Pamela Rabe is one of our most celebrated actors, yet worries that the roles will dry up. But, as Robin Usher reports, her final curtain is likely to be a long, hectic way off.
For actors, the worry never stops. National acclaim and universal respect do not bring the job security and settled home life that other professionals take for granted. Pamela Rabe is one of Australia’s most gifted actors who has made her mark in all mediums — film, television and theatre — with work lined up 12 months ahead. But the future is still uncertain.
Her latest concern, now that she is home in Melbourne after a year away, is that work will disappear as she approaches middle age.
“I’m the sort of person who will worry about anything,” she says. “Now I’m waiting for the roles to start drying up. The dry season will start pretty soon — it’s the nature of things. I just hope I’ve got the resources to get through it.
“If you do (survive), there’s no one else left because the attrition rate is huge once people hit their 40s, men included. There’s just not enough work and people decide to go and get a life.”
Judging on appearances alone, her concern is ridiculous. At 40, Rabe’s striking beauty is undiminished, while she is renowned for her razor-sharp intelligence. She is wearing a full-length, white linen dress in the late summer heat, accompanied by sandals and sunglasses.
Two years ago at the Cannes Film Festival, men chased after her in the streets to beg her husband, former Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director Roger Hodgman, to let her go with them. The story is told by Samantha Lang, director of the film The Well, in which Rabe starred.
“Pamela played Hester in the film, a frumpy, dowdy character,” Lang says. This meant that when Pamela appeared in the press tents no one knew who she was because she seemed different — beautiful and commanding.”
- HER BRILLIANT CAREER
Pamela Rabe has performed in nearly 50 plays, six films and eight television productions since she arrived in Australia from Canada in 1982. She won the Australian Film Institute’s best actress award in 1997 for her performance in The Well, which was included in that year’s official competition at the Cannes Festival. In theatre, she has won four Victorian Green Room awards for best lead actress and two more in supporting roles. In Sydney, she has been awarded two prizes for best stage actress. One of her most successful performances was in the one-woman adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel, A Room Of ,One’s Own, which she is taking: to Canada later this year. This won her best-acting awards in Melbourne and Sydney. Rabe’s versatility has also brought her acclaim for musical roles, as well as those in drama. She performed in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s record-setting hit production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music alongside Ruth Cracknell and Lisa McCune in 1998, and stole the show in a supporting role in Encore Productions’ version of Mame last year. Other films in which she has starred include Paradise Road, Cosi and Sirens. On television, she has performed in Mercury, Seven Deadly Sins, The Leaving of Liverpool and A Country Practice.
Rabe won an AFI award for best actress for the role and spent six months travelling to festivals around the world.
“It was all very tine for a while, being treated as a movie star, which is something I’m definitely not,” she says. “‘Then I started to get panicky, because there was no money coming in. I just decided one morning to go back to work. While I enjoyed the Cannes experience, nothing beats doing a play.”
Rabe is back in Melbourne for the first time since last May to play the lead character, Maureen, in the international hit, The Beauty Queen of Leenane for the Melbourne Theatre Company. The character is so unlike Rabe that the MTC’s publicist suggested it would be misleading to photograph her on the set.
“All characters are nothing like me,” Rabe shrugs. “But then they are me, because they come out of me.”
She plays an underprivileged 40-year-old daughter locked into a mutually dependent and destructive relationship with her mother, performed by Maggie Kirkpatrick.
Rabe describes it as a black comedy — “one big Irish joke set in wet, windy, peaty County Galway”, she says, toying with the’ cliches in a breathy Irish accent. “People sit around eating porridge and bitching and complaining all the time.”
She played the role in Sydney last year after the production won four New York Tony awards. She describes the writing by Martin McDonagh as muscular and lyrical, a blend of such Irish giants as Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett, with the addition of a little of Hollywood’s Quentin Tarantino. The result, she says, is “post-modern Irish blarney, with quotation marks”.
“Irish drama is going through a phase where it plays around with self-parody. McDonagh, who was only 26 when he wrote it, presents all these stereotypes, complete with blarney, to get the audience sucked in, and then enjoys twisting it about.”
The role ranges from high farce to tragedy, which Rabe says is exciting. But the part has another attraction — she is playing someone her age.
“It’s a relief just to go into the dressing room and try to decide which particular bags under the eyes I’ll highlight that night,” she says.
Rabe was 37 when she starred in The Well, playing a 55-year-old. While she agrees the baby boomer generation wants to see their stories on stage and screen as they get older, she says the insist on glamorised characters portrayed by younger actors. “When I’m 55, I’ll be playing 70-year-olds. What happens after that?”
The MTC’s artistic director, Simon Phillips, thinks that Rabe’s “fantastic insecurity” comes from her upbringing when it was too easy to equate her height with a strong character.
