WENDY HUGHES 1952-2014
Bryan Brown broke the news to theatre-goers at the matinee performance of Travelling North last Saturday.
Wombarra-based actress Wendy Hughes, whom some in that audience would have seen on the Sydney Theatre Company's stages in recent years, and most would have known from her body of film and television work, had died in the early hours of that morning. Brown asked for an ovation and she got one, with everyone standing.
Hughes was blessed with looks, intelligence and talent, and her career coincided with the resurgence of the Australian film industry in the 1970s and the rise of the mini-series. She was awarded the Australian Film Institute Award for best actor in 1983 for her role in Careful, He Might Hear You. Her small screen acting credits included Return To Eden and The Man From Snowy River.
She was a familiar face to fans of Matlock Police, State Coroner and Homicide, and she valiantly bared all - as actresses of her generation were often required to do - in films such as Tim Burstall's Petersen (1974).
Sydney audiences last saw her in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and Simon Stone's adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Face to Face (both 2012), and playing the lead role in Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour in 2010. Her most recent TV appearance was in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.
Wendy Hughes was born in Melbourne on July 29, 1952, the daughter of British parents. Her Lancashire-born father, who was in Australia at the outbreak of World War II and served in the RAAF, met her mother in London shortly after the war ended and they moved to Melbourne. Her father worked as a plasterer, and Wendy was brought up in semi-industrial Alphington. Hughes told the ABC's Peter Thompson in a Talking Heads interview recorded in 2007 that hers was ''a really happy, normal, suburban childhood''.
'There was such integrity in her craft ... that she inspired all of us to a courage and openness that is not common.'
Young Wendy loved to dance and attended ballet lessons, though she came to see herself as ''too big and too ungainly'' to make a go of it. There was no trace of clumsiness in her nascent acting talent, however. She auditioned for a Monash University Players production of Romeo and Juliet. Aged 15, she was cast as Juliet.
Her voice teacher encouraged Hughes to apply for admission to the National Institute of Dramatic Art. She passed the audition and aged 16 moved to Sydney, working as a waitress and cleaner to support her studies. It wasn't all plain sailing. An assessment of her first year: ''Your acting is suburban.''
Hughes graduated in 1970 and quickly found work. Her first professional gig was in 1971 in the Australian premiere of Leonard Gershe's play Butterflies are Free. In the cast of a production that toured for the better part of a year was another young actor, Sean Scully. They fell in love and soon wed. Hughes was 21. It would prove to be a short marriage - they divorced in 1973 - but they remained firm friends.
After a profile-raising role in the TV series Power Without Glory, Hughes co-starred with Chris Haywood in Newsfront, a film now regarded as one of the best of that era.
A relationship blossomed between Hughes and Haywood and a daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1978. Work often required the couple to live in Melbourne but Hughes always had a hankering for Sydney. ''I really love the Sydney lifestyle," she said in 1979.
Melbourne-born she might have been, but the city held few charms for her. ''It's awful to say I hate it, but I do,'' she confessed. ''I think it's dull, uninteresting and I can't stand the weather.''
Newsfront catapulted Hughes into the front rank of Australian actresses. She went on to star in films such Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (breastfeeding the four-month-old Charlotte on set), and Paul Cox's Kostas.
It would be the first of several films she and Cox made together. Cox's Lonely Hearts (1982) was a film she particularly treasured. Cox's My First Wife gave her the opportunity to work with one of her closest friends, John Hargreaves.
''Wendy is always consistent; she is always firing and she is far more intuitive than the average actress,'' Cox said in a 1998 interview. ''Her instinct is always right and you have to trust her.''
Boundaries of the Heart and the Bob Ellis-directed Warm Nights On a Slow Moving Train.
A slowdown in local content production persuaded Hughes to try her luck in Los Angeles in 1989. She stayed there for nearly five years. She had a recurring role in the police procedural Homicide: Life on the Street. Ardent Trekkies will know her as Starfleet Officer Nella Daren, stellar cartographer and love interest of Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She was eventually lured home to co-star with Hugh Jackman and Guy Pearce in the TV saga The Man from Snowy River.
Hughes's re-emergence as a stage actress came with her playing the man-eating Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, a role that required her to bare almost as much as she did in the films of the 1970s. She smouldered again in the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Sweet Bird of Youth in 2002.
''Strutting around the rehearsal room in red stilettos and sneaking a forbidden cigarette (sorry Wendy, you're busted), Hughes is a neutron bomb of va-va-voom,'' reporter Alison Barclay wrote at that time. ''She makes people think of sex without even alluding to it.''
Playing the volatile Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2007, Hughes proved she could flare as well as smoulder.
Lee Lewis, who directed Hughes in a revival of Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour in 2010, describes Hughes as ''honour embodied.
''There was such integrity in her craft and her process that she inspired all of us to a courage and openness that is not common,'' Lewis says. ''She had a humour that was wicked, a vulnerability that was heartbreaking and a life experience that made every moment of that play ring true. As an actor and a woman she was a great leader: I saw in her a life in the arts that was inspirational. Then she would raise her eyebrow sarcastically and remind me that nothing was ever that simple.''
In a statement released by Hughes's agent, Chris Haywood wrote: ''Wendy's 'furious' life was coming to an end too quickly. She had so much more to do. Two weeks before her death she was planning a trip to Paris.''
Hughes died peacefully, ''at home as she wished, overlooking the ocean''. She is survived by children Charlotte and Jay, grandchildren Isobelle, Oberon and Lennox, sister Jan, brother Tony, and a memorable contribution to the arts and screen industry.