The material on this page is available to AustLit subscribers. If you are a subscriber or are from a subscribing organisation, please log in to gain full access. To explore options for subscribing to this unique teaching, research, and publishing resource for Australian culture and storytelling, please contact us or find out more.
Max Cullen is familiar to audiences for his warm, crumpled face and for his ability to inhabit so many characters. Over the last fifty years Cullen has appeared in numerous productions on the main stages of Sydney and Melbourne, on television in a wide range of roles, and in many Australian feature films. He worked at the Ensemble in the early years, with Hayes Gordon, and with the Nimrod Theatre Company when it was established. Cullen’s work on television and film ranges across a wide range of genres and modes, from Skippy (1967) to Bodyline (1984) to Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and on stage, from Hamlet (1981) and Volpone (2002) to Waiting for Godot (2003).
Throughout his acting career Cullen has drawn on the training he undertook with Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney. He is regarded by some as highly ‘idiosyncratic’, an actor with a ‘non-projective style’ and has been called ‘Australia’s leading anti-actor’.(1) Cullen endorses an anti-acting style.(2) This style refers to what was thought of in the 1960s and 1970s as a rejection of traditional acting modes by many emerging actors in Australia in favour of a quieter more contained and more naturalistic way of performing. Over the course of his life Cullen has shown a great capacity for advocacy through his work, for social justice and plain speaking on many topics. He is probably the only Australian who can boast to having been friends with the likes of Brett Whiteley, Patrick White, Jim McNeil and Roger Rogerson.
Cullen is also recognised as typical of the ‘rugged new kind of actor’ associated with the new wave plays that were performed at the Nimrod and the Ensemble in Sydney, and the APG in Melbourne.(3) His approach to acting throughout his career relies on the techniques he learned from Hayes Gordon and from Stella Adler, a commitment to research and a strong belief in his own imaginative authority. He appeared in various Australian television drama series in the 1960s and 1970s and has contributed significantly to the film industry as it developed from the 1970s until the present. He appeared in Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and other iconic feature films such as My Brilliant Career (1979). Cullen has also designed and directed in the theatre. In addition he excels as a painter, sculptor and caricaturist: his portrait of Geoffrey Rush made him a finalist for the Archibald Prize in 2000.
Photo by Anne Pender, 2013.
Max Cullen’s one-man show How to be (or not to be) Lennie Lower (2013) reveals his life-long fascination with the popular humourist of the 1930s, who, like Cullen, was born in Wellington New South Wales. This production was not Cullen’s first production to portray the life of Lennie Lower. Ten years earlier Cullen presented another one man show about Lower.(4) The two shows demonstrate the profound impact of the columnist on Cullen’s imagination, sense of humour, verbal style and persona. The 2013 play, written and performed by Cullen, premiered at the Street Theatre in Canberra on 25 May 2013. In the same week, Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation of the The Great Gatsby opened in cinemas around Australia, with Cullen playing the enigmatic character Owl Eyes. These two roles demonstrate Cullen’s capacity to work across genres and to create whimsical and enigmatic characters in various settings.
The anarchic spirit that Cullen presented in his performance of Lenny Lower in 2013 is perhaps part of Cullen’s personality, as is the romantic, self-deprecating manner on display in the play. The discipline required by an entertainer, the commitment to truth telling, social justice and an anti-authoritarian mentality, that Lower brought to journalism in his time, is a feature of the life and work of Max Cullen.
Max’s father Alec and his older brother Fred, known as ‘Cul’, were big fans of Lennie Lower, constantly quoting his jokes and puns. It is as if Lower’s funny tales, anecdotes and infamous deeds imprinted on Cullen as a boy and as a young man, producing in him both admiration and disquiet.
Max Cullen as Lennie Lower in How To Be (Or Not To Be) Lower, Street Theatre, Canberra, 2013, Courtesy Margarita Georgiadis.
The ability to make a script physically as well as verbally comical is one of Max Cullen’s gifts and he soared in his portrayal of the great Australian humourist. In bringing Lower’s life to the stage Cullen faced many difficult tasks: converting the verbal humour of Lower’s writing into something visual and physical, embodying the spirit of the man, and making what was a very private life into a compelling story for an audience several generations later on in history.
