MILESAGO - Profiles

Artist, film-maker [b. Paris, 1949]

Philippe Mora (left) pictured in the late ‘80s with author and broadcaster Whitley Streiber

Phillippe Mora is a member of one of Australia’s best known artistic families. His parents, Georges and Mirka Mora, migrated to Australia from France in 1951 and settled in Melbourne, where they quickly became key figures on the Melbourne cultural scene. Georges, a wartime resistance fighter, became an influential art dealer, and in 1967 he founded one of the first commercial art galleries in Melbourne, Tolarno Galleries. Mirka Mora is one of Australia’s most renowned artists.

The Mora family also owned and operated three of Melbourne’s most famous cafés. The Mirka Café was opened in December 1954 at 183 Exhibition St and was the venue for the first major solo exhibition by Joy Hester. It was followed by the Café Balzac at 62 Wellington Pde, East Melbourne and then the Tolarno in Fitzroy St, St Kilda, which opened in 1966. All three were focal points for Melbourne's bohemian subculture.

Georges and Mirka became close friends and colleagues of many leading names of Australian arts and letters. "Very few of this crowd had any money then," Philippe recalls, "and my parents literally fed artists at our home and in our restaurants." As a result, their three sons had what Philippe describes as "a culturally privileged childhood". The Mora family's social circle included many Australian artists who subsequently became world-famous -- Ian Sime, Charles and Barbara Blackman, Fred Williams, John and Mary Perceval, Albert Tucker, Barrett Reid, Laurence Hope, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester. The Mora family were especially close friends with renowned art patrons John and Sunday Reed, and spent many weekends at their famous home and artists’ colony, Heide (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art) in the outer Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg, and at the Reed's beach house in Aspendale.

The Mora children have carried on the tradition and are all prominent in the arts in Australia and internationally. Philippe is a film director of international renown, his younger brother William is a leading Melbourne gallery owner and art dealer (one of only three second-generation art dealers in Australia) and the youngest Mora brother, Tiriel, is a prominent stage and screen actor, with credits including the ABC's classic TV current affairs satire Frontline (as cynical reporter Martin Di Stasio) and as the bumbling lawyer Dennis Denuto in the hit comedy film The Castle.

Philippe began making films while he was still a child. His first home movie (now preserved by Screensound) was Back Alley, made in 1964 when he was just 15. It's a parody of West Side Story, filmed in Flinder’s Lane, just behind his mother’s studio at 9 Collins Street, and it features Philippe, brother William and friends Peter Beilby and the late Sweeney Reed.

Sweeney Reed (1945-1979) was one of Philippe’s best friends. He was also a pivotal figure in the complex relationships between the members of the Heide circle. He was the son of artists Joy Hester and Albert Tucker but when he was two years old Hester was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and was told she had only two years to live. She left Tucker, gave Sweeney up to be adopted by John and Sunday Reed, and moved to London. Ironically, she survived another twelve years and had two more children. To complicate matters even further, author Janine Burke has recently revealed that Sweeney eventually discovered that Tucker was not his biological father -- it was probably drummer Billy Hyde (founder of the eponymous music store, founded in 1962), with whom Hester had a brief affair.

Philippe’s next film, Dreams In A Grey Afternoon (1965) was made as a silent movie but was screened with music prepared by artist Asher Bilu. It was shot on 8mm and blown up to 16mm. The film features stop-motion animation of sculptures by the late Russian-Australian sculptor and painter Danila Vassilieff and includes rare footage of John and Sunday Reed.

Philippe Mora: "Dreams was about Aspendale weekends as a kid — the kid being William. Shots of Mirka and Georges and John and Sunday Reed at Reed's then beach house VERY RARE — I don't know of any other film of John and Sun together like this. First screening of this was at a private party at Patrick and Rosemary Ryan's home".

"It was about my brother William 'dreaming'. My film borrowed from Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night; the Reed's Danila Vassileff sculptures jumped around in stop motion on their dining table at Aspendale like The Beatles."

Like its predecessor, his next project, Man In A Film (1966), was also made as a silent movie, shot on 8mm and blown up to 16mm, and again screened with music prepared by Asher Bilu.

Philippe Mora: "I decided to get more ambitious with my next effort. (Sweeney) Reed, my close friend, was a handsome youing man with photogenic charisma. I 'starred' him as the 'man' ... A kind of abstract rumination about adolescent sexcual attraction, it featured Sweeney being pursued and tempted by three beautiful girls, Tessa Perceval, Marigold Smith and Elizabeth Curran. He finds them in Fitzroy Gardens and on Aspendale Beach. Finally he is pursued by a young male with a wooden rifle through the building site of Heide II."

