Lucky Boy

Kevin Kopelson

  • Shine directed by Scott Hicks
  • Shine: The Screenplay by Jan Sardi
    Bloomsbury, 176 pp, £7.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 7475 3173 0
  • The Book of David by Beverley Eley
    HarperCollins, 285 pp, £8.99, March 1997, ISBN 0 207 19105 0
  • Love You to Bits and Pieces: Life with David Helfgott by Gillian Helfgott, with Alissa Tanskaya
    Penguin, 337 pp, £6.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 14 026546 5

Why are we being compelled to think about how male pianists speak? King Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945) exerted no such pressure. Nor did Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Yet, while Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) presented a woman incapable of speech, François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1994) presented a man who was abnormally articulate – one who in the 22nd film, for example, rehearses the revealing personal ad: ‘Friendly, companionably reclusive, socially unacceptable, alcoholically abstemious, tirelessly talkative, zealously unzealous, spiritually intense, minimally turquoise, maximally ecstatic loon seeks moth or moths with similar equalities for purposes of telephonic seduction, Tristan-esque trip-taking.’ Now comes Scott Hicks’s Shine, an equally arty but commercially viable biopic about a man – David Helfgott (played by Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz) – who is abnormally inarticulate. Helfgott’s very first words are: ‘Kissed them all, I kissed them all, always kissed cats, puss-cats, kissed them, always did; if a cat’d let me kiss it, I’d kiss it – Cat on a fence I’ll kiss it – always, always, I will – didn’t I?’ His nearly final word, self-directed, is: ‘Stupstraight’. Julia Kristeva might call Helfgott’s way with words ‘semiotic’. Richard Alleva, in Commonweal, calls him ‘a manic babbler whose logical skips and leaps, wisecracks, speed-freak stutterings and surreal wordplays compose a weirdly poetic discourse’: a description that would apply as well to Helfgott’s more obvious precursor – the Mozart (both pianist and composer) Peter Schaffer presented in Amadeus (1979). His first words, addressed to Constanze, were even cattier than Helfgott’s: ‘Miaouw! I’m going to pounce-bounce! I’m going to scrunch-munch! I’m going to chew-poo my little mouse-wouse!’ The Shine screenplay makes the connection for us. Gay piano teacher Ben Rosen (Nicholas Bell), in a scene cut from the film, describes David’s father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl), as a ‘poor man’s Leopold Mozart’.

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