Cullen read masses of articles written by Lower for the Women’s Weekly, The Daily Telegraph and Smith’s Weekly in order to write the script for the recent play. He made ingenious use of the toasting phrase that Lower used as the title of his best-selling novel Here’s Luck (1930) in several surreal moments, when a glass descended from the ceiling on a string and later another glass appeared as if by magic on the bar. In the play as in so many of Cullen’s roles, his touch is light. His demeanour as Lower was clown-like and melancholy. Cullen alluded to Chaplin, wearing a black three-piece suit, moustache and white face. In a highly theatrical black and white set festooned with newspapers and discarded typed pages, on one side an office and on the other side of the stage a bar, Cullen darted around, humming, miming, singing and re-telling conversations he has with the likes of Frank Packer and others.
According to Cullen, Lower was a writer who was consistently funny over many years, producing thousands of columns that delighted men and women alike.(5) The parallel of having to write comic pieces on cue and the stress of having to entertain people on a daily basis, is not so different to the demands on an actor, and the point is not lost on Max Cullen. The witty meta-theatrical asides in the play draw attention to Cullen as actor and creator of Lower, and the existential strangeness of such a thing. At one point after singing a song he reminded the audience in an aside: ‘This has nothing to do with the play, I just happen to like it’.
Max Cullen as Lennie Lower in How To Be (Or Not To Be) Lower, Street Theatre, Canberra, 2013, Courtesy Margarita Georgiadis.
Maxwell Phillip Cullen entered the world on 29 April 1940, the second of three children of Alec Cullen and Lila Mary Cullen (nee Vale). Alec, an electrical linesman, contracted tuberculosis that same year, just after volunteering to serve. He resigned from his job and the family moved to Lawson in the Blue Mountains for the clear mountain air. Their house was a dilapidated old butchery and baker’s shop covered in blackberry vines. The windows were cracked and the icy mountain winds roared through the place. Max remembers his father coughing incessantly and muttering to himself ‘Die you bastard’. Max also feared that he would die and prayed every night that he would wake up the next morning.(6)
Cullen lisped as a small boy until one of the nuns at his primary school, Sister Joan, helped him overcome it.(7) Another nun beat him, for mumbling, with the wooden end of a feather duster. His love of performing began in kindergarten when he was asked to replace a boy who was sick as the cute boy with jam all over his face while the other five year olds sang in front of an audience: ‘He’s got the cutest little jammie face’. But the sick boy recovered and Max missed out on the role. He was extremely disappointed.(8) The young Max adored his older brother. Max recalls that Fred was ‘loud, boisterous, clever at school, a champion at sport, popular, gregarious and utterly intolerant of stupidity or anyone whose opinion differed from his own’.(9) Max by contrast was quiet, shy, suffered from dyslexia but was not afraid to stand up for the weak kids.
In 1949 Ben Chifley visited the Cullen family at their house in Lawson. He requested Alec Cullen’s help in campaigning because he had lost his voice and he also advised him about going on the pension, something Alec had so far refused to do. Unable to work because of his illness Cullen senior raised chickens and grew vegetables and his wife Lila worked. The children were sworn to secrecy on the topic of their father’s illness. Max recalls his father giving Chifley directions to the house over the telephone: ‘When you get off at Lawson, turn right at the bottom of the steps, then right after Hilda Gardens, past the Council Chambers on your left, then left into San Jose Avenue, past Stratford School and the next street is Park Road, turn left at the light on top of the hill. We are in Grasspan, the semi behind Ashwood’.(10) Amusingly Cullen states that this must have been the inspiration for Chifley’s use of the expression later on that year in his famous speech. Lila had scrubbed the whole house, baked a cake, scones and made sandwiches for the visit. Chifley and Cullen sat around the fire talking and smoking pipes, with Chifley whispering due to his laryngitis. ‘We loved him’ recalls Max.(11)
In spite of his illness and the constraints this put on his activities, Alec Cullen helped others. In the evenings he tutored a man who became the first Aboriginal electrician to work on the NSW railways and taught another man horse riding.(12) Alec’s interest in politics left its mark on his son Max; the hardships he knew as a boy, his observations of his parents in the face of adversity and Chifley’s visit, had a life-long effect on him. His sense of social justice, anti-authoritarian cast of mind, independence, love of language and his appreciation for the vernacular spring from his father’s influence.
