Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Great Big Gay Aussie Hero

Sir Robert Helpmann, one of the greatest and most versatile theatrical artists of the 20th century, was openly gay and openly Australian, and (happily, seeing I'm posting this on Valentine's Day) openly lived with another man for 36 years.

Born in rural South Australia in 1909, his mother encouraged his theatricality, which was apparently obvious from the age of 3. Valerie Lawson wrote in a wonderful article at "“When he was a little chap,” Maytie Helpman said (her son changed the spelling to Helpmann for his own use), “he used to take away my stockings and use them for tights. He would tie feathers round his head, too, and go roaming round the streets until I’m sure people thought I had a lunatic in the family.”
Other mothers might have stopped the nonsense right there. But Maytie Helpman and her husband, Sam, never said, “No, Bobby, you can’t go to dancing school. You’re three.” Or, “No, Bobby, you can’t wear that blonde wig, tutu and pointe shoes then whip off the wig at the curtain call.”"

Even today the attitude of Sam and Maytie Helpman would seem enlightened. For their era, it's astonishing. Young Bobby was onstage by the age of eight, and left school at 14. When he was 17, his father met the great Russian Ballerina Anna Pavlova, and managed to get young Bobby a place in her company.

He tread the boards for a few years in Australia, taking what limited opportunities there were, even appearing as a burlesque dancer, and then moved to England. There, his star rose swiftly and he formed one of the great ballet partnerships of all time with Margot Fonteyn. He was also, over the years, theatre director, choreographer, and star of both stage and screen. 

Ugly Step-Sister in Cinderella

One of the great dancers of the century, he was also lauded for his Shakespearean roles, and movie work including the frightening Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Sir Robert's portrayal of Child Catcher was the inspiration for
Marilyn Manson's Smells Like Children.

In the sixties Sir Robert returned to Australia as co-director of the Australian Ballet. I've read many times that Australia didn't quite know what to make of him. Here he was, a celebrated and well loved Aussie who just didn't fit the national stereotype. The country didn't know whether to be proud or embarrassed. His knighthood in 1968 must have tipped the scales to 'proud' because by the time I became aware of him on television in the seventies, he was much feted on his trips back home.

Sir Robert Helpmann and Michael Benthall

In England Sir Robert had met Michael Benthall - handsome, aristocratic graduate of Oxford, and theatre director - who went on to become Artistic Director of the Old Vic. The two lived together openly, and often worked together, until Benthall's death in 1974. Though devastated by Benthall's death, Sir Robert kept on working - acting, directing and producing until his own death in Sydney in 1986.

BY the time of his death Australia had most definitely decided that Bobby Helpmann was a son to be proud of. He was given a state funeral. His eulogy read, "a genius, an outstanding communicator of unique inspiration and insight. He asserted his rights to pursue a path that improved the quality of life of the nation, and defeated the common herd of detractors"

It's a shame we don't hear more about him these days. A flamboyant, gay, country kid, no great looker, who set out to follow his dreams, and while staying true to himself, through hard work and determination, achieved those dreams, and had the joy of a 36 year relationship.

One thing I've read time and again about Sir Robert, is that he was afraid of nothing and no one. He took life by the balls and lived it. He was a great Australian.


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