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December 19, 2008

A woman's touch on 'Australia'

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Are there certain films -- broad, sweeping epics or Westerns or historical dramas -- that are just too John Ford, too masculine, too big for women to shoot?

Baz Luhrmann doesn't think so. And though he wasn't specifically trying to assemble a female behind-the-camera team to shepherd his hybrid romance/comedy/country coming-of-age tale "Australia," he did just that in hiring Dody Dorn as his film editor and Many Walker as the director of photography. (Add producer Catherine Knapman and there's another strong female voice in the mix).

Dorn, a past Oscar nominee for "Memento," and Walker, an indie veteran who just picked up best cinematographer awards from the St. Louis Film Critics and the International Press Academy, joined longtime Luhrmann collaborator/production designer/costumer (and wife) Catherine Martin to make up a rare female triumvirate of technical prowess on a $130 million studio film.

If Walker makes it to the Oscar pool, she'll be the first woman to have ever done so. Martin (pictured at top) is already a double Oscar winner for "Moulin Rouge."

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In hiring Dorn and Walker (pictured, right), Luhrmann said he was looking for a couple of professionals who were mentally, physically and spiritually strong. They would, he said, have to be by his side for a genre-bending epic that would likely be derided by critics and would be no picnic to shoot (102-degree heat, rainstorms, alternate endings!).

"Of course a man could do the job, but for whatever reason, I felt like I needed an editor and a DP who would believe in this movie like it was their child," Luhrmann said this week during a stint in Los Angeles where he promoted his colleagues and defended "Australia" against a fairly steady stream of criticism (some of that directed at the $38 million boxoffice take so far).

"I realized at some point that I was way outnumbered in the true creative control of this movie," he said. "They are not the kind to say, 'Yes, Baz, whatever you want, Baz.' They are of their own opinions, and they're unimpeachable."

Dorn and Walked said they've never thought much about the glass ceiling or, as Luhrmann puts it, the "bloke's club" in filmmaking.

"I wonder why there aren't many other female DPs, but that doesn't usually happen until someone reminds me about it," Walker said. (Luhrmann said Walker showed her mettle during filming as members of the tough Australian crew "dropped like flies" under some of the harsher conditions, while Walker continued to lead the troops and fix her lipstick at the same time).

The high-profile girl power wasn't lost on the movie's star, Nicole Kidman, who pointed it out on set with a sense of pride, though "Australia" wasn't just about "sisters doing it for themselves," Martin said. "There were no charity missions here. It wasn't like, 'Hey there aren't enough women in the industry, let's hire some.'"

It'll probably be an unwitting theme during Oscar campaigning, where "Australia" will be competing with the formidable likes of "The Dark Knight," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

"At the time, we didn't even think about how rare it was, but it's sinking in now," said Dorn. "We just know that Baz never cut us any slack, as it should be."

Luhrmann, who said this week that he plans to move quickly on his next project, a reworking of "The Great Gatsby," summed up his co-workers succinctly:

"Those chicks were awesome."

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Oscar Contenders

  • So "The Dark Knight" didn't make it into the final five after all, never mind that critical and popular support. Let's just call the comic-inspired mega-hit "The Biggest Snubee."

    Here are the best picture contenders in a race that, two weeks away from the Oscars, seems to be a foregone conclusion ("Slumdog") unless there's a come-from-behind possibility ("The Reader" anyone?)

    "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; the politically timely "Milk;" rags-to-riches fairy tale, "Slumdog Millionaire," Holocaust best-seller-based drama "The Reader," and Watergate-era biopic "Frost/Nixon."

    Could "Button" and "Slumdog" split the vote, allowing another film to take the prize? Doesn't seem likely. After having clung to "Button" for months as what we thought would be the Academy voters' top vhoice, our money's now on "Slumdog." Momentum can't be ignored.

    Watch this blog for updates, ephemera and all manner of postulating.

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  • Mmmmm, chocolate Oscar. Not every star will walk away from the 81st annual Academy Awards with a trophy, but if they hit the high-profile Governor's Ball they can have pastry chef Sherry Yard's gold-dusted candy version. Also on the menu from celeb chef Wolfgang Puck is tuna tartare in sesame miso cones, chopped Chino Farms vegetable salad with ginger soy vinaigrette, Maine lobster and caviar. Serve it up! (Getty Images)

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