The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was Bruce Beresford’s first film, and while he’s more or less disowned it, it stands up as one of the wittier and more provocative Aussie exploitation films to come out of the 60s and early 70s. In spirit, it’s a continuation of the picaresque and scatological bawdiness of the eighteenth-century novel, of a piece with Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones or Terence Young’s Moll Flanders. Like those films, it deals with an upstart who doesn’t know his place, and an unexpected inheritance, as the titular Barry, a true-blue ocker played by Barry Crocker, discovers that his father’s will instructs him to travel to England, with his aunt Edna Evarage, played on the big screen for the first time by Barry Humphries, to further his cultural education. We don’t see much of his life in Australia, beyond his mother reminding him to wear underwear everyday, but this is a version of Australia that only exists in the English consciousness, much as the version of England we see is an Aussie fantasy too.
In other words, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is not quite a parody of either Aussies or Poms, but of the way they see each other, and the way they use each other to further their own self-image. At times, this gravitates it in the direction of the great British class comedies, with moments that approach A Fish Called Wanda or Kind Hearts and Coronets, since for all the exploitative crudeness on display here, there’s an Ealing-like wit beneath it, with Barry Humphries as its spirit animal, playing multiple roles in the same way as Alec Guinness. On the one hand, Barry speaks in a campy Aussie vernacular that’s impossible to understand, flinging out one inane idiom after another like a Monty Python character, and relishing flamboyantly idiotic alliteration in particular. He’s like a Chips Rafferty parody, or draws out Rafferty’s own tendency towards self-parody late in his career: tall, but in a ridiculous and ungainly way, such as when he wraps his legs around his head in an stab at the Kama Sutra.
On the other hand, this is also a lurid Aussie fantasia of the motherland, fleeting indiscriminately between tabloids, punk squatters and horses and carts. Aunt Edna is the mouthpiece for this fantasy, the Australian suburbanite doting upon mother England, even as she misreads and misrecognises it: “I do like the homes of yesteryear – Barry, do you realise that Shakespeare might have lived here when he wrote some of his plays, like “To be or not to be” or “Lend me your ears?” Most of Edna’s scenes revolves around this “Shakespearean” home, which is really just a bog-standard English suburban house with a “No colored” sign out the front, inhabited by a couple of snivelling distant relatives, who are even more small-minded than their Australian descendants. This forms part of a more general assertion, in the film, that England is essentially a rip-off, both as a county and as a colonial authority. Whereas Barry is largely gregarious, the Poms are stingy, especially upon first contact. A customs officer charges him an exorbitant fee for a suitcase of Fosters, a cab driver docks him extra for “conversation,” and even an abject hotel manager played by Spike Milligan borrows a pound to feed the electric meter in his “Winston Churchill Suite,” a drab, depressing one-room affair.
However, the film’s most pervasive thesis on English men is that they are all “poofters,” to use the word that recurs more than any other in Barry McKenzie – and probably more than in any other Australian film ever made. Of course, this is a product of its time, but the strange thing about Beresford’s film is that, once we get the word “poofter” itself out of the way, gay men are probably more visible and domesticated than in any film of the era as well. That’s partly because Aussie manhood, as Beresford imagines it, is already inherently camp, meaning that there’s not much of a difference between Barry’s ockerism and the gay men he only half-heartedly distances himself from. In fact, one of the first scenes sees a gay man approach him at a bar, and explain that he’s just the right type – “strong, rugged, unconventional” – to be a spokesman for “High Camp” cigarettes. Barry immediately complies, as we cut to him riding into a studio on a horse, and offering a cigarette to a woman who turns out to be his first love interest in the film. This is his first overt display of macho heterosexuality, and yet it’s entirely orchestrated and coordinated by the gay gaze, much as the cigarette ad is presumably aimed for a male audience as well. Later on, Barry’s best mate Curly claims to be writing the great Australian novel, about a collection of surfers who turn to ballet dancing, reiterating this growing sense that Aussie manhood is an entirely camp affair.
That’s not to say, however, that Barry, or Aussie men generally, are exactly gay in this film. Rather, if English men are homosexual, then Australian blokes are autosexual, or autoerotic, rather than truly heterosexual. In the film’s colonial-libidinal imaginary, Aussie blokes have had to make their own way, forge their own path, build their own mythology, but this has led to them regressing into sexual solipsism, so desperate to forget the motherland that they’ve also had to forget the entire heteropatriarchal system that enables mothers in the first place. The only song that Barry knows how to sing is “Me one-eyed trouser snake,” and while a female folk singer quickly joins in on his first rendition, they’re still both singing exclusively about his genitalia, rather than any possibility of sexual consummation. This autoeroticism finds peak expression in the central and recurring spectacle of the film: Barry shaking up a beer, spraying other men, and then spraying himself. The first time he does this he’s actually on a date, but neglects her to immerse himself in this beery ritual, before curiously inspecting another couple kissing on his way out, as if even this is profoundly alien to his autoerotic drive.
