Gillian May Armstrong is an Australian feature film and documentary director.
Armstrong was born in Australia, Melbourne, Victoria on 18 December 1950. She went to a local high school, Vermont High School (now Vermont Secondary College), and was the middle child of a local real estate agent father and a primary school teacher mother who gave up work to have a family. Armstrong stated in The Australian that her parents were always very supportive of her hopes and dreams, which was not always the way it was for women in the 1960s and 70s. Her father was a frustrated photographer who wasn't allowed to follow his dreams professionally, yet always practised as an amateur. Armstrong has spoken of how she grew up in a dark room, learning all about photography.
Armstrong was a technical theatre student at Swinburne College, paying her tuition by working as a waitress. Originally, she attended school to become a theatrical set designer, but the school that she attended also offered a film course. After she took it she was enamored by the great names of cinema and decided to enter the film industry. Then she won a scholarship to join the first 12 students at the country's first and only film school, the Australian Film and Television School. While she was in school, the Australian film industry was nonexistent.
Following a string of small jobs within the Australian film industry, Armstrong achieved her first directorial recognition through her short film The Singer and the Dancer which won an award at the Sydney Film Festival.
Following this success, Armstrong was commissioned by the South Australian Film Corporation to make a documentary exploring the lives of young teenage girls living in Adelaide, South Australia. This became Smokes and Lollies (1976), her first paid job as director. Armstrong's own interest in the girls led her to revisit them at ages 18, 26, 33 and 48, resulting in four more films in the style of the popular "Up Series". These are Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (1980), Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces (1988), Not Fourteen Again (1996) and Love, Lust & Lies (2009).
Armstrong's first feature length film, My Brilliant Career (1979), an adaptation of Miles Franklin's novel of the same name, was the first Australian feature length film to be directed by a woman for 46 years. Armstrong received six awards at the 1979 Australian Film Awards (previously the Australian Film Institute Awards, or AFI's), including Best Director and the film was nominated for an Academy Award in Best Costume Design.
Following the success of My Brilliant Career, Armstrong directed the Australian rock-musical Starstruck (1982) which proved her ability to tackle more contemporary and experimental subject matter and styles.
Armstrong was the first foreign woman to be approached by the American film company MGM to finance the direction of a big-budget feature, which became Mrs. Soffel (1984), starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton. This film tells the true story of an affair between a prisoner and a prison warden's wife, and was relatively well received by audiences and critics.
On returning to Australia, Armstrong continued to make both documentaries and feature films. She earned great recognition for High Tide (1987) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) in which she was nominated for Best Director at the 1987 and 1992 Australian Film Institute Awards (AFI's). The Last Days of Chez Nous also earned her a nomination at the Berlin Film Festival. Despite this, both films were largely unrecognised internationally.
In 1994, Armstrong achieved her greatest Hollywood success with Little Women, starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst. This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel of the same name was one of the most popular films of the year, and emphasises Armstrong's focus on portraying the intimate lives of strong female characters and their relationships with one another.
She followed the success of Little Women three years later with the film Oscar and Lucinda (1997), starring Ralph Fiennes and a relatively unknown Cate Blanchett. This film, based on the novel by Australian writer Peter Carey, tells the story of a mismatched love affair in 19th-century Australia. It received mixed reviews both locally and internationally, despite its high production value and strong performances by the film main actors.
In 2001 Armstrong directed the feature film Charlotte Gray, starring Cate Blanchett. Based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks, it is another of Armstrong's films that centres around a strong female protagonist.
Death Defying Acts (2008), starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, was removed from Armstrong's usual subject matter; it portrays a moment in the life of 1920s escape artist Harry Houdini, in the style of a supernatural, romantic thriller. It received a modest earning at the box office, and was part of a special screening at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
Despite the success of these more commercial films, it was Armstrong's lesser-known documentary Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006) which earned her the most critical recognition during the 2000s and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Armstrong is married with two daughters.