"I shot a scene of Sweeney mock whipping Marigold on a cross by the sea. Curiously, when John and Sunday (Reed) saw the film ... at Patrick and Rosemary Ryan's home with music by Asher Bilu, Sunday regrettably got upset at this scene, apparently not differentiating enough between fiction and reality. She thought it was either real or a terrible comment on Sweeney. Obviously, it was neither, but a pastiche of Fellini's 8-1/2 which I had just seen. I was puzzled by the controversy but it proved that film was powerful in ways that painting could not be."(1)

"Man In A Film is the late Sweeney Reed. Premiered film at Tolarno Galleries in early 1967, I believe, with big invited audience and when John Perceval saw his daughter Tessa on the screen he was so 'happy' he thought she was really there, got up and tried to kiss the moving image. The end sequence, when Sweeney is running through building site, shows Heide II in construction — now of course the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Man In A Film was influenced by 8-1/2 (Fellini) — I had just seen it, and A Hard Days Night which I had just seen also".(2)

Give It Up (1967) again featured Reed, plus Don Watson and Philippe’s younger brother Tiriel and was shot in Fitzroy Street, Melbourne. It symbolised Australians' response to the Vietnam War by depicting a man being repeatedly kicked and beaten in a busy street while onlookers do nothing.

Philippe moved to London in late 1967 to pursue painting and filmmaking. He was one of many important Australian artists, writers and others who had moved to the UK in this period and, as Philippe has observed, it's a subject that merits far more study:

"Australians seemed to be everywhere - moving and shaking in fine arts, music, theatre, in conventional, avant-garde and counter culture. I am not sure that such a combined outburst of Australian creativity hitting foreign shores has occurred since. Certainly it has not been properly documented since. Outsiders in London and expatriates from Australia, this intrepid group, as a group phenomenon, has fallen between the cracks for historians of culture ...

Soon I ended up living with Martin Sharp and Eric Clapton in the Pheasantry on Kings Rd, Chelsea, a grand old building with a bohemian and artistic history. I had met Martin in Australia and had met Sydney artist Martin Sharp in Melbroune and when he arrived in London Sharp invited him to move into The Pheasantry, the renowned artists’ colony in Kings Rd, Chelsea. Across the street we often congregated in the local cafe called Picasso's.

"Our Pheasantry scene was a kind of cultural catalyst and melting pot. R.D. Laing would drop by and say we were normal and everyone else was crazy ... Bob Whitaker (a) talented photographer, lived around the corner ... Germaine Greer lived downstairs, working on a book ... George Harrison would drop by ..."

Philippe's Chelsea digs are the origin of the name of his production company, Pheasantry Films. He shared the building with friends and fellow members of London’s underground glitterati including Martin Sharp, Eric Clapton, Germaine Greer, artist Tim Whidbourne, ‘prominent London identity’ David Litvinoff (production adviser on Nic Roeg's Performance), writer Anthony Haden-Guest (author of The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night) and another friend from Melbourne, photographer Robert Whitaker, lensman of choice for many leading rock groups on the scene, including The Beatles and Cream. During his time in London he contributed cartoons (as “Von Mora”) to Oz magazine, inlcuding assisting Sharp on the landmark "Magic Theatre" edition. as well as making his next short film Passion Play which was shot in the Pheasantry ca. 1967-68 with Jenny Kee as Mary Magdalene, Michael Ramsden as Jesus, and Philippe as the Devil.

Philippe began painting immediately, and one of his first London exhibitions was at the gallery of Clytie Jessop, who was the sister of Hermia (Lloyd-Jones) Boyd, wife of renowned ceramic artist David Boyd. Jessop is also a well-known actress and director -- she played the sinister Miss Jessell in Jack Clayton' classic supernatural thriller The Innocents (1961), and later directed the film Emma's War (1988) starring the late, great Lee Remick and a young Miranda Otto.

Jessop invited Philippe to exhibit at her gallery in the Kings Rd, and the show was a great success, garnering excellent reviews and numerous sales -- a situation Philippe found rather incredible. By his own admission, he was so impoverished at the time that he had been forced to use house paint impregnated with insecticide for his paintings -- a nececssity he turned to his advantage by telling potential buyers that his paintings were "not only art, but they also kill flies"!

More exhibitions at Clytie Jessop's gallery followed, with titles such as Anti-Social Realism and Vomart. Eric Clapton bought one of the paintings from the latter exhibition, which depicted a shot-putter about to throw and simultaneously throwing up -- a style reminiscent of the hilariously provocative Dada art of Barry Humphries.