“She is a wonderfully vulnerable person but, because she is tall, people just assume she is totally commanding and in control,” he says.
“It even happens on stage when in Shakespeare, for example, she always gets the female-in-pants roles.”
Phillips and Lang say no other actor is more meticulous about preparing for a role, breaking down a character’s motivations to find the same elements that she uses in herself. Both also refer to her “ferocious intelligence”.
“Audiences find themselves so effortlessly guided by what is happening on stage, because Pamela has already done so much work to understand what is going on,” Phillips says.
He agrees that the years from 40 to 55 can be a difficult time for women performers, but promises that the MTC will be interested in casting Rabe. “As long as she is interested in us, we’ll always love her.”
Rabe is one of the most popular actors among MTC subscribers, even though she limited her appearances with the company in the past decade to prevent suspicions that she was getting work only because her husband was company director.
“She could have done a lot more at the MTC because other directors were keen to work with her. It didn’t have much to do with me,” he says.
Rabe’s sensitivity to charges of nepotism led her to move to Sydney in the late 1980s when Hodgman took charge of the company.
“It caused all sorts of rumors at the time that we had broken up, which were completely untrue,” he says. “But in the end it probably helped her career by getting that sort of exposure in Sydney. It has also worked out for the best here by leaving Melbourne audiences wanting to see more of her.”
Rabe, a Canadian, spent most of her early years in Vancouver and moved to Australia in 1982 after marrying Hodgman, whom she met as a drama student. She has now spent almost as much time in Australia as in Canada, and her entire career has been based here.
“I define myself as Australian, but it is a constantly evolving state of mind,” she says. “The Canadian hits keep rumbling around.”
In mid-year, Rabe will perform in Canada for the first time since her student years. She is presenting her one-woman show, A Room Of One’s Own, based on the Virginia Woolf novel, and taking part in the George Bernard Shaw play The Apple Cart at the Shaw Festival in Niagara.
She performed in A Room Of One’s Own in Melbourne six years ago but says it will be a different experience in Niagara, having been away from Canada for so long.
“My career is coming full circle. But this will be a long reaching back into my past,” she says.
Hodgman points out that while Rabe is one of Australia’s best-known actors, she is almost unknown in her home country, certainly in eastern Canada.
He is also taking part in the Shaw Festival, presenting a full production of last year’s concert-version hit, She Loves Me. The rub is that their times in Canada do not overlap, except for a few weeks’ holiday Hodgman is planning in June at the end of his stay. “I’m also hoping to fly over in August to see her perform,” he says.
These long separations are part of an actor’s life and Rabe admits it is hard. The solution, apart from quick visits, is the Internet.
“It feeds me and sustains me,” she says. “I’m not talking about cyberspace as a new religion, but it does allow me to stay in contact with other human beings. I’ve rekindled friendships from 20 years ago and am able to reach my mother almost daily. It’s invaluable when I’m feeling adrift and working alone a long way home.”
For all the loneliness, Rabe says of acting: “It’s a great job. I love the emotional and mental focus.”
But she says it is important to have it healthy emotional grounding to support the demands of performance. It is all justified by the naked need she sees in audiences when they respond to what is happening on stage. “I know there is an economic crisis for the theatre, given what it costs to mount a production. But that is hard for me to acknowledge when it is my livelihood. It is so alive for me and on stage there is no feeling that people don’t want to see live performances when there are packed houses every night.”
She says theatre has also revitalised Hollywood. “There is a real antipathy from the public and the media to what has become the Spielberg formula for making films that is getting the moguls nervous.”
But theatre directors such as England’s Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George), as well as Australia’s Baz Luhrmann (Romeo and Juliet), have brought a breath of fresh air to film making. The changed attitude has resulted in such movies as The Insider, Happiness and the ground-breaking The Crying Game.
“I have ultimate faith in the cultural cycle renewing itself,” Rabe says. “It has been a long time since the last film renaissance and a wasteland has developed that coincides with the nervousness brought on by the end of the 20th century. Now that we’re in what we might call the double-noughts, I have great hopes people will become braver.”
Rabe says the forces of renewal have come up against the “slowing-down juggernaut of plastic Hollywood”. To illustrate, she tells of the experience of Australian actor Rachel Griffiths, who was being feted in Los Angeles after the success of Muriel’s Wedding.
“She was at a lunch when this producer turned to her and said how lucky she must feel to have a career in films, given the way she looks. What an extraordinary thing to say. It just shows the suits don’t know where to turn. Something good has to come out of it all.”
Rabe is too committed to theatrical projects to consider returning to film soon. After The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the Shaw Festival, she is already involved in workshop trials for new projects with the Melbourne Festival and Playbox Theatre Company for 2001.
She says it is too early to predict how they will turn out, but they offer the prospect of something rare in her life — an extended stay in her North Melbourne home.
Source: The Age (28 February 2000)