After a short stint at Katoomba High Max attended Westmead Secondary Junior Technical School once the family moved to a housing commission home in Northmead. He left school at 15 and worked as a copy boy on the Sydney Morning Herald. After twelve months he went to work for the advertising firm Lintas and at the suggestion of another office boy working there, Brett Whiteley, left East Sydney Tech to go to Julian Ashton’s art school. After working for five years on Pix and Woman’s Day he returned to East Sydney Technical College to study sculpture full time with Lyndon Dadswell. By then he was a freelance artist, contributing caricatures, drawings and other graphics to magazines. Cullen drank at the Newcastle Hotel in George Street near Circular Quay where he met artists and writers and also frequented the Royal George, home to the Push.
In August 1958 Cullen saw a play performed in a space above a cake shop in North Sydney, directed by the American actor Hayes Gordon. It was a thriller by Mel Dinelli called The Man and was performed to an audience on tiered seating in the round. Cullen had never seen acting like it before and was captivated by the psychodrama that unfolded in front of him. While the murderer, played by Jon Ewing, slowly and methodically sliced a sheet of paper up into strips with a sharp knife, his intended victim, played by Clarissa Kaye hid in a closet. Cullen, from his vantage point at the back of the raked seating could see Kaye from his seat in the closet. No-one else could see her. She was visibly shaking and terrified, completely in character, ‘not acting, but they were really re-acting to one another, really conversing’, Max told me.
Max Cullen in Neil Simon’s I Ought to be in Pictures, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, 2001. Photograph by Robert McFarlane, Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery.
Cullen noticed an ad in the newspaper for Hayes Gordon’s acting classes on Sunday mornings and he and a group of his drinking companions (26 of them) in the Push who were fascinated by the new style of directing and the idea of the Method, went to the Ensemble Theatre class. At this first class Hayes Gordon spoke to the participants about the Method and how it worked. Max summed up the Method for me in a sentence: ‘You can’t be somebody, you take on adjustments and to find the emotion in the character you go to your own life experience and some emotion memory, you remember some trauma in your life that you can use for the character you are playing’. Cullen went back the following Sunday and the one after that, and stayed with the Ensemble for ten years.
Hayes Gordon invited Cullen to design the set for a production of The Physicists in 1963 and gave him a walk-on part in this play as well. Cullen played the Scavenger in The Thracian Horses (1964) with Reg Livermore in the leading role as King Admetus. In 1965 Hayes Gordon cast Cullen in his first major role, as the 82-year-old Sam in Peter Ustinov’s play Photo Finish. It was a stretch as Cullen was just 24 at the time.
Over the next few years Hayes Gordon cast Cullen in various roles at the Ensemble Theatre. There was little remuneration from his acting for the first ten years of his career and so he took on work as a cleaner from midnight until eight in the morning. For some months Cullen took a position as press artist at the Telegraph, doing the night shift. Cullen remembers his training with Hayes Gordon as exciting, intense and valuable. He knew that Gordon recognised his ability. Gordon also sent Max and all of his acting students to a Swiss psychiatrist called Dr Weiss. Cullen observed the negative effect of this and of Hayes Gordon on some of the acting students. In Max’s view, Hayes Gordon’s efforts to toughen people up damaged them. But Cullen found the techniques Gordon taught powerful and effective. Rather than seeing actors ‘saying their words in nice rounded English accents and not really relating to each other … he knew how to move an audience and how actors could get a response by staying open and not anticipating the actions of the other actor’.(13) The acting training Cullen received from Hayes Gordon in the early 1960’s stays with him to this day: ‘I still plot actions for my lines. I still go through the script and do that … so that you say lines and you know why you are saying the lines, and what you are trying to do to the other person, what your spine is’, he told me.
