5 Aussie trailblazers who put us on the map

Russell Crowe, Kylie Minogue, Julian Assange – today, Aussies with an international profile are everywhere. But there was a time when we were under-represented on the world stage. And then these true-blue Aussie larrikins came along and made us famous…

Errol ‘in like’ Flynn

The swashbucklingest of swashbucklers, Errol Flynn made his name in Captain Blood (1935), a Bounty-adjacent pirate romp, and sealed the deal in 1938 in the title role in The Adventures of Robin Hood, where his ability to look good in green tights with an adult stag casually draped over his shoulders made him a sex-symbol sensation. Years of living in Britain took a toll on his accent – very Received Pronunciation – though if you listen hard you can hear the Tassie twang peek through.

Flynn’s well-deserved offscreen reputation as a womanising boozehound who loved a fight has outlived the appeal – now, let’s be honest, mainly camp – of his movies. But if we Aussies have a worldwide reputation for drinking too much (and I’m afraid we do) it’s partly thanks to Errol Flynn.

The fabulous Robert Helpmann

For a young boy in 1920s Mount Gambier, wanting to be a dancer was not the norm. But Robert Helpmann made his way to the dance company of Russian ballerina Anna Pavolva, and from there to London’s Royal Ballet. His impressive career also included almost 40 acting roles (everything from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to TV’s A Country Practice!).

In the mid-60s, Helpmann returned to Australia to co-direct the fledgling Australian Ballet. A flamboyant gay man – unusual, to say the least, in the conservative Australia of the time – he dressed to impress: mink coat, gold bangles, cowboy boots. With his international track record and a little black book to die for, Sir Robert Helpmann (he was knighted in 1968) brought the world of high culture to the isolated Australia of the 1960s, and gave everyone a lesson in how to be utterly fabulous.

Australia’s Beatles: The Easybeats

1966. The Beatles drop Revolver. ‘Paint it Black’ is a huge hit for The Stones. And in Sydney, The Easybeats release what would be the first international hit single from an Aussie rock and roll band.
They were Australia’s own mop-tops with sharp matching suits, tackling one of rock’s eternal subjects: the unbearable boredom of working for a living. Cue ‘Easyfever’, a phenomenon to rival Beatlemania, leading to trashed TV stations, hospitalised fans and general hysteria.

‘Friday on My Mind’ threw open the doors for Australian rock and roll, from AC/DC to the Bee Gees to Silverchair to Tame Impala. It said ‘We’re Aussies, we come from a long way away, but we rock’. And we did.

Richard Neville, the Hippy Godfather

Richard Neville is the Australian counterculture of the 1960s, personified. He published brazenly and prosecuted the right to free speech – about drugs, sex, rock and pornographic cartoon bears – from Australia to Old Blighty.

After re-establishing Oz magazine in London in the late 1960s (he’d previously published it in Australia, with two resulting obscenity trials), Neville and his co-editors were taken to court in 1971 for conspiring to corrupt the morals of the young. Of particular concern to British morality police: a Robert Crumb-Rupert Bear mash-up, with decidedly X-rated results for Rupert.

Neville and his co-editors showed up at the committal hearing wearing schoolgirl costumes; they were found guilty but acquitted on appeal. Imagine Julian Assange appearing at the Ecuadorian embassy in a tunic today!

Nostalgic for shock? You can download full editions of Oz at the University of Wollongong website and see what real risk taking looked like.

The fearsome Germaine Greer

One of Oz’s columnists was a fellow Australian with a growing reputation for fearless outspokenness and a knack for the sensational. In 1970 she published The Female Eunuch, one of the key books of the Women’s Liberation movement. Ferocious, rebellious and radical, her ideas on women’s subjugation, the harmful effects of the nuclear family, and the repression of female sexuality helped establish a new, more permissive conversation about women’s rights.

Love her or hate her, there’s no doubt the lives of young Aussie women now would be a whole lot duller without Greer back then, and her no-holds-barred delivery and sweary outrageousness keeps her in the spotlight today.

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