MANY have sought the ”real” Frank Thring. The man in the devilish black outfits, the bling around the neck and the enormous sunglasses concealing the expression in his eyes – the legend goes that he was always putting on a show when in public; that the big, camp fellow with shuddering jowls and plummy diction was someone else when home alone, unguarded.
Thring died in 1994 and his father, Francis Thring, died in 1936 when the boy was only 10, yet the two had much in common, including the tendency to elaborately present themselves to the world.
It was, therefore, a great frustration to the man who wanted to write their life stories – Peter Fitzpatrick, an honorary professor in performing arts at Monash University – that neither man left behind significant written records. To find them for his book The Two Frank Thrings, Fitzpatrick had to do seven years of research and interviews, and although much fascinating fruit was borne, many questions remain, mainly to do with the Thrings’ ”true” selves.
We might look at the photos of them for clues, insights. There is the younger Thring – better remembered than his father – in visual records that give the impression he was more successful, famous and talented than he was: on his float as a King of Moomba, in his satanic guise on talk shows and ads, or in many shots of him playing ”tyrants in togas” for Hollywood blockbusters such as Ben-Hur, El Cid and King of Kings (alongside Laurence Olivier, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Jeffrey Hunter), among others.
Then there are the photos of Thring snr, born in 1882: sideshow conjuror, impresario, speculator and legendary founder of Australia’s first ”talkies” studio, Eftee Films. He looks suave, confident and successful – just as the world believed him to be.
We can put pieces together with these pictures, yet forget biography is a tricky business, even when there are diaries and letters to inspect. Such records, Fitzpatrick says, are unreliable because the writers perform for an intended audience, biographer or historian. They overstate some things and understate others.
Fitzpatrick was struck that although Thring jnr had little to do with his father, they resembled each other physically to an astonishing degree, made their paths through life with similar strategies, and the boy was as ostentatious as his father was reserved.
”They both were clearly constructing the narratives of their own lives – Frank snr by being secretive and covering his dealings and constantly pretending to a respectability that he didn’t really have, and his son by performing this extraordinary, flamboyant self all over the place,” Fitzpatrick says.
”That kept people at bay from asking anything that was personally intrusive or revealing.” As one journalist wrote on interviewing Thring jnr in the months before the performer’s death, there was only a glimpse of ”the warm Frank Thring that people who know him talk about”. Otherwise, his persona was a deliciously waspish and entertaining artifice.
For Fitzpatrick, it was important in his 564-page book not to oversimplify the distinction between the performed self and the ”real” self. As he writes in The Two Frank Thrings: ”The roles that we play are rarely so neatly separable from the selves that we are, and those selves are ambiguous and shifting, too; ‘inner selves’ can be as hard for us to know or acknowledge as they are for others to read in us, even if we can be certain they are there.”
To try to understand the Thrings, Fitzpatrick’s book melds established facts about these two men’s lives with small, fictional interludes that separate each chapter. These imaginings try to take us inside what Fitzpatrick suggests is the interface between their public and private selves.
As he says, along with careful historical research and interviews (with people such as Thring jnr’s former wife, Joan), the fiction is based on ”informed supposition”.
”That’s about as close as anyone’s going to get.” How, though, does one actually sum up another person’s life?
”How would you identify the key points – what are the significant things of a life?” he asks. ”Is the thing that makes a person a suitable biographical subject – which is usually some kind of distinction – is that where the weight falls, or does it fall on the hypothetical psychological forces that prepared them for that sort of choice and the ways in which they lived it?”
In The Two Frank Thrings, psychological forces are possibly the main character, if somewhat shadowy and submerged. Take, for example, the year-long marriage in 1955 of Thring jnr to Joan Cunliffe. It was the elephant in the room that Thring was homosexual – everyone knew – and there are many stories about the wedding and what did and didn’t happen on the wedding night.
Fitzpatrick writes: ”Rumours about the circumstances of the Thring marriage were there from the beginning, multiplied hugely when it ended, and have kept growing ever since. Anyone who tries to disentangle fact and fiction, even at a distance of half a century, risks hurting some feelings or spoiling some good stories or both.”
Cunliffe (still going by the name Joan Thring) told Fitzpatrick that she and Thring truly loved each other; that he wanted to be married and have children. Frank’s deep distress at the failed, childless marriage, Fitzpatrick says, ”passed into folklore as a comic turn”, the actor’s ”self-directed humour” part of a pre-emptive strike strategy.
As he says, the sorrows of life perhaps form us more decisively than the happiness, true of father and son. ”Any biography is likely in some way to have a revelation of regrets, unfulfilled ambition, unrequited love – but what makes biography interesting is often the resources people have drawn on to deal with that fact of their lives.”
Fitzpatrick brings such characteristics into detailed relief. For Thring snr, there must have been much internal wrangling about his personal life – a wife from whom he was estranged, the daughter he scarcely knew whose guardian he became, the overbearing second wife and the interesting son.
For Thring jnr, there was the inability to form an intimate relationship with someone appropriate. Elaborate flirtations with young proteges were, for him, largely about sentimentalising the beauty of youth, Fitzpatrick says.
”You could read it as someone whose own maturity had been arrested in some way, so he could never form a fully equal relationship with a person of his own generation. He had these very mentoring, paternalistic kinds of affairs which enabled him to behave a bit like his father in terms of being free with his money. He would lavish it on whoever the young man was he was taking out for a cherry brandy.”
Sadly, Fitzpatrick says Thring jnr ended his days with multiple illnesses, chronic insomnia and alcoholism, and dealing with his depression by being savage towards others. ”He was, fundamentally, a pretty lonely man.”
■The Two Frank Thrings, Monash University Publishing, $49.95.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.