Article on collaboration in the Australian film industry

A while back I wrote an article for Lumina, the magazine of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, about the history of collaboration in the Australian film industry. A copy of it is here.

It was a great fun to research and think about – studying history enables you to see patterns. And an overwhelming pattern is you can’t have a successful career in the industry without a consistent, close knit group of collaborators. And if you do have that, you can move mountains.

Dan Aykroyd: Star Sidekick

Comedy is the one genre where there seems to be an apprenticeship system in place for movie stars. It goes something like this: begin as a writer/impro performer in some stage show, work on a TV show, do whatever bits in movies you can, wind up playing the sidekick, then graduate to leads. At any rate that’s how it seems to have gone for Seth Rogen, Tina Fey, Jim Carey, Steve Carrell, Will Ferrell, Sasha Baron Cohen, Adam Sandler, Anna Faris, etc. Of course there are variations to this – some people leap to fully fledged stardom in their first movie (eg Steve Martin), others take years and year to become a star (Jason Bateman, Paul Rudd), some never really get a fair crack at being a star (most women comedians).

And then there’s Dan Aykroyd. Chubby, Canadian, floppy haired, least-funny-Blues-Brother-and-Ghostbuster Daniel Edward.

Was Dan Aykroyd a star? Kind of – he had above-the-title billing in a couple of movies. His presence in the cast got a green light for Driving Miss Daisy. He dated Carrie Fisher. He had a hot wife. He turned director. He’s big in Canada.

But I always think of Aykroyd as a side kick rather than a star. In every popular film he made he was overshadowed by someone else – John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Jessica Tandy, Woody Allen, Tom Hanks, Kim Basinger. It’s not hard to conjure up memories of those actors – bug-eyed, drug-fuelled, pot bellied Belushi; rapid-patter, lithely sexual Murphy; sexy, casually nude Leigh; deadpan, droll Murray; wisecracking, handsome Chase… What is the memory one has of Aykroyd? A sort of deadpan drollness? Officiousness? That floppy fringe? I can’t remember.

Maybe it’s different because I’m an Australian and never saw Aykroyd do his impersonations on Saturday Night Live. Apparently he was very good – which maybe is why he was never much of a star: he was a cypher, able to copy someone else but not create a specific persona. All the films he made in which he was the sole star flopped.

But he was a good sidekick – one of the best. Those actors I listed above were never better than playing alongside Dan Aykroyd. He provided strength and solidity. He was a very Canadian star in that respect – polite, unassuming, lacking in ego, supporting their bigger brother. (The Canadians were so damn polite when the Allies were holding a war conference in World War Two they didn’t insist on being invited – even though the conference was held in Canada!) When Aykroyd played someone bold and brassy – Neighbors, Dr Detroit, The Great Outdoors – it didn’t work. His best roles were someone staid and buttoned down, like Canada – Trading Places, Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us.

Aykroyd’s had an incredible career – helping make Saturday Night Live a phenomenon, burning the torch of blues, being married to Donna Dixon for almost 40 years, popping up in all sorts of random films (My Girl? Sneakers? Grosse Pointe Blank? 50 First Dates? Pearl Harbor? Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom?) and being pretty good in all of them. When he flops the flops have been spectacular (1941, Nothing But Trouble, Loose Cannons).

I’ve always liked Aykroyd – maybe it’s a Felix Leiter thing. People such Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and even Chevy Chase have a rare performer talent. But Aykroyd isn’t that obviously funny. He clearly got where he did by sheer hard work rather than talent. You can watch him and think “I can do a job as good as that”. On you, Danny.

Felix Leiter: An Appreciation of James Bond’s sidekick

He’s one of the most familiar yet unappreciated characters of the James Bond universe – a person who is universally recognized yet strangely mysterious. A small yet crucial part of the success of this phenomenal franchise. I’m not talking about M, or Q, or Miss Moneypenny, or 008, or Bill Tanner, or General Gogol, or Blofeld, or the naked woman who dance in the credits. I’m talking of course about Felix Leiter.

Dear sweet Felix Leiter. All Bond fans know the name – although they might struggle to put a face to that name, because he was usually played by different actors in the series. And that face was often hidden by hats and sunglasses and never stayed too long on screen.

Felix, for those non-Bond fans out there, was a CIA operative who would periodically help out James Bond on his missions. He normally appeared well into the running time, following James around in some exotic locale. We would worry at first that he was some sort of baddy then it would be revealed they knew each other; Felix would then give Bond some important information, help him travel to a location, and then pretty much disappear.

Felix was in the Ian Fleming novels, starting with Casino Royale, and I’m assuming he was created as a device to help appeal to American readers. He also means Bond has the resources of the CIA at his disposal, which allows for greater story options. He was a lot more boozy, racist creature in the novels – as was James Bond come to think of it  – but in the films he’s an amiable middle aged, occasionally elderly, American.

On screen he’s been played by Jack Lord, Cec Linder, Rik Van Nutter, Norman Burton, David Hedison (twice), Bernie Casey, John Terry and Jeffrey Wright (twice). The only time he got anything close to his own story was in Licence to Kill when he and his bride are attacked by a drug lord on their wedding night – the bride is killed and Leiter is half eaten (the latter bit is taken from the novel Live and Let Die), prompting Bond to go on revenge. It’s the only time Felix Leiter ever gets in much personal danger in the films.

Which I think is part of his appeal. Felix Leiter is the closest the Bond films have to an ordinary person who is allowed to be part of Bond’s adventure and live. Q is too brilliant, M too highly placed in security, Miss Moneypenny too stuck behind a desk doing filing; there are random ordinary people who pop up in the films, but they are either stunning beautiful girls or innocent bystanders who get killed. Felix not only gets to go to exotic locations (Nassau, Jamaica, New Orleans), he takes part in the missions (driving the boat, flying a helicopter) and gets to live at the end. Apart from the one time when a limb gets removed, it’s a pretty cushy existence.

I remember one time when I was ten years old I went over to a friend’s house for a party. We were playing James Bond – this was the hey day of Roger Moore – and of course everyone wanted to be James Bond. So while the others sat around arguing who got to be James Bond I nabbed the role of Felix Leiter. I instinctively understood that this unfashionable role was the best way to be involved in the action on the side of the good guys. That penny dropped for the others too eventually and once everyone realized they couldn’t all be Bond they looked around for different roles – someone tried to nab Felix Leiter off me but I held fast. Eventually we realized there simply aren’t enough roles in the James Bond franchise to play a game, so we started playing Star Wars instead, which has a lot more options. Regardless, I’ve had a soft spot for Felix ever since.

The appeal of Felix Leiter has not dimmed. Yes, James Bond is one of the world’s greatest fantasy figures – but let’s face it, there’s no way any of us are going to be able to transform ourselves into someone so good looking, sophisticated, brilliantly skillful and smart, successful with women, hard drinking and well dressed. But even at this age there is a chance I could, if I really wanted to, become Felix Leiter. So thank you, Felix.