There's a new A-list in town, and Tom Cruise isn't on it. Neither is Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck or Julia Roberts. This list is exclusively for stars from a place south of the equator--known for its marsupials and fuzzy little bears--who've left their homeland to conquer the highest echelons of stardom. From the Oscars to the box office, from eight-figure paydays to celebrity hookups and breakups, no other foreign country has ever dominated Hollywood the way Australia does today, and there's no end in sight to the invasion.
How did Australians like Nicole Kidman and Eric Bana come to represent American pop-culture icons like Samantha of "Bewitched" and the Hulk? It started in the 1980s with a boom in the Australian film scene, which brought to light the talents of filmmakers like Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann and Geoffrey Wright. Films such as "Strictly Ballroom," "Babe," "Muriel's Wedding," "The Piano" and "Priscilla: Queen of the Desert" were international hits, and when Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for playing the spaz pianist in 1996's "Shine," Hollywood was hooked. Australians were the next big thing.
And they still are. The government-subsidized Aussie film industry is vibrant, but it's a boutique shop compared to the Wal-Mart that is Hollywood. No wonder, then, that Australia's top talents, both in front of the camera and behind it, have flocked to these shores in pursuit of big dreams. Here's a rundown of the biggest stars to come out of Oz, and how they launched the invasion.
MAD MEL: When Russell and Heath and Hugh were still in short pants, Mel Gibson launched the first strike in the Australian invasion with the apocalyptic action B-movie, "Mad Max" (1980). It's difficult to believe now, but when this flick was first released in the U.S., Mel's accent was deemed so indecipherable that his dialogue was re-dubbed. The American-born, Australian-reared Gibson's career has had the ultimate mega-trajectory, from action star (the "Lethal Weapon" films) to Oscar-winning director ("Braveheart") to Hollywood pariah ("The Passion of the Christ"); even if the future of his career is in doubt, there is no debating his impact as one of the biggest stars of the last 20 years.
DAYS OF KIDMAN: Like other Australian stars, Nicole Kidman was born in another country (the U.S., Honolulu to be exact) and moved to Oz with her parents while still a kid. She was nice to look at, but nobody took her seriously much when she played race-driver (and future husband and ex-husband) Tom Cruise's doctor in "Days of Thunder." It took a while--and more unbelievable roles (like a nuclear physicist in "The Peacemaker")--before she became the $17.5-million-per actress she is today.
COUNTING CROWE: Born in New Zealand and reared in Australia by parents who worked the craft service (i.e., catering) table on movie sets, Russell Crowe hit it big with "L.A. Confidential," just his third American film, and is perennially cast as a Steve McQueen type--quiet, brooding and surly, which seems to fit his off-screen personality as well (quiet, brooding and surly).
WATCHING WATTS: How many major movie stars have one of the "Children of the Corn" movies listed on the back of their headshots? Naomi Watts' rise from the bottom of the Hollywood scrap heap to the top of the A-list seems like an overnight success story--it was just four years ago, when David Lynch pulled her out of anonymity and cast her in "Mullholland Dr.," but by then Watts had been struggling for years, first in Australian films, and then in a series of forgettable U.S. flicks ("Tank Girl," anyone?). She was born in England and raised in Sydney, and tends to hang with the Oz crowd--she's been roomies with Nicole Kidman and attached to Heath Ledger.
HUGH GOT IT: Is there anything Hugh Jackman isn't good at? He's an accomplished singer (he's done several Broadway musicals, in New York and back home in Sydney), has a degree in journalism, and he's such a good actor he made "Kate and Leopold" watchable. He even looked good in the horrible, deplorable "Van Helsing." Now that's talent.
CATE AND KATE: Cate Blanchett has been flying just under the celebrity radar for years now, turning in great performances in movies like "Elizabeth" (which earned her an Oscar nom), "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the "Lord of the Rings" flicks, but never quite getting the full star treatment. That all changed with her Oscar-winning turn as sweaty-and-proud Kate Hepburn in "The Aviator," and now Blanchett is poised to challenge the likes of Kidman and Roberts for the big paydays.
BOY WONDER: Is Heath Ledger a good actor, or just another pretty Australian face? The jury is still out on the young man from Perth, who rose to fame in "Ten Things I Hate About You" and has been struggling for acting credibility ever since. So far, he just hasn't had the right material; his leading-man turns have ranged from goofy ("A Knight's Tale") to gawd-awful ("The Order"), but Heath was not to blame. He claims he acts because it's "fun," and he's certainly enjoyed his stay in Hollywood; he dated a long list of actresses settling down with girlfriend Michelle Phillips.
ALSO-RANS AND NEWCOMERS: For every Russell Crowe there is an Eric Bana, who rode into Hollywood on the crest of his phenomenal performance in the Australian true-crime tale "Chopper," only to achieve a respectable yet relatively low-key career. For every Naomi Watts there is a Rhada Mitchell, respected as an actress (hence the lead role in Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda") but mostly ignored by the celebrity grist mill. But the invasion continues, led by new transplant talent from down under. Leading the latest offensive is twentysomething actress Abby Cornish, who plays Heath Ledger's lover in the forthcoming "Candy."
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