Recently aired on ABC was the locally made tele-movie about the life and career of one of Australia’s most famous show girls, Carlotta. Known to friends and family as Carol Spencer and born as Richard Byron, she has a fascinating and sometimes tragic story to tell.
The movie follows Carlotta’s life, beginning as a young boy in 1940s Sydney whose mother (Anita Hegh) is a retired dancer, and whose father is a small minded man of the times. Not much time is spent showing this time period but it gives the audience an important insight into Carlotta’s young life, and the prejudices surrounding even small displays of femininity.
We move forward to when sixteen year old Richard (as he is currently known) gets a job as a window dresser with the fabulous Danny (Eamon Farren), who prefers to be known as Ava. A life long friendship is born, and Carlotta’s emergence as a confident, famous showgirl and woman begins.
It is too seldom that good Australian drama is made, but when it does come around it’s often wonderful. Carlotta does not disappoint. The relatively sensitive topic of transgenderism is handled with appropriate care, while not glossing over the obvious difficulties that would have been present in mid 20th century Australia. Much has been made of a woman (Jessica Marais) playing the transgender Carlotta, however as Carol Spencer personally identifies as a woman, and even in her youth she looked incredibly feminine, I feel it was a good choice, and Marais did a marvellous job.
The supporting cast were also brilliant, in particular Anita Hegh and Eamon Farren. Farren’s Ava was tragically beautiful, and yet funny and endearing. Sub stories surrounding the central story were emotional and intriguing, but tied in well with the main theme. However including the greater part of one persons life and other sub stories in only ninety minutes always seems to give the viewer a disconcerting feeling regarding the passage of time.
I absolutely adore glitz and glamour and have a love affair with drag, probably from watching Priscilla: Queen of the Desert when I was young, which was apparently inspired by Carlotta herself. The beautiful back up dancers who made Carlotta so enjoyable to watch and added to the generally excellent visual production were portrayed by contemporary drag artists from Sydney, which is a lovely way to include local performers and subtly highlight how far things have come.
Carlotta’s story is powerful and inspiring, and it was handled beautifully in this tele-movie. It is definitely something that more people should watch.