Max Cullen believes that his performance in the role of the character Rocky in the prison documentary drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1968) by the Canadian playwright John Herbert, was critical to his developing career and specifically in leading to a series of ‘baddie roles’ on television and in film. Directed by Brian Syron who had studied both with Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney and in New York with Stella Adler, the play dealt openly with homosexuality and with the savagery of prison life. During the rehearsal period Syron invited the convicted bank robber and prison escapee Darcy Dugan to speak to the cast. Dugan informed them about the violence of the prison guards and Syron revealed his own experiences in detention as a youngster. The play was a success in terms of drawing large audiences over an extended season and in raising the issue of prison violence in the public sphere. The critic Katharine Brisbane stated that the play renewed her faith in Australian theatre, which she feared was dying because so much of it had so little to say. Brisbane described the play as ‘hard hitting’ and praised it for the urgency of its content in portraying the corrupting culture of prison. In her initial review of the play Brisbane applauded the Ensemble (who she had thought of as rather ‘aimless’ and ‘soft’centred’) for seizing on ‘the right theme at the right time’. Although she found fault with didactic elements of the play itself Brisbane found the production honest, muscular, strong and ‘dedicatedly naturalistic’ in its portrayal of life inside. Brisbane praised the performances of Max Phipps and Max Cullen as exciting and original. ‘Max Cullen’s Rocky is … a distinguished performance developing from an orthodox bully to a nervous psychotic with a facial tic and a compulsive laugh. (16)
Four weeks later Brisbane wrote another column in the Australian about the impact of the play:
The theatre’s role in a public matter like this is quite a simple one – to raise it and find a way of involving people. Its job is not to find solutions. The argument on prison reform is going on and the arguers are beginning to forget the play which started it all in favour of more important and more damning facts gathered closer to home. That is exactly how it should be.(17)
After his success as Rocky, Cullen played the son of Mafia strong man Mario Costello in an episode of the TCN 9 Sydney crime series The Link Men (1970). The series was devised by Glyn Davies, a former Scotland Yard detective, and the episode in which Cullen appeared in a small role, written by Tony Morphett, was called The Quiet One. The series as a whole offered a realistic and authentic police drama that was produced with the cooperation of the NSW Police Force. (18) This episode presents a fruit and vegetable farmer who attempts to sell his produce outside the mafia network and is burned to death as a punishment, leading to a reprisal from his sons. It was low budget black and white drama and was uneven in the quality of the scripts and the acting.
Cullen played a few small roles on television during the 1960s and in 1970 he was offered a role in the Ned Kelly film directed by Tony Richardson, with Mick Jagger playing the lead. However, with his financial position firmly in mind, Cullen opted instead for a part in a new television situation comedy series of thirteen half hour episodes for ATN Seven called Mrs Finnegan, featuring Dolore Whiteman in the title role as a middle aged widow. Mrs Finnegan despairs of her lazy grown up son Darby, who never seems to have a job and shows little interest in trying to get one. Darby was played by Reg Gorman and Cullen played Darby’s friend, a rather dim witted, gormless but attractive young man called Hilton Harper. Marion Johns played Mrs Finnegan’s nosy and very worldly neighbour Amy who utters lines such as ‘I may be untidy but I drink my brandy neat’. Cullen was new to comedy but played the dopey, but likeable no-hoper, with ease. In viewing the series after so many years, you can see his mastery of the loose, unselfconscious body of a clown-like character. Cullen was quoted in the TV Times a few years later, making the astute comment that ‘Hilton was the absolute dope … and you have to think like a genius to play a dope’.(14)
Although much of the humour was predictable the script offered some rich material and its working class setting and use of every day Australian English, mark it out as important in the history of Australian drama on television. The overall standard of acting is high, with Ruth Cracknell, Ron Graham and John Derum appearing as guests in the series. This is perhaps not surprising as the Executive Producer of Drama at Seven was the actor Michael Pate, newly arrived back in Australia after considerable success in Hollywood. In spite of some roughness in production values, and Reg Gorman fluffing his lines fairly frequently, the situations and the narratives are funny. The series gave Cullen a chance to experiment with comedy and he earned a handsome salary for his work: $300 a week.
Cullen’s comic genius is also apparent in an episode of Matlock Police screened in 1976 called ‘The Mouth that Roared’ in which Cullen played a deranged man who attempts to prevent development in his suburb by careening around on bicycle with a megaphone and interfering in development plans. The role was written specifically for Cullen and he brought his own costume and props, a habit he told me that he has kept since his early days in television.
