The Australian film industry is mourning the death of one of its finest actresses, Wendy Hughes, who passed away in Sydney on Saturday aged 61.
Hughes trained as a ballerina and graduated from NIDA in 1970. A year later she joined the Melbourne Theatre Company and then, in 1974, made her feature film debut in the Tim Burstall directed drama Petersen, starring Jack Thompson and Jacki Weaver. “Wendy and I played star-crossed lovers, [it was her] first feature film and my first feature film lead," says Jack Thompson. "She went on to contribute so much to the renaissance of the Australian film industry. She will always have a special place in my heart.”
"The camera loved her – you couldn't take your eyes off her. She was gorgeous and mesmerising" – Gillian Armstrong
Throughout the 1970s, Hughes featured in some of Australia’s most notable films of the new wave including Phillip Noyce’s critically acclaimed Newsfront (1978) and Gillian Armstrong’s award-winning period drama My Brilliant Career (1979) opposite Judy Davis and Sam Neill. She was nominated for her first two AFI awards in both those roles and then again in 1982 for her lead performance in Paul Cox’s comedy drama Lonely Hearts, which would mark the second of six successful collaborations with the veteran filmmaker, the last of which was Salvation in 2008.
“Wendy was a true star. She was a real movie star. The camera loved her – you couldn't take your eyes off her. She was gorgeous and mesmerising,” remembers Gillian Armstrong. “There was a sense of mystery and sexual heat that she had. She had star quality and the humour, smarts and vulnerability of a sassy dame like Lauren Bacall. In My Brilliant Career, we cast her against type: she was the demure, beautiful repressed kind Aunt. And she was brilliant! She was also a true professional, fun to work with and very kind to the young inexperienced Judy Davis. She was a real trooper, too; she took that film on only six weeks after giving birth to her first child Charlotte. So Charlotte was always the Brilliant Career baby!"
In Carl Schultz’s Careful, He Might Hear You (1983), Hughes’ colourful lead performance as an impressionable upper-class English aunt won the actress her first and only AFI award. She was nominated a further three times for My First Wife (1984), Boundaries of the Heart (1988) and Echoes of Paradise (1989).
In the late ’80s/early ‘90s, Hughes worked on international productions, including the TV movie The Heist (1989) with Pierce Brosnan, opposite Kevin Kline in the British period comedy feature Princess Caraboo (1994), and even guest stared in an episode of the popular US TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993), along with a reoccurring role on Homicide: Life on the Street (1993). She returned to Australia to work on the Snowy River: The McGregor Saga (1994-96) TV series with a young Hugh Jackman, and starred alongside Glenn Close, Frances McDormand and a pre-fame Cate Blanchett in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road (1997).
“Wendy had great charm. She always pretended she didn't take acting very seriously but was in fact dedicated,” says Beresford. “I think her casual attitude was a reaction against the numerous actors who make such heavy going of their vast talent. Because of her intelligence, her ability, her wit and her beauty, I always expected her to become a huge international star. After a few American movies she rejected the idea. I guess she simply preferred her life in Australia.”
“Wendy was an elegant, thoughtful actor and friend,” remembers actor Tony Bonner, who worked with Hughes both on the 1976 Melbourne TV series The Power Without Glory and a year later on the TV thriller Image of Death. “We then saw a lot of each other during the filming of The Man from Snowy River (1982), which her [then] husband Chris Haywood and I both worked on. Our connection continued over the preceding years and we remained very good friends.”
Although film roles became less frequent, 2001’s The Man Who Sued God was notable for reuniting the actress with her My Brilliant Career and Hoodwink (1981) co-star, Judy Davis. Wendy Hughes’ final screen appearance was a guest role on the popular TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysterious in 2012 (pictured).
She is survived by a daughter, a son and three grandchildren.
UPDATED: After this story was published, actors Sam Neil and Essie Davis both forwarded their thoughts on working with Wendy Hughes.
Sam Neill: "Wendy and I worked together at least four times. It was always the nicest thing . She was warm and generous as an actor, just as she was a person. She helped to make me feel welcome in Australia and valued. I have never forgotten that. I was more than a little awed by her at first - she was very experienced as an actor and I knew her work from some of those early [for me] Australian films, the new wave if you like. She was also breathtakingly beautiful, with a rare gracefulness. Something like a gazelle. And she had a powerful sensual presence that translated with ease onto the screen. However, more than anything, she was a kind and friendly soul, the sort of person you were always grateful to know as a friend. This is not to say she wasn't naughty, and at times positively dangerous. I learnt to disappear quick smart once she'd had that extra glass or two. Judy Morris taught me that if you wanted to keep Wendy as a friend [and who wouldn't ], you had to just accept that once in a while she'd turn on you, and it'd hurt. But it was never really meant, and she'd have completely forgotten it in the morning. She, it has to be acknowledged, loved a good time, loved getting noisy and troublesome. Mostly it was the best fun to be around . She'd give me heaps about being so... well behaved. She loved John Hargreaves dearly, that delightful reprobate, and the two of them were simply outrageous on the town. My God , but they were funny. And bloody bitchy too. Mostly, they didn't give a rat's arse , as they say. And how wonderful they were on the screen together- see Careful He Might Hear You for instance.
I loved her, as so many of us did . She was luminous, she lit up your life when she was around. And I loved working with her - how stimulating it was to play a scene together, and how pleasing to have her around the set, or in a foreign location. We had fun. But never again. That makes me sad."
Essie Davis: "I was shocked and saddened at the too young passing of Wendy Hughes. I had loved her from childhood in Rush and My Brilliant Career. As well as her wonderful performance in Careful He Might Hear You. I had the privilege of working with her in Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries and was delighted to find a really beautiful down to earth woman who was as nervous as I to work together. We made each other laugh. Her work captured her spirit and she will be remembered forever as young and beautiful."
See an interview with Wendy Hughes from The Movie Show (1988) about Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train.