Paul Mercurio recalls Strictly Ballroom through stills

Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
Candy - Abbie Cornish as Candy and Heath Ledger as Dan on the Gravitron by Hugh Hartshorne
Supplied to Garry Maddox for his story
Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery Candy - Abbie Cornish as Candy and Heath Ledger as Dan on the Gravitron by Hugh Hartshorne Supplied to Garry Maddox for his story
My Brilliant Career - Sam Neill and Judy Davis on set with Director Gillian Armstrong by David Kynoch
Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

My Brilliant Career - Sam Neill and Judy Davis on set with Director Gillian Armstrong by David Kynoch Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

.Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Dead Calm - Nicole Kidman as Rae Ingram holding a spear gun by Jim Sheldon

.Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery Dead Calm - Nicole Kidman as Rae Ingram holding a spear gun by Jim Sheldon

.Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
Muriel's Wedding - Toni Collette as Muriel trying on a wedding dress by Robert McFarlane

.Film stills from the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery Muriel's Wedding - Toni Collette as Muriel trying on a wedding dress by Robert McFarlane

Twenty-five years after Strictly Ballroom became a hit, Paul Mercurio still gets asked to recreate moments from the film.

He was in a butcher shop in Melbourne - appropriately named Char Char Char - when a customer asked him for a "twirl" this week. She was so delighted when he complied that she bought some of the mustard and chutney he sells to supplement his income outside films, TV shows and cook books.

But while proud of Strictly Ballroom, Mercurio, at 54, had mixed feelings seeing an iconic photograph from the film in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

"It's shocking," he said. "People keep showing me photos of me 26 years ago, when I was a fair bit lighter and had more hair."

The exhibition, Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits, features 275 stills from more than a century of Australian film, assembled over three years with the National Film and Sound Archive.

They include such instantly recognisable faces as Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm), Heath Ledger (Two Hands and Candy), Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding), Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee) and Geoffrey Rush (Shine).

But there are also striking portraits of supporting actors, including Lewis Fitz-Gerald in Breaker Morant and Isabel Lucas in The Water Diviner, and stars from decades ago such as Shirley Ann Richards (Lovers and Luggers), Daphne Campbell (The Overlanders) and Alma Lee (The Silence Of Dean Maitland).

It's an exhibition that raises the question of how well a photograph taken to promote a film can also be a revealing portrait.

Co-curator Jennifer Coombes said the best stills were an interesting blurring of fiction and reality that captured both the spirit of a character and a film.

"Sometimes they're capturing the actors between takes," she said. "Or even a group of actors who never appear in the same scene but appear in the poster."

For Mercurio, the Strictly Ballroom image with Tara Morice in the exhibition captures a moment that will resonate with fans of the film.

"You remember where you were when you saw it or the people you were with or what was going on in your life," he said. "It sparks off a lot of different memories.

"Whether it's pictures of The Castle or Moulin Rouge or Ned Kelly, they open up memories and feelings."

Even after all these years, Mercurio said someone will still tell him most weeks how much Strictly Ballroom has meant to them. Often Baz Luhrmann's warm-hearted comedy about a rebellious dancer helped them through a tough time or inspired them to dance.

But there is one moment from the film that Mercurio might stop recreating.

While judging a charity dance competition at Coffs Harbour last month, he tried a trademark knee slide across an unforgiving floor. The result: lost skin and a sore knee.

"I probably slid about three inches but, with all my years of training, I hit the position, held it and everyone applauded," Mercurio said. "Then I got up as if nothing had happened and limped to the lectern."

Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra until March next year.

This story Paul Mercurio recalls Strictly Ballroom through stills first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.