Officially, Griffiths has been cited for “significant service to the performing arts sector as an actor”. Unofficially, you suspect, she has been recognised for her willingness to take chances – not just on screen but also off.
It was her turn as best friend Rhonda in Muriel’s Wedding that first brought her to public attention in 1994. But it was her bare-breasted protest in 1997 against the culture of greed symbolised, in her view, by the arrival of Crown Casino on the south bank of Melbourne’s Yarra River that cemented her in the public eye as not merely content to read the lines others had written for her.
“I’m not just an actor and I don’t think anyone thinks I’m just an actor,” says Griffiths. “I think very few actors are just actors actually. But I think the joy I’ve given has probably been through acting, and it’s a nice thing to say one’s given to the world just a tiny bit of joy.”
Her work has been lauded and awarded. She has worked across stage (winning a Green Room Award for Proof), film (an Oscar nomination for Hilary and Jackie in 1999, three AFI awards), and television (two Emmy nominations for each of Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters, a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild awards for Six Feet Under, and an AACTA last December for Total Control). And her feature directing debut Ride Like a Girl was last year’s top-grossing home-grown movie.
The third child of a single mother, Griffiths was raised Catholic in Melbourne and has a strong sense of social justice. So it’s unsurprising that while delighted by her honour she is not such a fan of Australia Day as it stands.
“To me the greatest moment of our nation was Federation,” she says. The birth of this country as an independent nation on January 1, 1901 encapsulates, she believes, “the great part of Australia – its forward thinking, its ambitions to have a non-corrupt representative democracy. I’d like that to be celebrated.”
Shifting the date from January 26, she adds, “would make a really clear delineation between the arrival of a quite brutal colonial settlement versus our ambitions for ourselves as a country, and it would acknowledge that for our Indigenous people that date is not in any way a day of celebration.”
Among the others from the world of entertainment to receive Australia Day honours are the following: pioneering transgender performer Carol Spencer, aka Carlotta; former Little River Band singer Glenn Shorrock; musician, writer and comedian Tim Minchin; dancer and actor Paul Mercurio; television presenter and former Olympic swimmer Johanna Griggs; Indigenous playwright and director Wesley Enoch; novelist Kerry Greenwood; comedian Mary Kenneally; actor Noelene Brown; ACMI director Katrina Sedgwick; comedian and writer Jane Turner; musician Deborah Conway; actor Hugo Weaving; Wiggles manager (and one-time Captain Feathersword) Paul Field; and Grammy Award-winning musician Keith Urban.
Keith Urban was flabbergasted by the news he was to be appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). “Where do I begin? An Aussie boy from Caboolture – to be recognised with this honour – is deeply humbling,” the Nashville-based country music star said in a brief statement.
Urban was in fact born in New Zealand, but was raised in Queensland before decamping to the home of country music in 1992. He worked steadily as a session musician before releasing his first US album – like his first Australia-only album, simply titled Keith Urban – in 1999. Eight more albums, and a bunch of awards – among them eight Country Music Association awards, three ARIAs and four Grammys – have followed.
“I feel like one of the lucky ones, to have found my passion for music so early on and experience first-hand the importance of giving back,” says Urban, who has been married to Nicole Kidman since 2006. “I thank everyone that made this possible. I am truly moved.”
Wesley Enoch admits he’s a “little ambivalent” about the concept of Australia Day. However the Sydney Festival director, who is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man, says he intends to use the honour to keep shining a light on truth-telling, survival and resilience.
“I’m quite heartened by the fact the Australia Day Council now has this three-word motto which is reflect, respect, celebrate,” he says. “I think they’ve embraced this idea the nation needs to think about itself on the national day. It was only 1994 that it got legislated to happen on January 26. Before then it was whatever long weekend we could make it. You see all the Survival Day concerts around the nation and you go, OK, we can celebrate things a little bit differently.”
Enoch is being made a Member of the Order of Australia for his significant contribution to the arts. He has been an artistic director at institutions such as the Queensland Theatre Company and Belvoir Street Theatre. He has also written a number of critically-acclaimed productions such as The 7 Stages of Grieving (which he co-wrote with Deborah Mailman). And in 2004 he directed the original stage production of The Sapphires.
