Thirteen years since her last film, Jacki Weaver has just delivered the performance of a lifetime – as the wolfmother to three sociopath sons in the acclaimed Animal Kingdom.
"Smurf" is a woman whose kisses linger on her boys’ lips, whose smile is a quarter snarl. Her eyes betray all – warm puddles one moment, iced-over oceans the next, they shimmer and simmer, and hold us in thrall.
These dumbfounding orbs belong to the sweet, petite star of 70s cinema and enduring icon of the Aussie stage. But it’s the amazing life beyond the spotlight that defines Jacki Weaver: pathos, comedy, tragedy, triumph.
Her odyssey began in Hurstville, in Sydney’s south – born to a solicitor father and an English rose emigrée who demanded little Jacki attend elocution classes from age six.
Fame/infamy found Weaver fast. For a 15-year-old Cinderella to be publicly romancing her co-star, pop heartthrob Bryan Davies, was outrageous at the time. But it was just the start. Weaver married at 18, embarked on an affair with a man 30 years her senior at 20, and bore him a son at 22 (‘Jacki’s Love Baby!’ screamed a Sydney front page).
Two years later, having won an AFI Best Actress award for Stork, Weaver fell in love with Richard Wherrett, Sydney Theatre Company founder and director extraordinaire. The twist? Wherrett was gay.
But at 145cm, Weaver was a feisty sprite who cared little for “morality”. “‘Promiscuous’ implies that I’m not choosy. In fact, I’m very choosy. I just happen to have had a lot of choices... truth is, I’ve turned down a lot more than I’ve said yes to. A lot more.”
When she and Wherrett split, Weaver married again, won a second AFI for Caddie, and accepted a marriage proposal from a suitor who professed love via an open love letter published as a full-page newspaper ad.
This was Derryn Hinch, ex-Sydney Sun editor turned radio tyro. He’d become smitten with Weaver in They’re Playing Our Song, a Neil Simon play he’d zealously seen her in 25 times. They married twice in 12 years and survived Hinch’s imprisonment for contempt of court in 1987, a period in which Weaver endured death threats and armed escorts home post-show.
Always a theatre darling, Weaver’s streak in cinema dried up and the 90s were rocky. She left Hinch, both her parents passed away, son Dylan battled a tumour. Depression and loneliness descended and she was wooed by a new lover: alcohol.
In 2000, Weaver left her current man to farewell the one that meant most to her, nursing Wherrett, “the great love of my life,” through AIDS in the final year of his life.
His eclipse signalled a new dawn. Weaver’s sad clown face and gift for living was reawakened by a new wave of young directors in awe at her amazing ability to elicit tears and laughter with a bat of those eyes.
Animal Kingdom stitches Weaver back into Australia’s film fabric and, if Oscar has his way, the world’s too. Says director David Michôd: “Everything ‘Smurf’ carries inside her I wanted to be hidden inside a bubbly, effervescent woman – and that’s exactly what Jacki is.”
1946 Born in Hurstville, Sydney on 25 May
1962 Stage debut; dates co-star to outrage
1965 Marries but bears child to another in '69
1971 Wins Best Actress AFI award for Stork
1975 Stars in seminal play The Removalists
1998 Marriage(s) to Derryn Hinch ends after 12 years
2008 Marries husband #5, Sean Taylor
2010 Rave reviews for Animal Kingdom