VIDEO: We owe a big debt to women like Ita and Dulcie

Paper Giants: Magazine Wars concludes on ABC1 on Sunday, June 9. For Rachel Griffiths it was a chance to sink her teeth into an issue close to home -- the role of women in the media, on screen and behind it. And the immigration debate: ‘Look, for 10 years I was a migrant in America’ -- where she starred on Brothers & Sisters and Six Feet Under. She talks to IAN HORNER.

Kerry Packer’s move to push Ita Buttrose to the forefront was groundbreaking. Yes, it was commercialism, not altruism, and it was certainly a first for the media to have Buttrose, Dulcie Boling and Nene King, three strong women, wielding real power. Did that attract you to play Boling in Magazine Wars? ‘‘When I first saw the Cleo story about Ita in the original Paper Wars it rocked my perception of the accomplishments of a particular generation of women. When I was a kid we made fun of Ita and Dulcie. We thought they were kind of pre-feminist dinosaurs in a way. This was me as a 15-year-old. Well I was really rocked to my core when I realised until these women became editors of their magazines there weren’t women in executive positions in Australian media. I had a little shame-on-me moment. And I had to really wake up to the extraordinary in-roads they made for generations of journalists who followed them.’’

How was Boling treated by the male executives in her company? ‘‘I’m not going to divulge private conversations I had with Dulcie. I think she had kind of a patience and a grit. And I think she was able to take her gains when and how they happened. She’s a very strategic person. Eventually she came right out and asked for what she deserved and she didn’t wait for someone to maybe have the brilliant idea maybe Dulcie should be on the board. She said ‘This is what I’ve achieved, this is how much money I’ve made you’ and I think in that moment Murdoch looked at the ledger and said: ‘You’re right; there’s your seat on the board.’ But had a very reactive, emotional person been on the same career path as her I don’t think she would’ve made it because she wouldn’t have been able to hold the fort without outbursts and female emotions that would have ‘proved’ to the men at the time she wasn’t executive material.’’

The rise of celebrity culture at the time was also running in tandem with the rise of the predatory press. ‘‘That’s correct, yeah.’’

Did Boling ever feel a twinge of responsibility for what the papparazzi did to Diana? ‘‘Can I say I think it’s no coincidence that Dulcie stepped down from the day-to-day running of her magazines fairly shortly after that time. I also have no doubt a young Dulcie these days wouldn’t be attracted to the women’s corner of the media market but at the time that was the only way she was going to be able to consolidate any power and get to flex her muscles at capacity. I think she’s a real journalist and these days would be more likely running the Fin Review than one of these magazines. She could run The Australian. I think she could run a network if one of the stations decided they could have women on the board. The boys are all running the show. It’s still crazy, the lack of women. Given that most media is consumed by at least as many women if not more it’s still madness there’s not a balance of women in programming and setting the direction that different networks might go.’’

On screen at least we’ve had some improvements. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the family sitcoms were built around the father, a classic example was Father Knows Best. But then you come to the point just recently where you can launch what would become a long-running hit TV show, Brothers & Sisters, and kill off Dad in episode one! ‘‘Yes, it’s kind of the death of the patriarch. It really started with Alan Ball who did exactly the same thing in Six Feet Under. It’s all about what happens when a woman is running her micro-world.’’

Brothers & Sisters broke a lot of ground. It championed gay rights, single working mums and Sally Field was one of the driving forces behind the show. Did she have real power and what sort of battles did she and others have to fight to shape the show into what it was? ‘‘We were extremely fortunate on Brothers & Sisters that the writers’ door was always open. Sally probably went in as often as I did, you know, to tell a 22-year-old male writer that a 60-year-old widow would not speak in such a manner and certainly wouldn’t speak to her mother in this way! We were always trying to make the relationships in that show real and it was by how true they felt to our audience that the show lived and died. No one on that show threw their power around. We were all very thankful that the writers’ door was open.’’

You did 63 episodes of Six Feet Under but you did double that of Brothers & Sisters. That’s a huge chunk of your life! ‘‘Isn’t that crazy?!’’

And that’s an awful lot of fake wine to drink! Or was it real? ‘‘It was always fake wine, unfortunately. I think the average time in a job for most people over 28 is about five years and it’s just a perfect amount of time to really get to the top of the game in the area you’re working and make some fantastic relationships with the people you’re working with and not get bored. So it wasn’t so much I was making 130 hours of television but I was getting to spend that amount of time with these incredibly talented and wonderful people.’’

When you got tired did you ever have trouble saying ‘‘prodoose’’ (produce) and ‘‘Mom’’? ‘‘[laughs] You’re right! By March we were scraping the barrel.’’

John Piper-Ferguson, who played your husband for a while, is also from Melbourne. ‘‘Yeah, but he identifies as Canadian. It was remarkable. We had two Canadians (Ferguson and Emily VanCamp), a Welshman (Matthew Rhys) and myself and a Frenchman (Gilles Marini) by the end and that was a good 40per cent of the cast. When I was in the canteen I said to some of other actors ‘Do you resent the fact we’re taking your jobs?’ and they’d say: ‘Not at all, it keeps us all at the top of our game.’ It’s a really wonderful, exceptional attitude, I think, the Americans have. They’re not threatened by it. And I think we’ve all got a lot to learn from that.’’

Do you find Australia still a little insular in its attitudes? ‘‘No, I don’t. But I do think things come up, unfortunately, pre-election time and the immigration thingo becomes a little more politicised than it should. I think I’ve come home to a younger, more multicultural and forward-looking country than the one I left. I personally believe the immigration we’ve had over the last 10 years has had a very big part in keeping us out of recession and keeping us growing and providing a working base to support our older Australians -- who, sure, can get nervous when they see the familiar streets of their childhood, you know, with different cooking smells. I think that generation needs to be reminded the only way we can fully support the retirees who’ve really contributed enormously to this country is by having younger skilled economic immigrants who come with their eyes full of life and hope for their family. And I know having been an immigrant working in America for 10 years, when you come to another country you always want to do good work. When I was there you had to always make the work count and I noticed that with other immigrants. You’re always trying to make it count because at the end of the day when you come home your 10 best friends aren’t there to whine to about how bad your day was. I do think you give 120 per cent because you’re sacrificing such a lot. You’ve left your friends, your homeland and your own family. Immigrants turn the dial up on productivity and passion. We must celebrate and support that and not be threatened.’’

Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, episode 2 (conclusion) airs on ABC1 on Sunday, June 9. Watch the trailer:

Recap of episode one:

Rachel Griffiths speaks on gender in media management when she presents Dulcie Boling with her 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award:

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