Philippe gradually began top make a name for himself in London. He gained support from established figures such as Eduardo Paolozzi and the critic R.C. Kennedy, who championed him in Art International and included his work in a show called Narrative Painting in Britain in the Twentieth Century at the Camden Arts Centre in 1970. Artist Alan Aldridge invited Philippe to contribute to his now-famous book The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, for which Philippe painted I Am The Walrus and Good Morning, Good Morning.

His next show was at the Sigi Krauss gallery (where Martin Sharp also exhibited); it featured pictures all painted in black and white; the show also included a grey male rat which he had bought from Harrod's. When the rat turned out to be female and gave birth Philippe tried (unsuccessfully) to sell the babies as a 'multiples' in a limited of eight.

The rat show attracted the interest of German avant-garde artist Klaus Stacks, who commissioned Philippe to produce an edition of one hundred screen prints of the mother rat. In February 1971 Joseph Beuys and Erwin Heerich asked Philippe to sign a "Call To Action" manifesto demanding the freeing of the German art market.

His next show was an Easter Crucifixion exhibition at the Sigi Krauss gallery which featured a life-size sculpture of a sitting man, made entirely of meat and offal. (cf. Bob Whitaker's controversial "butcher" cover photos for the Beatles' Yesterday & Today LP in 1966). It was also at this exhibition that Philippe screened his 8mm 'film painting' Passion Play, which was projected behind a screen framed in gold leaf. Some of the other items from this exhibition (though none of Philippe's regrettably) were purchased by Stanley Kubrick's art director and were used in A Clockwork Orange -- notably the giant white phallus and the chorus line of dancing Jesus sculptures.

This provocative and highly symbolic exhibit caused a stir -- a brick was thrown through the gallery window, which led to it being featured on the cover on Time Out, and later on, as the piece began to putrify, the police were called after Princess Margaret, who had been dining at the restaurant across the street, complanied about the stench. Detectives from Scotland Yard descended on the gallery and demanded that the sculpture be removed. Sigi Krauss refused. The police claimed it was a health hazard and forced Krauss to move into the garden, where it gradually rotted away.

Philippe’s next project was his first feature-length film -- Trouble In Molopolis (1970). It was financed by the unlikely partnership of Arthur Boyd and Eric Clapton. It was shot in London and "ever Australian I knew was pulled into the picture" -- it was filmed in Robert Hughes' apartment and at the Pheasantry; Germaine Greer played a cabaret singer, Jenny Kee was 'Shanghai Lil', Martin Sharp played a mime and Richard Neville was a PR man; Tony Cahill from The Easybeats did the music with Jamie Boyd. The film premiered at the Paris Pullman cinema in Chelsea, as an Oz benefit, and it was introduced by Geroge Melly. The star of the film was "a real lunatic", John Ivor Greenwood, who turned in a fine performance on screen, and also made a memorable appearance at the premiere, as Philippe recalls:

"The festivities were only slightly delayed when the loony star defecated in the front row and and then passed out in an alcoholic coma."

In 1973, he began an association with producer David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson which yielded two award-winning films, both of which featured innovative combinations of documentary and newsreel footage, home movies and fictional films. Swastika (1973) depicted Hitler’s rise to power, and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? (1975) is his acclaimed documentary on the Depression, both of which he wrote and directed.

Philippe returned to Australia in the mid-70s. In January 1974 he and his old friend Peter Beilby launched the periodical Cinema Papers, which has been Australia’s premiere film magazine for nearly three decades.

In 1976 he wrote and directed the historical bushranger drama Mad Dog Morgan, starring Dennis Hopper and David Gulpilil. It was the first Australian film to receive a wide American release and was instrumental in bringing Philippe to the attention of American film executives.

After co-writing the screenplay for Phil Noyce’s acclaimed docu-drama Newsfront (1978) Philippe became one of the first Australian directors to relocate to Los Angeles. Two years later he directed the horror film The Beast Within and many of his subsequent films have been in the horror or sci-fi genres.

His next project was the parodic superhero musical The Return Of Captain Invincible starring Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee and an all-star Australian cast, with songs by Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brian. The film has long been regarded as a cult classic and recently became a minor hit in the US when it was re-released on DVD, due in part to its now-poignant final scene, in which Capt. Invincible flies past the World Trade Centre.

That was followed by A Breed Apart with Rutger Hauer and Kathleen Turner, The Howling II & III, and the tense political drama Death Of A Soldier starring the great James Coburn, which was based on the infamous Melbourne wartime Eddie Leonski murder case.