Beer thus becomes a quintessential symbol of Aussie male autoeroticism, as does urinating, a critical part of the beer-drinking cycle. I’ve never seen a film that conflates pissing and sinking piss more than this one, to the point where Barry McKenzie is ultimately urological rather than scatological in spirit. Of all the film’s euphemisms, those for urinating are the most flamboyant – it’s a veritable catalogue of Aussie slang for pissing, and probably a fair few of them too, like a Love’s Labours Lost for Aussie piss idiom. Of course, urinating is important to make room for more beer, but it’s also something bigger – a vision of the male genitals, here collapsed into the omniscient Fosters cans, that revolves around bodily relief but without any overt sexual content. Through urinating beer, Barry continually celebrates his phallic potency, even as he dissociates it from sex, and collapses it into the pleasure of being embodied more generally. Beyond a certain point, all bodily processes here are driven by beer, as beer becomes the Aussie man’s main bodily fluid. It doesn’t only come out through urine either, as Barry proves by singing a bar song about drinking beer, eating prawns, and then vomiting them up into the Pacific Ocean so that he can have more beer and prawns. He prefaces this song, which he sings as a funky nightclub, with an etymology of the word “chundering” as it emerged on the First Fleet, conflating the circulation of beer in and out of bodily orifices with the convict exchange – of culture, language, tradition – that occurred after British settlement.
This exchange is completed when the counterculture audience explodes into applause at this avant-garde Aussie export – the yobbo becomes the vanguard, and Beresford follows suit, adopting the style of Bergman or Bunuel to follow Barry as he crawls across an abstract desert, half man and half skeleton, clutching a final Fosters in his hand. In the film’s picaresque Freudian scheme, then, England is only more civilised than Australia insofar as homosexuality is more developed than autoeroticism. Aussies might be ultra-macho on the outside, but they’re essentially virginal when it comes to sex, explaining why, for all its bawdy bravado, the film is oddly chaste at heart – as is Barry, who desperately pours curry down his pants in an effort to instil himself with the spirit of the Sutra when his first love interest takes him back to an urbane apartment decked out with mirrors, ambient music and fetishistic décor. Coming to England means discovering sex for the first time, but Barry is only moving from autoeroticism to homosexuality, meaning every England man he meets is gay to some degree.
Beyond a certain point, Barry McKenzie, like They’re a Weird Mob, thus suggests that Aussie men can only engage with women as men, or as versions of themselves. Barry tries to test this theory by hooking up with an old flame Gaylene (Gay) who has changed her name to Leslie (Les) and lives at “Radclyffe Hall” with a woman named Claude, played by Judith Furse, who enquires whether Edna has ever “dipped into the well of loneliness?” As Claudie embarks upon a seduction of Edna, herself a man in drag, Barry tries to seduce Les by taking her to a pub and reminiscing about the time they skinny-dipped together after hearing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in church. The more he tries to reiterate their shared heterosexual history, the more he outs himself as queer-adjacent, much as the pub, which greets them with a rendition of “Bound for Botany Bay,” turns out to be a gay bar. At this point, Barry starts to be misrecognised for gay himself, which means he has also started to assimilate into English culture. He’s picked up by a policeman for cruising the male bathroom, and then charged with cross-dressing, after accidentally bringing Edna’s bag with him. In his direst attempt yet to dig himself out of this ever-expanding hole, he actually puts on Edna’s clothes to prove they’re not his, only to confirm the officer’s worst suspicions: “They fit like a glove.”
The logical conclusion of the film would thus be Barry having sex with a man to prove he’s not a “poofter,” for Beresford’s film is a Foucaldian incitement to discourse above all else. The more it insists on Aussie manhood, and the more it leans into the autoeroticism of Aussie manhood, the more obsessed it becomes with cataloguing “poofters” at the colonial threshold. That all culminates with a gay man campily singing “Waltzing Matilda,” as Barry strides out for his final tableaux, the spectacle that is meant to both assimilate him to England and reiterate his otherness – in other words, reiterate the colonial threshold itself – by appearing on a daytime television show as a “typical Aussie”. To even look typical, he has to be made up in rouge and lipstick, while he doesn’t end up doing much more on the program than dropping his dacks, exposing himself, popping open a Fosters, and spraying it at the audience. To the end, then, his nudity is strangely desexualised, subsumed into a drinking game rather than a direct proposition to the audience, and so the film ends on a firmly urological note, emphasising the piss-piss cycle more flamboyantly than at any point before.
For when the studio catches fire, Barry realises that the best way to put it out is for him and his Aussie mates to urinate on it. To build up enough urine, though, they have to consume beer at a steady, heavy rate. Beresford now reimagines the beer ad montage sequence that ended They’re a Weird Mob in an even more lurid vein, as we cut between blokes pissing and blokes sinking piss. And this strange space somewhere between autoeroticism and homosexuality is where Beresford leaves off, forcing us to recognise the strange appeal of Barry despite his utter solipsism and self-referentiality. It’s no surprise that people continually try to monetise him throughout the film – English relatives, folk singers, the High Camp cigarette company – nor that Crocodile Dundee would try to monetise the same basic formula a decade later, but without an ounce of the splenetic eighteenth-century wit on display here.