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'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 he’d 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 Cox’s "A Woman’s 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 of cancer.

"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 wouldn’t stop. She would be very disappointed at the end of each day when I would say we’ve 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 Cox’s 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 Florance’s death, but he scrounged up enough to roll film.

First, however, Florance had to take a previously planned trip to England. She almost didn’t make it back. "She was literally dying in some British hospital," Cox said, "and she called and I told her, ’Don’t do this to me. Just come home immediately because we’re all waiting for you and you just can’t afford to die. It will kill me.’ She said, ’Don’t worry, darling. I’ll be there.’

"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 day."

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 she’d 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 people.

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 Florance’s 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 can’t 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 Woman’s 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 year’s best film isn’t 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 it’s 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 we’ll 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. I’m 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, I’m 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:

" ’It’s crazy, darling,’ she said. ’There’s just too much love in me.
There’s far too much love. It’s still oozing from me.’ "

And oozing still in perpetuity on movie screens around the world.

Steve Weinstein

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