Philippe's next film was based on the best-selling book by an old friend from his days in London in the late 60s, artist, author and broadcaster Whitley Streiber. Communion (1989) starred Christopher Walken and was based on Strieber’s own alleged encounters with aliens.

Philippe's ‘90s credits as director (and occasional writer and actor) included the horror spoof Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills (1994) with Beverly D'Angelo, Barry Humphries (in three roles) Moon Unit Zappa and Philippe’s children Georges and Madeleine, Art Deco Detective (1994) and Precious Find (1996) a sci-fi version of Bogart's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which reunited two actors from Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, Rutger Hauer and the late Brion James. For television, Mora directed Mercenary II: Thick & Thin (1997), and the films Back In Business (1997), Snide And Prejudice (1998), and Burning Down The House (1998).

Philippe’s current film project, When We Were Modern draws in part on his own life and experience. It examines the tangled lives and loves of the Heide inner circle — Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester, Albert Tucker and John and Sunday Reed. It will star Susie Porter as Joy Hester, Clayton Watson as Sidney Nolan, Lachy Hulme as Albert Tucker and Angus McFayden as John Reed; Philippe's brother Tiriel will also feature, as author Max Harris. Early reports named Rachel Ward and Marcus Graham in the central roles of Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan, but a recent Age article (18 Nov. '03) states that Nolan will now be played by young Australian actor Clayton Watson (The Matrix) and Sunday Reed will be played by leading Hollywood actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In the Forties, on the run after deserting from the army, Nolan lived at the Reed’s famous house Heide, and it was here that he painted his first Ned Kelly series. While living there he conducted an open affair with Sunday Reed, but Sunday refused to leave her husband and marry Nolan, so he married John’s Reed’s sister, Cynthia Hansen. The marriage eventually broke up, and Cynthia committed suicide in 1976. her death sparked off the famously bitter feud between Nolan and author Patrick White, who excoriated Nolan for abandoning his first wife (she and White were close friends) and remarrying to Mary Perceval very soon after Cynthia's death.

While researching the film, Philippe discovered previously unseen home movies of the Heide circle -- "It's the only film of Joy Hester, the only film of the Mirka Café”. The film is dedicated to Sweeney Reed, who committed suicide in March 1979, aged only 34. Reed will feature prominently as a character and as a tribute to him, Philippe is reportedly planning to screen some of the footage from Back Alley under the closing credits.

In recent times Philippe has also contributed to Art Monthly Australia for which he has written a number of excellent articles, including his observations on Australians in London in the Sixties and an essay on the relationships between film and Australian Modernist art which provides a fascinating insight into the background of his new film.

(All credits are as director unless otherwise noted)

Snide and Prejudice (2001)
Burning Down the House (2001)
According to Occam's Razor (1999)
Joseph's Gift (1998)
Mercenary II: Thick & Thin (1997) (TV)
Back in Business (1997) aka Heart of Stone (1997) (USA)
Precious Find (1996) + actor (as “Kosnikov”)
Art Deco Detective (1994) (+ producer)
Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills (1994) + producer + actor (Dr Louis Blum)
Communion (1989) director/producer
The Howling III (1987) aka Howling III: The Marsupials (+ producer)
Death of a Soldier (1986)
The Howling II (1985) aka Your Sister Is a Werewolf (USA: preview title) aka Stirba the Werewolf Bitch (UK)
A Breed Apart (1984)
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) aka Legend in Leotards
The Beast Within (1982)
Newsfront (1978) – co-author, screenplay
Mad Dog Morgan (1976) aka Mad Dog
Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975)
Swastika (1973) aka Double Headed Eagle: Hitler's Rise to Power 1918-1933 (USA: video title)
Trouble in Molopolis (1970)
Passion Play (ca. 1967-68) short subject
Man In A Film (ca. 1966) short subject
Dreams In A Grey Afternoon (1965) short subject
Back Alley (1964) short subject


Special thanks to Philippe Mora for his invaluable assistance with this article.

1. Philippe Mora
"Culture Shock: Australians in London in the Sixties"
Art Monthly Australia, December 2002 No. 156

2. Philippe Mora
"When Film Was Modern: Reflections and Notes on Film and Heide"
Art Monthly Australia, August 2002, No. 152

ABC Radio National: First Person – Mirka Mora

Asher Bilu

Digital Views
Philippe Mora: A Man for all Genres (2001)

Killer Koalas
Australia Horror Films List

Susan Wyndham
”Golden Boy” - Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 2002

“Image of an artist as a doomed man” – The Age, 18 March 2002

IMDb – The Internet Movie Database

Beyond Communion website


“Director continues to strike a nerve”
The Age, May 14 2002

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