Gulpilil by David Rielly

Derek Rielly: Gulpilil

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

How this book came about is just as interesting as the information it contains.

When acknowledging his information sources, Derek Rielly says ‘It will come as no surprise to anyone who has spun, even briefly, in David Gulpilil’s orbit that this book only happened via the magic of cosmic coincidence. To write about the mysterious actor, first, I had to find him’ (243).

After chasing down many dead ends, a chance meeting with actor friend, Dan Wyllie, when Rielly was heading to Bondi Beach for a swim, created the breakthrough the author needed. A call, a visit and the project was underway.

The author has chosen to present information about the life and work of David Gulpilil, a Yolygu man, hunter, dancer, award-winning actor and recipient of the 2019 NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award, from interviews with notable icons, friends and fellow actors including Jack Thompson, Gary Sweet, Paul Hogan, Dennis Hopper; film critic Margaret Pomeranz and painters George Gittoes and Craig Ruddy (2004 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Gulpilil, Two Worlds).

Derek Rielly believed that through this method he could create a more personal picture of who this man really is and why he matters, why he still matters.

There are eighteen chapters in total, each dedicated to information from a friend or co-worker of the actor, and the book also includes ten photo plates. This is where I was a bit disappointed. In at least two of these photos the actors face disappears into the gutter of the book. That, plus the similarity of the poses, I felt took away from the presentation of an important life. I would love to have seen an image of the Archibald prize, as I was intrigued when reading of the painting being created over English colonial wallpaper- a juxtaposition of an ‘indigenous man over the culture that caused the ongoing Aboriginal catastrophe’ (60). This choice for the prize in 2004 was not without its controversy which could only be settled by the law.

This book is not just a biography of David Gulpilil. It is not really a biography at all. It is about this well-known aboriginal actor and the people he came across during his acting career, who, once in his presence, became his greatest admirers. However, there were many aspects of Gulpilil’s life that were not very admirable and this book does not shy away from allowing them to come to light. His life became one of walking a cultural tightrope and there were people from both camps who took advantage of him. He never had much money. He was never paid the same as other white actors and, when he did make money, his aboriginal culture decreed that he share what he had with his community.

Wayne O’Donovan, who became Gulpilil’s handler tells us in Chapter 13, that the actor was a First Contact Indigenous man, someone who lived the first eight years of his life without seeing a white man. To be thrust from this situation into the movie Walkabout in 1971 must have been a great culture shock for an impressionable teenager. His first fellow actors were seasoned thespians who loved to drink and party. In 1975 David starred in Mad Dog Morgan with counter-culture icon Dennis Hopper, who was once described as ‘one of Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts’ (42).  The film industry is blamed for turning David into a drunk (165).

The author’s choice of content in each chapter leaves the reader with the strong feeling that people were drawn to Gulpilil because of his amazing personality and talent. From them we hear that he had a great natural ability to feed the camera; his acting never felt like it was a performance and his movements are like liquid. He has a willingness to tell stories and share his wisdom and knowledge. He’s an infectious character with a playful nymph-like quality and people tend to gravitate towards him. He’s such a free spirit. Directors who have met him or seen him on the screen have written parts for him into their own films.

Gulpilil’s 2004 one man show (chapter 10) probably gives the best overview of the life of this actor – ‘from dancing tribal boy to movie star who is feted by Queen Elizabeth II, to prisoner in Darwin’s Berrimah jail’ (121). This show also highlights some of the better-known movies this actor has featured in, such as Walkabout, Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-proof Fence and The Tracker.

Although Rielly is a journalist and creator of several magazines and has contributed to various Australian newspapers, this is just his second full length book, his first being Wednesdays with Bob with Bob Hawke. In Gulpilil, a 256-page, hard covered book with paper jacket, Rielly has given a voice to many people where, through their remembrance of incidents they shared with the actor, we build up a picture of this incredible man.

I found this book to be a very interesting read with a lot more to it than the life of one man. This work also provides insight into the Aboriginal culture and the relationship throughout Australia’s history between the black and white races. It also details information about the Archibald Prize the many individual actors who impacted on the life of Gulpilil and the film industry as a whole. This book is just packed with snippets of information which this reader felt compelled to research for further information.

To answer why David Gulpilil still matters, perhaps the thoughts of two of the actor’s close friends might provide the answer.

Fellow actor, Jack Thompson believes that Gulpilil ‘is a gateway to a history that we’ve so far denied and not embraced. In this country, he’s more important than Ned Kelly’ (book jacket).

Film director, Phillip Noyce, who directed Gulpilil in Rabbit Proof Fence and has known him for forty-five years, refers to him ‘a living treasure …. He’s an icon’ (143).  ‘His face has just so much power.     He’s a living national treasure who is a link to sixty-thousand years of Australian history and culture. …. He is a living legend’ (145).

Enjoy Rielly’s Gulpilil, and celebrate the life of this iconic Aboriginal actor who is probably facing the greatest fight of his life – emphysema and lung cancer.

By Derek Rielly
Pan Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 9 781760 784973
$29.99: 256pp

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top