I was sure that movies were supposed to happen someplace else, in some mystical kingdom called Hollywoodland, and remained so no matter where they were really filmed. My mother’s ability to spot familiar landmarks did not change the fact that a locally shot movie still happened in the same place that Casablanca and High Noon and Forbidden Planet happened. Films had no reality for me, and even those supposedly made about boys like me, such as Smiley and Bush Christmas, made not vaguest connection with the world where I actually lived. Then one did and it gave me a shock from which I never really recovered.
The film was Tiger Bay, and set in the grim docklands of Cardiff—an awfully long way from the barren fields of Moorabbin, you might think, but really it isn’t so far. The point was that this movie depicted accurately the gritty suburban world of bickering adults and grinding poverty, of weary mothers on the endless domestic treadmill and fathers too exhausted to bother with their children, of errands always run unsatisfactorily and chores never done. More importantly, there were the nuts and bolts of my own existence present—boys obsessed with guns, the Sunday choral obligations, and the loneliness of the kid shut out of the games of others. This was truly the way my life was being led.
Now, those familiar with the film will have grasped—as I did at the time—that there was a serious problem with this, for this character to whom I so strongly related as never before, was a girl! Hayley Mills in her first film role, but it was also definitely me! My sense of horror was immeasurable. There I was, a rough and tumble thirteen year old boy, and my alter ego was a twelve-year old girl! How I didn’t turn out to be homosexual bewilders me to this day.
Admittedly it is a pretty good movie, and Miss Mills’ performance quite outstanding, but that wasn’t important. Soon the whole world would fall in love with her and she would become the figurehead of the flagship of all things Disney, but I wasn’t in love with her—I was her! And with my blonde hair, round face and angular body, I even looked like her! It proved to be all too much for me eventually, and I accepted my completely unimaginable fate stoically and did what I could to move on.
It would have a great relief to me at the time had I been told—or even realised for myself—that the role that Hayley played in the film was in fact written for a boy. The story goes that the director J Lee Thompson went to invite John Mills to play the police inspector role and was entrance by the way his young daughter was acting out scenes from television commercials (something else I commonly did!) and couldn't resist casting her in the role of Gillie. That the plot spun around boyish matters did not deter the brilliant Hayley at all. What girl would actually be upset by the fact that her parents are too poor to buy her a gun so she can play cowboys and Indians with the other boys? Why didn’t I realise that? But when she witnesses the sailor (Horst Buckholtz) accidentally shoot his wicked girlfriend, she thinks not horror, nor fear, nor the responsibility to report what she has seen to the authorities, but only how to get her hands on that gun. Which she does, with the result that Buckholtz in turn takes her hostage, only to find she is too smart for him by miles (just like I was sure I would be). An affinity develops between the two and then she tries to help him by telling an enormous string of complex lies to the police (just like I knew I would if interrogated) in a truly wonderful sequence of scenes between young Hayley and her dad John. Of course it all turns out as well as it can in the end.
But why did I fail to notice how very boyish everything about Gillie was? Instead I went around fretting that I was really a girl in the wrong clothing. It all got to be quite a muddle in my mind before it faded away due to obvious irrelevance. Not many days go by when I don’t cringe at the thought of my stupidity.