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Desley Deacon

Desley Deacon

Desley Deacon is an academic and writer living in Sydney. She has just completed a biography of Australian-born actress Judith Anderson and is currently exploring aspects of feminism before Feminism in the early 1960s. She is currently revising a manuscript, Four Husbands, a Lover, and a Friend: Mary McCarthy’s Experiments in Heterosexuality, for University of Chicago Press. She was formerly Professor of History at the Australian National University, where she is now Professor Emerita, and taught for a number of years at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life (University of Chicago Press), and Managing Gender: The State, the New Middle Class, and Women Workers 1830-1930 (OUP), and has co-edited, with Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott, two volumes on transnational biography.

Desley Deacon reviews 'Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters: Australia’s first female filmmaking team' by Mandy Sayer

January-February 2023, no. 450 28 December 2022
'Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.’ William Wordsworth was writing about the French Revolution, but the sentiment could have applied to the three McDonagh sisters in 1920s Sydney. Isabel (born in 1899), Phyllis (1900), and Paulette (1901) were the beneficiaries of two intertwined revolutions – modernism and feminism – that encouraged them to develop sk ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'Seven Big Australians: Adventures with comic actors' by Anne Pender

June–July 2019, no. 412 23 May 2019
Nowadays every second young person seems to want to be a stand-up comic, an occupation that perfectly represents the ‘gig’ economy in its precariousness and occasional nature. Anne Pender gives us mini-biographies of seven Australians who succeeded, often spectacularly, in the risky business of being a comic long before the idea of a ‘gig’ economy entered the collective mind. Beginning wit ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s filmmakers changed movie storytelling' by David Bordwell

June-July 2018, no. 402 25 May 2018
With the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement reminding us all too vividly of flesh and blood Hollywood, David Bordwell’s cerebral Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s filmmakers changed movie storytelling seems to come from another planet. But Bordwell, who is the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has spent a lifetime writing abo ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'The Best Film I Never Made: And other stories about a life in the arts' by Bruce Beresford

January–February 2018, no. 398 27 December 2017
Reading Bruce Beresford is enough to make any aspiring filmmaker think twice about following in his footsteps. ‘The Best Film I Never Made’, the title article of this collection of Beresford’s occasional writing over the last fifteen years, says it all. This is the sad, but in its way hilarious, story of his attempt to put together a movie based on the life of James Boswell. He knows from bi ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'Women I've Undressed' by Orry-Kelly

November 2015, no. 376 29 October 2015
Orry George Kelly – the Oscar-winning costume designer professionally known as Orry-Kelly – was one of the many Australians who have made it big in Hollywood. He is lucky enough to have been rediscovered by one of our major filmmakers, Gillian Armstrong. Kelly's name and story are now well known, thanks to Armstrong's recent documentary, and so is the brilliant title of his previously unpublis ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'Double-Act' by Brian McFarlane

June-July 2015, no. 372 28 May 2015
Although many attempt it, writing the biography of an actor of a previous era is fraught. They consist mainly of lists of movies or plays long forgotten. The reception of their art is recorded by critics, once all-powerful, but now unknown. Their personal life and personality are hidden behind a screen of studio publicity. Writing the lives and careers of two stars might seem to double the difficu ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'The Little Girl who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America' by John F. Kasson

October 2014, no. 365 01 October 2014
Lucky Shirley Temple! Film star biographies are usually made up of a chronology laced with doubtful studio publicity and salacious gossip. But The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression is written by a reigning scholar of American culture, John F. Kasson. A professor of History and American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kasson takes entertainment seriously. For m ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'Steel-True 1907-1940' by Victoria Wilson and 'Barbara Stanwyck' by Andrew Klevan

April 2014, no. 360 31 March 2014
How many words does it take to write a life (or actually half a life) of movie star Barbara Stanwyck? Admittedly, she had a long career – she started in a revue chorus in 1921 at the age of fourteen and played in her last episode of the television series The Colbys in 1987 at the age of eighty – but 1044 pages that take us only to 1940? As Liz Smith quipped in the Chicago Tribune, ‘She was a ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman' by Alice Kessler-Harris

July–August 2012, no. 343 10 July 2012
Why, Alice Kessler-Harris’s friends kept asking her, are you writing a biography of Lillian Hellman – a good question of one of the world’s leading historians of women and work, who has just stepped down as president of the American Historical Association. If Hellman is remembered at all today, it is as a mediocre playwright, an ugly, foul-mouthed harridan whose luxurious comforts were provi ... (read more)

Desley Deacon reviews 'Views From The Balcony: A Biography of Catherine Duncan' by Michael Keane

February 2012, no. 338 20 January 2012
Catherine Duncan looks like becoming the poster girl for Australian women playwrights of the 1930s and 1940s. Her sleek, sophisticated face – the epitome of the 1940s career woman – looked out from the cover of Michelle Arrow’s Upstaged: Australian Women Dramatists in the Limelight at Last (2002), and now it graces the cover of Views from the Balcony: A Biography of Catherine Duncan, written ... (read more)