Bruce Beresford’s memorable 1976 film has a reputation of bawdiness and vulgarity mixed with explicit nudity that well and truly precedes it. However, few of these seedy, politically incorrect associations have any basis in truth – at least not by modern standards. Rather, David Williamson’s adaptation of his own play is a caustic and often brutally honest snapshot of Australian society at the time; a portrait deftly contextualized by its single night setting and topicality. It’s October 1969 and a party is being thrown by teacher and failed novelist Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his meek, straight-laced suburban wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan). It’s to be a night of revelry and celebration for the polls have closed on Election Day and a Labour victory spearheaded by Gough Whitlam is presumed by all, unseating the Liberals and their leader John Gorton (who makes a neat cameo at the start of the film).
Don’s guests are a colourful, quintessentially Australian bunch. There’s brash and opinionated Mal (Ray Barrett) and his scowling, resentful wife Jenny (Pat Bishop). Simon (Graeme Blundell) is clearly the odd man out with his plastered down hair, pipe and safari suit. His ditzy wife Jody (Veronica Lang) seems like a fish out of water too but she’s far more willing to be enveloped by the group than her husband who, when not making slightly embarrassed neutral small talk, stands around awkwardly in the background as if awaiting summons.
Making a head-turning entrance is artist Kerry (Candy Raymond), a gorgeous, sensuous, dark-eyed vixen who draws the attention of every male eye with her magnetic presence. Her naturally jealous, uptight dentist husband Evan (Kit Taylor) makes the best of the situation whilst barely tolerating those around him who he clearly views with suspicion and contempt. Recently divorced photographer Mack (Graham Kennedy), flashing naked snaps of his ex-wife, is present too. Not far behind him are obnoxious lothario Cooley (Harold Hopkins) and his latest acquisition, Susan (Claire Binney), barely out of her teens and tagging along like an eye-catching but cheap adornment.
Dipping in and out of conversations we see the group overlapping spiritedly: it’s like a cross-section of suburbia with all of our definably Australian traits poking through. Supplementing these are pompous, brash, overbearing moments of posturing that lead to arguments and even the odd naked entanglement. But nearly everything that occurs is undeniably authentic, as is the atmosphere created. The film may seem exposed somewhat by its theatrical origins, but there’s hardly a wrong note in Williamson’s screenplay, even though you could argue some of the blatant sexual propositioning does seem ‘of the era’, or exaggerated at least for the purposes of a little provocation.
The transformation that occurs is a gradual but not entirely unpredictable one. As the night kicks off, the partygoers become consumed by the occasion: there’s buffoonery aplenty; outrageous tall stories are related; sexual proposals both blatant and delicately worded come thick and fast; loud political debate is injected as an adjunct to the most frivolous observations – both setting off another round of egos jostling for superiority in the next conversation. But as the evening wears on, the group dynamic begins to change. With razor-sharp perception, Williamson effectively peels back the social masks, the array of facades keeping civility in place. The quick-witted jibes are soured by personal effrontery; subtle at first, but burrowing deeper as it becomes obvious that the most pointed observations are striking particularly sensitive nerves. Watching the inevitable implosion is compelling stuff, though there’s a grotesquery about it that is slightly uncomfortable too. Fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, the shock political defeat after promising early indications, petty frustrations and foiled sexual conquests, the party begins to come apart at the seams with nearly everyone reaching boiling point.
Strip away the peripherals that colour your first impressions – the fashion, the hairstyles, and the ghastly décor – and the commonality of Williamson’s characters and themes become most apparent. Each actor wears his or her character like a glove in what amounts to a perfect ensemble. But Barrett and Hargreaves are ultimately the most important figures, with the juiciest roles; Barrett makes Mal both loathsome and pitifully pathetic, whilst Don is weak-willed and subservient, yet hard to hate. Despite the lewdness and brazen sexual objectification, there are strong parts here for the women too – especially Jenny and Kath, the most disadvantaged, emotionally destitute partners who, despite initial impressions, are wallowing in decaying, loveless, deeply unsatisfying marriages that persist for the sake of appearances and little more. The film’s ending is neither evasive nor subservient to any commercial consideration; it’s dark, sobering and uncompromising.
Don’s Party has hardly dated at all; instead it confirms itself as a telling document of hilarious, and yet deadly serious social commentary and one of the great films of the 1970’s. Williamson’s brilliant, savage dialogue sparkles and in exposing us to a few uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our mundane domestic lives, he and Beresford continued cementing their reputations as emerging creative figures of real note.