Simon Bossell and Ruth Cracknell in the 1994 film 'Spider & Rose'.
Simon Bossell and Ruth Cracknell in the 1994 film 'Spider & Rose'.

Why the government film agency railed against casting Ruth Cracknell in Bill Bennett’s ’90s film ‘Spider & Rose’

This story is an edited excerpt from the new book ‘Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry‘.

Ruth Cracknell’s performance as Maggie in the Mother and Son ABC TV series made her an Australian cultural icon in the 1980s. It was the culmination of decades of theatrical and TV work that led to her most famous role as an increasingly forgetful, manipulative mother. Yet the government’s film agency thought she couldn’t act.

Director Bill Bennett found out their views when he decided Cracknell would be the perfect actor to appear opposite newcomer Simon Bossell in his 1990s comedy-drama about ageing, Spider & Rose. The $3.38 million film was to be wholly-funded via the Film Finance Corporation’s (FFC) fourth Film Fund, which allowed the government agency to impose more of its creative views.

“The proposed cast for Spider & Rose causes concern: Ruth Cracknell has yet to deliver a credible screen performance and Simon Bossell (Joh’s Jury) is highly inexperienced,” FFC executive Catriona Hughes wrote to the FFC board ahead of its June 1993 meeting.

“We have advised the producers (Lyn McCarthy and Graeme Tubbenhauer) that we will not shortlist the project (a) without a credible test performance (to be undertaken in early-July) and (b) without an experienced associate producer.”

Bennett today recalls FFC chief executive John Morris gave him an ultimatum over Cracknell’s casting.

“He called me into his office and he said, ‘We’ve decided we will totally finance this film, but only on the basis that you don’t cast Ruth Cracknell’… and I remember this really distinctly – I got up off of the chair and I said, ‘Well, thank you. But I’m going with Ruth’. I walked to the door and he called out to me said, ‘All right, you can have Ruth. But mark my words, it is the biggest mistake you’ll ever make in your life’.”

The film was released in 1994, although it was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding that would become Australia’s biggest hits at the box office that year. While Spider & Rose didn’t find a wide audience, US studio Disney bought the remake rights.

But more importantly, an executive from Disney-owned Hollywood Pictures saw Spider & Rose at the Cannes Film Festival – he was looking for someone to direct a Denis Leary-penned rom-com called Two If by Sea. The film’s producers, the legendary Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, signed Bennett to direct the movie based on Spider & Rose.

Meanwhile, Cracknell’s popularity continued to grow – her work in Mother & Son garnered her a second consecutive Logie for Most Outstanding Actress in 1994 (the year Spider & Rose was released). In 2001, she was awarded the TV Week Logie Hall of Fame for her services to Australian television – her last TV appearance before she passed away the following year.

Money, art and madness: How the war between bureaucrats & auteurs killed the Australian film industry is available now on Amazon.