Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
The silver screen will shine a little less brightly in Australia after the announcement this week of the end of the long running network television movie review show, “At the Movies”. Like Siskel and Ebert, the two beloved sparring hosts, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz have not only shaped the fiber of film criticism and enjoyment of film for Australian movie lovers over the past three decades, but have become cultural icons of Australia, often parodied and spoofed, and sometimes by the best, including Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush who once took to their chairs in mock homage to celebrate their 25th anniversary on air (see clip at the bottom of this piece).
Stratton and Pomeranz announced their retirement this week and the final show will air December 9. “I should stress the decision to quit was ours,” said Stratton in the announcement. “The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) were perfectly happy to continue the program with us. However, you can't keep going forever, and this seemed the right time to bring an end to a very enjoyable and, some would claim, influential on-screen partnership.”
David Stratton, who recently turned 75, is one of the most respected film historians and critics not only in Australia but in the world. He was the former director of the Sydney Film Festival (from 1966 to 1983), he lectured in film history at Sydney University, wrote film reviews for Variety, and, in 2001, he was appointed with the Croix de Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Literature), the highest rank for this award, for his services to cinema, in particular French cinema.
He has constantly traveled the world attending many film festivals over the years and became good friends with Roger Ebert. They would often engage in heated and hilarious debates on film. After hosting a series of “Movie of the Weeks” in the early '80s on public broadcasting in Australia, Stratton initiated a movie review show inspired by the success of Siskel and Ebert. “We bemoaned the fact that there was no national TV show in Australia dedicated to reviewing new film releases along the lines of Siskel and Ebert program in the US,” he said.
Margaret Pomeranz, a feisty, no-nonsense writer/producer who had been working with him on his “Movie of the Week” intros had the muscle to get the show to air. “We both always wanted the show to feature two critics (like Siskel and Ebert) and from the beginning we thought I should be teamed with a woman. I had the idea that Margaret might appear with me on camera and well as produce. Her original reaction was negative, but she was eventually persuaded,” Stratton wrote this week in “The Australian” newspaper.
Replacing the thumbs up and down with a star rating score, their first show went to air on October 30, 1986 including a review of Bruce Beresford’s film “The Fringe Dwellers.” Their show, which covered all cinema releases from Hollywood blockbusters to foreign language to documentaries, aired for the next 18 years before moving to Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC and an even bigger audience in 2004. While their first encounters were awkward--Stratton the scholarly film historian, Pomeranz, the more emotional gut level reviewer with a decidedly feminist perspective--they soon became everyone’s favorite movie review squabbling odd couple.
Margaret and David (as everyone calls them) will leave behind their biggest legacy: their unending support for Australian film. Local film makers and producers will surely miss their invaluable contribution for homegrown product. The pair also tirelessly campaigned against local censorship even creating headlines in 2003 when Pomeranz helped organize a screening of the banned film “Ken Park”. Stratton didn’t hesitate to join her in slamming Australian censorship bodies. Their efforts have no doubt been a huge boost to Australian film culture.
This week actor Geoffrey Rush declared the pair "five-star cineastes".
"Their sparkling bickering was always entertaining and informative - their yin-and-yang opinions presented neat snapshots of the uncompromised fearless array they selected from the contemporary and heritage cinema catalogue," Rush said.
Stratton commented in his farewell letter in “The Australian”: “Now that it’s all coming to an end, I look back with nostalgia and gratitude for the support we’ve received since the show began. It’s sobering to reflect that cinemagoers in their early 30s may have been watching us all their lives.”