' in a cheesy mountain hotel, and is hardly what Pete imagined, but Dick, lost in his one-eyed dreamworld, discovers the one glimmer of happiness his sad existence had denied him.
The 1973 British sex comedy Eskimo Nell had already covered the making of a fictitious softcore version (as well as a gay western, kung fu and sickly family version!) of the famous bawdy 19th Century poem by a unscrupulous smut film producer. Franklin's version, co-written with Alan (Alvin Purple) Hopgood, sticks closer to the source material and transposes the action to a more culturally iconic stomping ground: the Ballarat Goldfields, the Eureka Stockade, the snow-capped Blue Mountains. The ambitious Franklin's second unit filmed the Klondike scenes - where Dick supposedly loses his eye - outside Montreal, and some incredible location shots such as the iceflows from the Canadian far north helped win the film an AFI award for Best Photography. Come to think of it, it's hard to remember when an R-rated film looked so good!
Franklin's cast is first rate - Auntie Jack's Graham Bond briefly appears as Pete's potty-mouthed long lost mate `Boggo', and Lazareff as Mexico Pete is a soothingly familiar presence for those of us who fondly remember 70s Aussie TV. And Max Gillies, I hardly need to remind you, had his face plastered on TV every week in the 80s doing ear-tugging impersonations of Bob Hawke. During the 70s however he spent most of his career in bizarre comic film roles, and was no stranger to showing his pale underbelly - he had already played a lecherous married schlump doing a stoned striptease during the David Williamson segment of Libido (1973), so we didn't bat an eyelid over his most memorable scene in Eskimo Nell, starkers except for his ludicrously large hat, eye patch and strategically placed holster. Gillies spits out the smutty one-liners with relish, like `Have you ever stuck your d*ck in a milk pail and churned it till it's butter?' At the heart of the film, however, is the oddly touching parasitic relationship between voyeur Dick and coxman Pete, and their shared wet dream of finding the fictional lay Eskimo Nell.
Seventies sex queen Abigail was a major selling point, gorgeous as ever and totally starkers (for the first and only time on film!) as Esmeralda the Leopard-clad wife of a traveling magician who catches Pete nailing her to the floor of his `Magic Box'. After leaving the warm bosom of the Number 96 TV series she had anticipated a career as an all-round entertainer. Despite a minor hit album and single `Je T'Aime' and traffic-stopping cameos in Alvin Purple (1973) and Alvin Rides Again (1974), her greatest talent appeared to be in self-promotion.
In the rosy glow of hindsight we often forget, when looking back on the so-called liberated Seventies, that the spirit of puritanical oppression or `wowserism' more often than not reared its ugly head to spoil everyone's swinging good time. Franklin even used the pseudonym `Richard Bruce', the filmmaker's way of hiding under a brown paper bag, on his second film, the hugely successful soft-porn portmanteau Fantasm (1976). In retrospect, his film career could have been over before it started.
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