Leaving Me This Way

Leaving Me This Way

Jacki Weaver is four foot eleven inches tall, so towering above her at six foot five, I’m feeling a vague urgency to order coffees and sit down. She seems completely unperturbed, which is probably no wonder. Weaver has played Bruce Spence’s lover on screen (he’s 6’8) and having played opposite over 80 leading men, she doesn’t feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. I’m from the five foot two, eyes of blue generation, [although] I didn’t make it to five foot two, laughs Weaver, as the coffee arrives.

Weaver gently folds her hands on the table, then with an unconcerned informality leans her head down. She’s wearing black and is getting back into work after the passing of her friend and ex-lover Richard Wherrett in December last year. There are scripts for a proposed ABC series to be read and rehearsals for the new David Williamson play at the STC. Before any of these projects, however, Weaver will be making her second appearance in a Mardi Gras parade, this time leading a Richard Wherrett float. In 1990, Weaver led the parade as Queen of the Fairies opposite Wherrett’s King of the Fairies and Ignatius Jones. They soon encountered Fred Nile’s Festival of Light and her attack on the Fred Nile contingent is now the stuff of legend. Did she really go off? Weaver smiles shyly.

I didn’t really. I tell you who did go right off -“ Ignatius. He was terrible! she laughs. But I did say to them, -˜Judge not, lest ye be judged,’ over the microphone, but my husband and my son at home said in that bit it was pathetic. I said, -˜Jesus loves everybody!’ in my baby voice!

I wish I had gone right off at them -¦ the only thing that makes life worth living is love, the only way you can say you truly love people is if you’re inclusive. That’s where the Christian church falls down all the time, or any religion, when it seeks to -¦ exclude people because they’re different. I’m talking in clich? what an old fag hag! laughs Weaver.

Fag hag comes up a number of times, a term Weaver throws about with affection. Claiming that over 80 percent of her address book is gay, Weaver speaks of having a stream of gay friends since she hit the stage in her teens, and she was given the ambiguous honour of smallest fag hag in Australia by actor friend Garry Scale.

It’s funny and cute, but Jacki Weaver is no fool. She’s intense in a way that I hadn’t expected. Harry Kippax wrote that even reading the telephone book she would be delicious, and her voice is almost bewitching -“ tiny yet calm and certain. Chatting about her career, at least one myth is also quickly debunked -“ Weaver has not fallen in love with (or bedded) all her leading men, as John Waters once suggested. Only three out of 80 according to Weaver, who finds the rumour almost appealing. I wouldn’t mind admitting it if it were true, she laughs.

Wherrett, of course, loved her. He praised her fierce intelligence, relentlessly inquiring mind and her very dark centre, and wrote in Desirelines that he couldn’t imagine anyone not being attracted to her. In 1972 Wherrett eloped with Weaver and her 12-month-old son Dylan to London, and they lived together for three years. Their split quickly evolved into a lifelong friendship and of Wherrett’s own list of eight great loves, Weaver is the only woman. I’m wondering if this is something she treasures.

When we got together back in the 70s, he was having flings with other women, so that wasn’t an issue. I mean I knew he had affairs with men as well, and I just fell in love with him, she smiles. I didn’t even think about the fact that he was gay. He didn’t have boyfriends while we were together or anything. I mean, whether if we’d stayed together longer that would have been the case, who knows? But I certainly put him off women for life, he never had another one after me!

Weaver stops herself -“ she’s being flippant. He always adored women, he always loved women, she insists. Some gay men are a bit shy of women or bored with them, but no, he found women very sensual creatures. I’m sure he was basically gay, there’s no question of that, but we had a great love affair -¦ We had three years really and then we never ever really fell out.

We always stayed close, we talked every day on the phone. He knew every detail of my life for the next 30 years and I knew everything about his. Absolutely everything! And I lived with him for the last month of his life.

With the blessing of her boyfriend of six years, Weaver moved in, caring for Wherrett, while also starring in the STC production of Old Masters. The show closed only five days before Wherrett’s death. Wherrett’s Horizon apartment became filled with what Weaver describes as a huge network of people, a kind of brotherhood that she found inspiring.

Beatrix wrote that [Old Masters] specifically for me so I felt the added responsibility of giving it all my energy, says Weaver. So I was doing the show and getting home and talking him to sleep until two or three in the morning and then up at six in the morning, says Weaver, her head now lying again on her hands in thought. There’s a long pause.

He asked me to marry him a few times over the years, when he was between love affairs and I was between love affairs, says Weaver, who was asked to marry Wherrett again in the last month of his life. Despite rumours to the contrary, the event didn’t occur but Weaver contends that she would have done anything to make him happy towards the end. She sits up.

I think there’s room for a lot of investigation about women who fall in love with gay men. I know someone who’s written a thesis about it in Melbourne, a gay man who was married. There’re probably lots of factors -¦

If you’ve grown up in a family where the father’s very gentle, and the father figure you have is a very gentle soul, and maybe we do, a lot of us, fall for the embodiment of our fathers or something, she laughs at herself a little. This is just a half-baked idea I’ve thought about for years, because my father was a really gentle soul. Maybe we look for that in men. I don’t know.

She falls silent again, and finishes her coffee. It’s amazing to share someone’s death, she adds. We don’t often do it any more, our culture doesn’t -¦ We tend to be a bit sheltered from it. I think it’s quite healthy for it to be more part of life.

Healthy too, to commemorate Wherrett’s life within the Mardi Gras parade and at the mention of the float Weaver brightens. Details are being kept under wraps, although drag is not out of the question as one element, even for Weaver. In 1991 at Wherrett’s farewell concert from the STC, Weaver was frocked up by the local drag queens.

I came on and I sang Don’t Leave Me This Way as a surprise for him and that’s when the late Max Phipps -¦ looked up and a spotlight came on and he said, -˜Out came the tiniest drag queen I’ve ever seen.’

The Richard Wherrett tribute float is being presented by Sydney Star Observer, with the generous sponsorship of Volvo.

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