'SO LITTLE TIME'
St. Louis Post Dispatch - July 31, 1992
SHEILA FLORANCE was dying of cancer. The end, doctors said, was just weeks away. So she
turned to her friend Paul Cox, the maverick Australian director, and told him hed
better hurry if he was going to make good on his promise to turn her into a star.
With her life ticking away, Florance, 75, a noted Australian stage and soap opera star
who had endured six operations and the removal of a 9-pound tumor, plunged into Coxs
"A Womans Tale" (which opens today at the Kirkwood Theater), using what
were supposed to be her final days to portray a frail but spirited old woman who was dying
"The making of this film was an extraordinary, almost religious experience for
everyone involved," Cox said on a recent visit to Los Angeles to promote the film.
"One day the entire crew would be weeping. We had so little time. She was
supposedly very sick, but the making of the film gave her such force and such light that
she wouldnt stop. She would be very disappointed at the end of each day when I would
say weve had enough. She gave everything.
She had nothing to hide. It was quite stunning."
Nothing could cure her, but the sheer thrill and energy of her acting so rejuvenated
Florance, Cox said, that she was able to enjoy six more months of active, festive living -
long enough to receive the Australian Oscar for best actress last October. She died a week
after accepting the award.
Cox, the 52-year-old director of such internationally known films as "Lonely
Hearts," "Man of Flowers," "Vincent" and "Cactus,"
conceived the film as another in his continuing portraits of individuals trapped by the
superficial conventions of a "consumer society," which devalues thinking,
feeling and any kind of "inner life." For older people especially, Cox said,
panic sets in when they realize they no longer mean anything to a society based solely on
the "surfaces of the here and now, that society has merely used them, treated them as
consumers and not human beings. There is no depth, nothing for the soul."
With this idea haunting him, Cox visited Florance, who had become seriously ill. Though
she had enjoyed a stellar career in television and on stage and had played small roles in
several of Coxs films, Florance had never carried a film on her own. Together they
decided that they had better do something fast.
All the while obsessed with the cruelty that older people experience at the hands of a
society that too often packs the aged away in homes to die, Cox wrote the entire script in
three days. Florance added bits from her own life, and within a week the script was
finished and ready to be sold.
A film about a dying woman, played by a woman who is actually dying - even when made
for less than $1 million - is not exactly the kind of high-concept, home-run pitch most
movie executives and money men yearn to back. But Cox said that because nearly all of his
films make money playing in theaters around the world, financiers can no longer ignore
him. He had to forgo the insurance against Florances death, but he scrounged up
enough to roll film.
First, however, Florance had to take a previously planned trip to England. She almost
didnt make it back. "She was literally dying in some British hospital,"
Cox said, "and she called and I told her, Dont do this to me. Just come
home immediately because were all waiting for you and you just cant afford to
die. It will kill me. She said, Dont worry, darling. Ill be
"The only dicey moment during the actual shoot, Cox said, came during a scene in
which the woman goes for a soak in a public hot springs. Cox said he realized too late
that extended periods submerged in hot sea water can sap the strength of healthy people.
"Even when a few of the extras started to faint, Sheila was so tough that she did not
want to give up," he said.
"But I thought we were going to lose her. She was so weak. That was a very bad
But Florance, who is survived by two sons and two cats, made it to the end, telling
with the rawest emotion the story of a cancer-riddled 78-year-old woman named Martha, who
lives in her own apartment with Sam the cat and a canary named Jesus. While her son, in
infrequent visits, preaches that shed be safer, happier and less worrisome in an
old-age home, and the landlord and other tenants gleefully anticipate her death so that
they can grab her flat, Martha lives with a verve and independence lacking in most young
Alone and suffering, she sometimes reflects on the pain of her life - such as when her
10-month-old daughter was blown out of her arms during a German bombing raid in Britain
during World War II, an addition to the film that came directly from Florances own
life. But mostly, Martha doles out more compassion than even a muscularly healthy human
frame could hold. Her independence grows fiercer, and she does nothing but give love, love
and more love to her animals, to her old, dying comrades, even to total strangers, until
the very end. She even allows the big-hearted young nurse, who visits daily to dispense
medicine and encouragement, to use her own bed to consummate a love affair.
The film is terribly moving and uplifting. Yet at the same time it is absolutely
without glamour - and even while portraying death as natural, even beautiful, the film,
like life, is sad and at times depressing. It is not the kind of Pollyanna, fantasy romp
for which the average moviegoer is eager to plunk down his or her $7.
But Cox, who rails against the mindless violence and exploitation that, he laments,
dominates the movie industry, insists that humankind still has a conscience that
cant be bribed or extinguished. At film festivals in Toronto and Telluride, Colo.,
last fall, Cox said extra screenings were arranged to accommodate demand for his film.
Jodie Foster liked it so much that she became his unofficial press agent. Roger Ebert
wrote a column calling "A Womans Tale" "the best film I have seen in
1991." And even when that same column quoted one film distributor as saying,
"The fact that it may be the years best film isnt enough of a hook,"
Cox took solace in the reaction of hundreds, who told him that the film made them feel so
guilty that they rushed off immediately to call their mothers.
"I realize that I live in a society where the words gentleness and
tenderness have all but disappeared," said Cox, who was born in Holland
and has lived mostly in Australia since his early 20s. "We only celebrate people who
show how tough they are and how big their biceps are, and so its my duty to show
something different. The average audience can get a tremendous amount from this movie.
"Film today is almost solely in the hands of all those Die Hard and
Die Harder and Die More people," he said. "And they make
all of our spirits die very hard. It just infuriates me when I see one of those movies
that celebrate nothing but blowing up as many human beings as possible. I feel totally
violated. Soon well just be a pack of morons walking around this beautiful Earth
shooting each other off the planet. I have to fight that."
Mostly, though, Cox is touring the world with the film in tribute to Florance, who, he
said, served as "my daughter, my sister, my mother. She stood for womanhood. She was
the ideal. Im very proud of her now and very thankful that I was able to be involved
with this woman. All my other films, they can go to hell. But if anyone would attack this
movie or try to do something to it, I would fight them to the death. To do it in an
atmosphere of terrible greed and aggression and hatred and ignorance within the film
industry, Im just so proud to have made it."
Cox was traveling when Florance died. He spoke to her by telephone a few days before,
and she chided him for the fact that he would miss her funeral. "It was absolutely
dreadful to say goodbye," Cox said, recalling her final words to him:
" Its crazy, darling, she said. Theres just too much
love in me.
Theres far too much love. Its still oozing from me. "
And oozing still in perpetuity on movie screens around the world.