Enoch says he would like to see January 26 turn away from nationalism and instead embrace a day of “thoughtfulness”.
This is exactly what he hopes to have achieved at this year’s Sydney Festival. On Saturday, he programmed an event called The Vigil which sees Sydneysiders sit by a campfire and reflect on Australia’s colonial past.
“Nothing can change history,” the festival director says. “We can’t send the first fleet back. But we can ask questions about who we are now in response to that history.”
Perth-raised musician, writer, composer, actor and comedian Tim Minchin is freshest in the memory for Upright, the TV series he co-wrote and starred in that spanned Australia and tugged the heartstrings, as well as his 2019 BACK tour which won rave reviews and a Helpmann Award.
He is an internationally recognised artist, most notably through his massively successful and loved musical Matilda, running in London for almost a decade.
Behind the irrepressible talent lies intellect, empathy and a passionate love for his home country. His song White Wine In The Sun is the 21st century sequel to I Still Call Australia Home. His progressive, rational, humanist ideals are expressed through his work and public appearances. His last Australian tour generated almost $500,000 for charity.
Minchin said he feels “reinvigorated to do my part in making sure the arts continue to be valued in our country”.
“When public discourse is depressingly bubble-based and binary, it is perhaps more important than ever to keep creating; to keep telling stories that open our eyes to other worlds and other points of view.”
He adds “it would be nice if in the future these awards were handed out on a different day.”
It’s been 28 years since Baz Luhrmann’s feature film debut Strictly Ballroom burst into cinemas. The movie became an cult-classic and helped kickstart the career of leading man Paul Mercurio.
Now, the dancer-turned-actor is being made a Member of the Order of Australia for his contributions to the nation’s film and television industries. After Strictly Ballroom, Mercurio went on to appear in Australian films such as Cosi and A Silent Agreement and has even appeared on television as a character in Neighbours.
Mercurio most recently starred alongside Tina Arena in Promised – a 2019 film that explores arranged marriages in the Italian-Australian community in 1950s Melbourne. The actor said he was “quite humbled and obviously very grateful” for the Australia Day honour.
“I first stepped on stage 41 years ago as a young boy,” he said. “For me, it’s a wonderful feeling to have my career acknowledged in this way. I’d do everything for free. I just love it. It’s who I am.”
Julie Kantor has made her name in the charity sector, supporting arts and Indigenous issues in her native Victoria and across Australia.
Kantor follows in the steps of her famous grandmother, Elisabeth Murdoch, the late matriarch of the Murdoch family, who was renowned for her philanthropy. It’s almost a case of history repeating itself: in 1989, Dame Elisabeth was appointed to the Order of Australia for her public service, just like her granddaughter today.
Kantor founded her own charity, the Annamila Foundation, which supports Indigenous Australians, refugees and the arts. The Foundation aims for a “more just and creative world”, and helps groups like the Short Black Opera Company and the Bangarra dance company.
A love of music runs through Kantor’s work, inspired by her Czech father Milan, who trained as a concert pianist. She and her siblings have donated millions to the Melbourne Recital Hall and Kantor regularly serves as an ambassador for galleries and arts festivals.
Generations of parents owe their sanity to Paul Field. The musician, once the frontman of Sydney’s ‘80s pub-rock legends The Cockroaches, has been the manager of kids’-pop juggernaut The Wiggles since 1998.
In essence The Wiggles were borne from Field’s own tragedy. In 1988 Field’s eight-month-old daughter died of SIDS and The Cockroaches solemnly folded. In 1991 Field’s brother and bandmate Anthony formed The Wiggles, dedicating the band’s first album to Field’s late daughter. “When I think of how much joy The Wiggles have brought to children, it’s good to know that out of an event so horrifying something good has come,” Paul told The Australian in 2007.
As manager, the 58-year-old also helped the group navigate its risky personnel overhaul in 2012, continuing the franchise’s global success – albums, tours, TV shows, merchandise, and even a museum exhibition – with the addition of popular new stars Emma Watkins and Lachlan Gillespie. Already in 2020 he’s organised a reunion tour from the original lineup aimed at raising funds for bushfire relief.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.