Cullen appeared in the landmark television mini series Scales of Justice for the ABC in 1983 playing a character called Roach who was supposedly based on a living Sydney identity. He recalls the writer Robert Caswell thrusting a whole lot of material into his hands about the real life model for the role. Cullen asked the writer whether the man had spent time in jail. Caswell replied in the negative but assured Cullen that he was involved in criminal activity. Cullen knew he wanted to play the figure as a businessman and when he went to meet the director he wore a suit, the expression of a pug and contact lenses that made his eyes appear to be black. Throughout the series he wore the lenses and is convinced he was chosen for the role because of the way he appeared and acted at this initial meeting. (15)
At Nimrod one of Cullen’s most significant roles was in Jim McNeil’s play How Does Your Garden Grow (1974) directed by John Bell. Cullen had appeared in two earlier productions of McNeil’s plays The Chocolate Frog (1973) and The Old Familiar Juice (1973). McNeil wrote what is considered to be his ‘major work’ How Does Your Garden Grow while serving a sentence at Bathurst Gaol, for armed robbery and shooting a policeman. Katherine Brisbane, David Marr and others, who recognised McNeil’s talent as a playwright, mounted a campaign to release McNeil on parole and in October 1974 it was granted. At the time of his release Nimrod was in rehearsal for the premiere of How Does Your Garden Grow. Cullen played one of the prisoners, Sam, based on McNeil himself, with characteristic restraint yet heightened, held in, barely expressed emotion. His distinctive non-theatrical style was sensitive and highly effective.
Cullen appeared in the world premiere of Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man (1975) for the National Black Theatre, alongside actors such as Danny Adcock, Zac Martin, Lisa Maza and Justine Saunders. This play was the first indigenous Australian work to find publication, to be adapted for television and to tour on the international circuit.
Max Cullen first met Patrick White when he played Ernie Boyle, the sanitary man in The Season at Sarsaparilla, directed by Jim Sharman in 1976 for the Old Tote, and White attended some of the rehearsals. White had suggested Cullen for the role after seeing him in the film Sunday Too Far Away (1975). After the last performance the two of them began to talk. For a time Cullen joined White’s ‘family of actors’.(19) White told Cullen he was writing a play for Max and Kate Fitzpatrick. It was Big Toys (1977) and Cullen’s role was modelled on Jack Mundey, the well-known, powerful trade union leader. White told Cullen that Mundey ‘rescued Centennial Park from the ghastly developers’. Cullen replied ‘He rescued your view, so you like him. Well that’ll be a change … You, actually writing about someone you like…’.(20) The exchange captures Cullen’s directness, strongly held view of White’s misanthropic writing and his ability to best White’ in archness and cynicism. But the role of Mundey did not come easily to Cullen. He found it difficult to play the union crusader. Brian Syron helped him, with his advice to Cullen to think of Henry Lawson, who he believed shared some of Mundey’s qualities, especially ‘an inner goodness, a sense of injustice and a great love for Australia’.(21)
David Williamson wrote the character Kevin Cassidy for Max Cullen. Cassidy is based on the journalist Brian Toohey in Sons of Cain (1985). Williamson also directed the premiere of the production and Cullen travelled to London with the play, which was widely acclaimed. Cullen portrayed the fearlessness of the embattled investigative journalist with refreshing toughness and vigour. His ability to convey so much in every line, differentiating line by line, was particularly captivating in his performance. In Cullen’s view this role was one of his best in his entire career. He was nominated for the Sir Laurence Olivier Award for best actor.
Williamson also wrote the part of Mike (modelled on the journalist Denis Whitburn) for Cullen in his play Emerald City. The play opened in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on 1 January 1987 and was directed by Richard Wherrett. Cullen’s character Mike persuades Colin, the character based on Williamson himself (played by John Bell), to work with him on a television miniseries. With Bell, Robyn Nevin and Ruth Cracknell it was an exceptional cast.
Cullen excelled in his performance of Will Lusty in Patrick White’s play The Ham Funeral, directed by Neil Armfield for the Sydney Theatre Company in 1989. Throughout the first act Cullen as Lusty sits corpse-like and sullen, clad in stained worn out underwear, in his kitchen chair smoking his pipe, his ‘mouth foul with silence’ as Mrs Lusty says. In portraying this mound of ‘uncommunicative flesh’ Cullen created a magnetic stillness, revealing the unpretentious, understated quality of his acting style, in his few embittered, crusty utterances and angry outbursts. He falls off his kitchen chair and dies and in death he is convincing, from the fall to the floor to the open eyes and floppy limbs as Mrs Lusty and her young lodger struggle to lift him on to the bed.
Max Cullen as Henry Lawson in Faces in the Street A Salute to Henry Lawson, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2010.
