Woman Armstrong, Gillian
Written by Amanda McCormack, National Film and Sound Archive
Gillian Armstrong was the first woman in Australia to direct a feature length film since the McDonagh sisters in the 1930s. Her debut film, My Brilliant Career (1979) was an outstanding achievement for a first time director and was met with critical and popular acclaim. An adaptation of Miles Franklin's autobiographical novel about an independent woman, set in the 1890s, it was the first of Armstrong's many films with strong female characters.
Born in Melbourne in 1950, Armstrong attended her local high school before going to Swinburne Technical College, originally intending to study theatre design; however she soon found her passion in film. After completing her degree at Swinburne, Armstrong moved to Sydney to pursue work in the film industry. Despite some early setbacks she gained valuable experience as an Assistant Editor at Kingcroft. Her further education was completed when she was one of 12 students selected as the inaugural class at the Australian Film and Television school in Sydney.
After graduation her first longer film, The Singer and the Dancer (1975) recognised her as a director with talent and led to Margaret Fink offering her the chance to direct My Brilliant Career. The success of this film led to it being the official Australian nomination at Cannes Film Festival and Armstrong winning the first of many awards, including the AFI for Best Director and a Special Achievement Award at the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Armstrong followed My Brilliant Career with Starstruck in 1982 and then in 1984, she was the first foreign woman approached by MGM to direct a big budget feature, Mrs Soffel. From this point on, Armstrong worked steadily in Australia and overseas and in 1994 directed her most popular film to date, Little Women. Other films followed, Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Charlotte Gray (2001) and Death Defying Acts (2008).
Whilst mainly known for her feature length work, Armstrong has also had considerable success as a documentary film maker. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006), earned Armstrong a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Additionally, her series of films that have documented the lives of three women she first met as teenagers in Adelaide in 1975 for Smokes and Lollies has continued with four subsequent documentaries, all of which have been met with positive reviews.
Armstrong was always modest when discussing her achievements but there can be no denying that she was a trailblazer for women in the film industry. Prior to her success, many women were encouraged towards continuity or administrative roles. Armstrong herself had to battle with many in the male dominated industry in the 1970s and 1980s. She has spoken of her frustration at all the males in her graduating class at Swinburne receiving job offers from Film Australia and the ABC. When she asked the ABC for work they were only interested in her typing speed.
Due to her tenacity and talent, Armstrong broke down barriers and led the way for other women to participate in the film industry and is often credited as an inspiration for many women, not only directors but composers, designers and cinematographers. She continues to enjoy her own brilliant career and has a new feature film due in 2013.
National Film and Sound Archive
- Armstrong, Gillian: Interviewed By Graham Shirley: Oral History, 22 November 2011 - 11 January 2012, 1050278; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
- Armstrong, Gillian: Interviewed By Margaret Pomeranz At Popcorn Taxi: 21.11.2001, 21 November 2001, 522597; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
- Australian Film Makers Series. Gill Armstrong Talks With Mike Carlton., 19 April 1979, 5725; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
- Stratton, David, The Last New Wave, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, New South Wales, 1980. Details
- 'Gillian Armstrong', in Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Amazon.com, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000788/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1. Details