Welcome to the first in a new monthly series, which examines some of my favourite Guilty Pleasures – you know, the films you love a little bit more than you probably should. Thanks to my preference for sparkles and sequins, expect kitsch and camp aplenty; if further evidence of that were needed, look no further than the first post: Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom.
To borrow from Fran: A life lived in fear is a life half lived
Sequins, ostrich feathers, spandex and blu mascara: Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann’s first feature-length film, has them all by the bucketload. Set in the world of Australian competitive ballroom dancing, it’s a positive and inspiring tale about a championship dancer (Scott Hastings, played by Paul Mercurio) who refuses to dance the right steps, makes up his own and transforms the life of ‘ugly duckling’ Fran (Tara Morice) in the process. The first movie in Luhrmann’s so-called Red Curtain Trilogy, it set the tone for the director’s distinctive visual style, which has continued to develop in subsequent movies with the aid of production designers Catherine Martin and costume designer Angus Strathie.
The Strictly Ballroom world is glamorous yet self-absorbed. Luhrmann reduces characters to caricatures but shades them with sympathy and real emotion. Shirley Hastings, Scott’s mother, favours yellow gold costume jewellery and oversized shoulder pads whilst Tina Sparkle, a possible replacement dance partner, wears a Carmen Miranda-worthy tropical-fruit encrusted bralet and briefs set, complete with sea green chiffon panels. In an interview with The Independent, Luhrmann explained that “the dancing is a celebration of life, fantastically theatrical and funky. It’s a celebration of kitsch, too, but in Australia we are kitsch, in a wonderful way: bright and strong and kind of full-on.”
Full-on isn’t an overstatement. Strathie, Martin and Luhrmann use costume to amplify character – each dancer has a rehearsal outfit and several ballroom costumes, spectacular showpieces that are designed to attract attention and are paired with ill-fitting wigs, fake tans and lashings of mascara and too-blue eye-shadow. The ‘costumes’ reiterate the superficial veneer and required conformity of the ballroom dancing world; for the girls, the aim is to flash flesh without overstepping the boundaries of the propriety. For the boys, the costumes act as plumage, adding gravitas and pomp. The costumes were recognised at the 1993 BAFTA awards, where eight nominations were rewarded with three awards, including Best Costume Design, Best Original Film Score and Best Production Design.
Scott’s dancer number is 100, which, combined with the gold sequin trim on his costume, symbolises his desire for perfection and his determination to win. The title sequence sees the dancers circling the floor in slow-motion, reinforcing the idea that they are powerful athletes – in fact the scene resembles a sporting events, each athlete reduced to slo-mo to better showcase their technique. It’s not until Scott is introduced to Fran’s family that he begins to understand (read: to feel) dance. Fran’s father Ya Ya (Armonia Benedito) encourages Scott to feel the rhythm in his heart, and introduces a flamenco element (and some Cuban heels), and teaches the couple to dance on the family’s veranda. In the final dance scene, Scott acknowledges the debt he owes to Ya Ya by wearing a spectacular bolero jacket that could have been borrowed from a bullfighter’s wardrobe. Apparently, the jacket cost AUD 5,000, an immense sum considering that the film’s budget didn’t run to much more than AUD 3.5 million.
By contrast, Fran’s story is an ugly duckling to swan fable. She stands apart from the gaudiness of Shirley Hastings, Tina Sparkle and Liz Holt (Scott’s original dance partner). Where the latter prefers mini-skirts and midriff baring gypsy-style crop tops that could’ve come straight from the 80s, Fran opts for frizzy hair, demure midi-length skirts or cotton leggings and oversized pastel t-shirts with floral appliques. Her large glasses immediately mark her out as an awkward frump who’s obviously no match for Scott, but the audience, aware from the outset that this is a story with a happy ending, and not surprised when she reveals she can dance without them. The setting – behind a large illuminated Coke sign on the roof of the dance school – imbues Fran with a sense of excitement and glamour for the first time.
Of course, it’s not just Fran who undergoes a transformation. Scott learns to see through the shallow world of ballroom dancing, opens his eyes to new cultures and to recognises what it lacks. His evolution is tracked much less through costume and attire; because he already ‘belonged’ in the dancing world he needs to suppress his original inclinations in order to remove himself from its constraints.
The success of Strictly Ballroom is more surprising when you consider its inauspicious beginnings; the plot originated as a stage play that the director devised with a group of students in 1984. The message – to follow your dream and be true to yourself – might be unashamedly corny, but it’s one that Luhrmann delivers with aplomb. This is a lively, feel-good romance, and this year the film comes full circle with a stage musical, overseen by Luhrmann, Martin and John “Cha Cha” O’Connell (the original choreographer), which opens at the Sydney Lyric in March.