Croc-a-Dyke Dundee

Croc-a-Dyke Dundee by Jennie Kermode

Once upon a time Sydney was a quiet, respectable Australian city where, if wild things happened at all, they did so strictly behind closed doors. Sure, it had gangsters, but they were respectable gangsters, straight white men who wore nice suits and were polite to old ladies. Then Dawn O’Donnell happened. If there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, she would be the first to find and spend it.

Dubbed Crocadyke Dundee in her later years, Dawn started life as a boisterous kid whose parents made the classic mistake of sending her to a convent school, where she discovered girls. From there she went on to become a junior ice skating star before a back injury knocked her out; then there was travel to Paris, falling for a showgirl, and returning to Sydney with real ambition. Before long she had a network of bars, nightclubs, steam rooms and sex shops; she’d launched the careers of dozens of drag queens and she’d brought homosexuality – even when it was still illegal – very visibly out of the closet. It’s difficult to imagine modern Sydney coming into being without her.

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There was another side to Dawn, and documentary maker Fiona Cunningham Reid doesn’t shy away from it. Famously ruthless in business, she was rumoured to burn down her own venues for the insurance money and to have had at least one rival killed, but nothing was ever proven and it’s quite possible she was just milking the rumours to boost her reputation. A number of interviewees in this film report being terrified when they first met her, but everyone says she was warm and supportive once they got to know her, even if she never expressed it in the wages she paid. The film also includes substantial interview material with the woman herself, whose natural charisma makes her a delight to watch and who has a lot of great stories.

Subjects like this guarantee compelling viewing but they can also overwhelm a film; Cunnningham Reid’s triumph here is in assembling enough other strong material that the film remains fascinating even when Dawn is not at the centre of the story, as it takes in other aspects of what was happening in LGBT lives at the time. History lessons are rarely this entertaining. Although she dressed very plainly herself, Dawn’s entourage means there’s no shortage of glamour, and upbeat music nicely balances the dry wit of the narrative. This is a film in which something is always happening and you’d need to watch it several times to get everything out of it. It’s a great portrait of one of the world’s most influential lesbians.