As the archetypal Australian Alf, Cullen shone. For the theatre critic John McCallum it was Cullen’s portrayal of Alf in the Sydney Theatre Company production of The One Day of the Year in 2003 that stood out. He found the performance moving and ‘great to watch’. McCallum stated that he had always found Cullen to be ‘an actor who often seems to shamble through his roles, mumbling the lines and faltering – he sometimes seems to be making it up. But the emotional trajectories of his performances are always clear and sharp. Each moment, each shift in attention, each new thought is there. I don’t know how he does it … ’.(22)
Cullen received a Green Room Award for best male actor in a featured role in Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s landmark stage adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1998). In staging episodes from the novel, monologues had to be written to dramatise emotional development such as the journey of Quick. Jack Tiewes documented this process and remarked on the way in which Cullen’s storehouse of Australian expressions helped drive the adaptation process. (23)
In 2015 Cullen played Henry Lawson, with Warren Fahey as Banjo Paterson in Dead Men Talking, a play written and devised by Cullen with Fahey as co-playwright, that toured NSW and Victoria. The play celebrates Australian poetry and Australian cultural life. It also celebrates Cullen’s commitment to live theatre and to taking his plays to a wide range of small towns where audiences who grew up immersed in Lawson and Paterson can participate in the dramatic reconstruction of the world of the two iconic writers.
Max Cullen as Henry Lawson in Faces in the Street A Salute to Henry Lawson, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2010.
Cullen prepares carefully and slowly for roles. He is a slow reader, admits to having a poor memory and spends a great deal of time reading a script line by line in order to become immersed in it, and to make sense of it.(24) When he trained with Hayes Gordon lines were learned during the rehearsal period. Max believes in this approach as lines follow actions, and come much more organically to the actors if they are learned in this manner. He fully imagines his characters before filming or rehearsing, and sometimes even before casting decisions are finalised.
In a moody and haunting film called The Office Picnic (1972) Cullen played a languid Irishman with a love of poetry, and demonstrated his capacity for comic performance in a completely different register to his earlier comic roles. Cullen also revealed an ability to write and contributed his own lines to the script, he told me.
Playing a shearing contractor in Sunday Too Far Away (1975) directed by Ken Hannam, in his first major film role, Cullen was the middle man, standing between the ‘cocky’ and the workers, plotting a middle course and attempting to keep everyone happy. His smaller stature amongst the brawny shearers (led by Jack Thompson) with their hyper masculine competitiveness and aggression, marked him out physically in the role, and the nervous tension he evinced in his face and body showed a completely different side to his acting, to that shown in the comic television roles of the same period. His performance in the role also embodied a mental toughness and single-mindedness that contrasts the larrikin roughness of the shearers. The strength of the film is that it did not present just one version of Australian masculinity, although Jack Thompson’s boorish, domineering, anti-authoritarian expression of bravado is the most recognisable. The hard realism of the film and its compassion for the loneliness of the lives of the shearers made this a powerful film in which Cullen’s contribution was significant.
In the thriller Summerfield (1977) also directed by Ken Hannam, Cullen played a menacing, oafish and wronged husband. Up until the last few minutes of the film the possibility of this character being a murderer is kept alive. Perhaps Cullen’s most chilling role as a criminal was Buster in the feature film Hoodwink (1981). The screenplay was based on an actual criminal who faked blindness in prison. Cullen played a hardened con who goes along with the act put on by the supposedly blind felon, Marty, (John Hargreaves), and in one scene ‘helps’ him to eat his lunch. Cullen only appears for several minutes in this film but conveys absolute toughness and solidarity with his fellow inmate, taking the man’s plate and explaining what is on it: ‘That’s brown shit, that’s yellow shit and that’s gray shit’ he says, poking each pile of mush with a fork, a look of conspiratorial disgust and resignation on his face.
The versatility that Cullen brings to roles is striking, particularly the way in which he portrays so many expressions of masculinity. As the boorish M’Swat in My Brilliant Career (1979) he brought warmth, humour and some pathos to the role without sentimentality. The nuances of class, circumstance and personality are rendered in his performance of this character with Cullen’s usual understated ease.
In one of Cullen’s most joyful films Billy’s Holiday (1995), Cullen plays a hardware store owner in Sydney who is a part-time pub jazz singer. It is a rather meandering musical film that has the feel of a stage musical, in which Max’s character Billy Apple longs to be able to sing like his idol Billie Holiday. He sings rather strange, falsetto bluesy love songs, dances in the rain and sits up on his roof marvelling at the sky and imagining happiness and a life of jazz music. Cullen believes that the film was marred by its low budget and the fact that he had to record the songs and then mime them the following day. In his view the film damaged his career. But it is one of the most gentle, whimsical musical films made in Australia and shows both Cullen’s musical talent and his capacity to assay a completely different kind of masculinity to his earlier tough-guy roles.
