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Counterpunch

The Helfgott Variations

March 24, 1997|SCOTT HICKS | Scott Hicks is the director of "Shine," which is nominated for seven Academy Awards

I would like to take issue with a number of insinuations and fictions that Times music critic Mark Swed has invented about my film, "Shine," and its origins in David Helfgott's life ("The Reality of 'Shine': An Image Distorted," March 22).

Contrary to Swed's claim, David did suffer his initial breakdown in London as a student, being in and out of psychiatric hospitals during this period (well before what Swed termed "his unhappy first marriage"). He was also hailed by his teacher, the great pianist Cyril Smith, in his Royal College of Music report of 1968, as being "technically and temperamentally in the Horowitz class"--an opinion rather inconvenient for Swed's assertion that Helfgott "never had the qualities necessary to become a great musician." The fact that Helfgott subsequently lost his career through illness is no reason to dismiss the great potential he had demonstrated for a decade or more.

The film's portrayal of Peter Helfgott was drawn from meticulous research gathered from numerous witnesses to the man, and was, by many of these accounts, extremely restrained. What I chose not to explore were far deeper levels of abuse that were revealed to me in the course of my research. Incidentally, David's mother, Rachel, made no adverse observations about the portrayal of her husband when I showed her the film privately in Perth, Australia, in February 1996. I find it difficult to believe subsequent reports, repeated by Swed, that she has communicated anything resembling "moral outrage" about the film.

Swed's inventions reach their zenith in his references to pianist Roger Woodward. Where in "Shine" is it implied that "Woodward's flashy playing is given unfair preference over Helfgott's deeper, more original approach"? Perhaps Swed is simply using this surreal flourish to show off his knowledge of Woodward's distinguished career, though I doubt that Mr. Woodward would appreciate the inaccuracy that "none of his recordings is in print." They are readily obtainable in Australia. Ironically, Roger Woodward was recently moved to defend David Helfgott in the Australian media against the very kind of critical assaults now championed by Swed.

Who, other than Swed himself, is confusing "personal accomplishment with artistic achievement"? Certainly not the bulk of the paying public who have been overjoyed to witness the small miracle of David's survival and presence on the concert stage. That he is now recapturing some fragments of his lost career is clearly a matter of great joy to them, if not all the critics. In his rush to judgment, Swed was not even willing to wait three days to actually see David Helfgott perform, preferring to rely on selective secondhand opinions and half-baked factual inaccuracies.

What is most outrageous is for Gillian Helfgott to be accused of "guile" and exploitation of her husband by someone who displays nothing but contempt for the man. In simple terms, David Helfgott owes his very life to his wife and her dedication to his well-being these past 13 years (with no promise of reward). And with what David will now earn from his recordings and performances, the film and its soundtrack, one thing is certain: He will never again find himself lying abandoned on the floor of some halfway house, out of sight of those who now profess such concern for him.

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