Max Cullen lives in an old theatre in Gunning near Canberra with his wife, painter, sculptor and designer Margarita Georgiadis. He has two daughters, Naomi and Katharine, from his previous marriages.
Cullen is an actor who has transformed Australian acting with his distinctive, restrained and naturalistic style of performing. He has worked on stage, television and in feature film with an unflagging commitment to celebrating Australian cultural life without pretence or sentimentality. Cullen’s ability to play characters based on real figures as diverse as Henry Lawson, Lennie Lower, Jack Mundey, Denis Whitburn, Brian Toohey and others, and his capacity to show something of the inner man in so many renderings of masculinity, reveals imagination, compassion and an inspiring understanding of human beings.
(2) Max Cullen, Tell ‘Em Nothing, Take ‘Em Nowhere: A Memoir, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2010, 93.
(3) Katharine Brisbane and Nick Enright, Companion to Theatre in Australia, 21.
(4) In 2003 Cullen presented a one-man show called Looking Up Lower at the Darlinghurst Theatre in Sydney.
(6) Max Cullen, Interview with Graham Shirley, Unpublished, Oral History, National Film and Sound Archive, 16 December 2008.
(7) Max Cullen, Tell ‘Em Nothing, Take ‘Em Nowhere, 32.
(8) Max Cullen, Interview with Graham Shirley, 2008.
(9) Max Cullen, Tell ‘Em Nothing, Take ‘Em Nowhere, 15.
(10) Max Cullen, Tell ‘Em Nothing, Take ‘Em Nowhere, 233; Chifley said ‘“I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand”’. J.B. Chifley at the Labor Party Conference, 12 June 1949 http://www.chifley.org.au/the-light-on-the-hill/ In his biography David Day states however that Chifley had used the expression before, Chifley: A Life, Pymble: Harper Collins, 2001, 488.
(11) Max Cullen Interview with Graham Shirley, 2008.
(12) Max Cullen, Tell ‘Em Nothing, Take ‘Em Nowhere, 22.
(13) Max Cullen Interview with Graham Shirley, 2008.
(14) http://www.classicaustraliantv.com/MrsFinnegan.htm retrieved on 4 November 2016.
(15) Max Cullen, Interview with Graham Shirley, 2008.
(16) Katharine Brisbane, Australian, 29 February 1968, 7.
(17) Katharine Brisbane, Australian, 30 March 1968, 10.
(18) http://www.classicaustraliantv.com/LinkMen.htm retrieved on 26 June 2013.
(20) Max Cullen, Tell ‘Em Nothing, Take ‘Em Nowhere, 127.
(21) Canberra Times, 24 March 2007, 19.
(22) Australian, 11 April 2003 p,14.
(23) Justin Teiwes, 'The Collaboration Process: Nick Enright and Justin Monjo's Adaptation of Cloudstreet', in Nick Enright: An Actor’s Playwright, eds. Anne Pender and Susan Lever, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008, 72.
(24) Interview with Graham Shirley, 2008.
Header image: Max Cullen as Henry Lawson in Faces in the Street: A Salute to Henry Lawson, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2010. Courtesy of The Street Theatre.
Image one: Max Cullen at home, June 2013. Photo by Anne Pender, 2013.
Image two: Max Cullen as Lennie Lower in How To Be (Or Not To Be), Lower, Street Theatre, Canberra, 2013, Courtesy Margarita Georgiadis.
Image three: Max Cullen as Lennie Lower in How To Be (Or Not To Be), Lower, Street Theatre, Canberra, 2013, Courtesy Margarita Georgiadis.
Image four: Max Cullen in Neil Simon’s I Ought to be in Pictures, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, 2001. Photograph by Robert McFarlane, Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery.
Image five: Max Cullen as Henry Lawson in Faces in the Street: A Salute to Henry Lawson, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2010. Courtesy of The Street Theatre.
Image six: Max Cullen as Henry Lawson in Faces in the Street: A Salute to Henry Lawson, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2010. Courtesy of The Street Theatre.
Image seven: Cullen at home in Gunning, 2013. Photo by Anne Pender, 2013.