“The art-school girl is still in me,” says the film director and producer Gillian Armstrong, who isn’t giving up her black Alpha60 outfits now that she’s a grandmother. And don’t call her “Nonna”. To her grandson, Balthazar (“Buzz”), she’s “GG” (for “Grandma Gill”). “I did have that vain baby boomer thing of, ‘Do I want any of those titles?’ ” she says. “And then I thought, ‘Well, it’s a bit affected.’ I’ve heard of friends calling themselves Nonna but I’m not Italian or Danish, so having a foreign name as a grandparent does seem a little pretentious.”
Navigating what to be called is one of the challenges facing today’s grandmothers, mostly because familiar endearments such as Granny and Nanna have developed ageist connotations. “I suppose it’s got a label about being very old and frail, which, of course, I will be, but right now I’m not and I don’t want to feel I’m in that bracket,” Armstrong says. “All the other grandparents we know are all lively and busy.”
Armstrong is part of a vanguard of modern women who revel in the joy of being a grandmother while refusing to be defined by the label. At just 28, Armstrong was catapulted to fame with her film, “My Brilliant Career”. She was the first woman in Australia to direct a feature film since Paulette McDonagh in the 1920s and ’30s and she has continued to dent barriers throughout her career. Now 70, Armstrong is still active in the industry, working on projects she loves (including her last film, “Women He’s Undressed”, a documentary about the Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly), as well as campaigning for increased Australian content in cinemas and streaming services, and mentoring young women directors.
One of those young women is her daughter Billie Pleffer, the director and writer whose miniseries “Deadlock” won Best Online Series at the 2018 AACTA Awards. Billie and her partner, Ross Purdy, live with Armstrong and her husband, John Pleffer, in an airy, multilevel Sydney house, where the open-plan living room is almost entirely taken over by Buzz’s playpen and toys. (“It looks like a preschool centre,” Armstrong says.)
Buzz was born in Melbourne in the summer of 2019 and his parents moved to Sydney just before the Covid-19 lockdown. Had they waited a couple of weeks, Buzz’s grandparents wouldn’t have had the opportunity to watch their grandson grow up in his first year. “It is sooolovely to have a little baby in our lives again,” Armstrong says. “Their smell, softness and little laugh. We are totally smitten.”
Armstrong, who grew up in Mitcham in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, has vivid memories of her own grandmothers. Her paternal grand-mother, Nellie May, and grandfather, Norman, had been mayor and mayoress of Nunawading in Melbourne. They were well-travelled, well-connected and not particularly tolerant of children. “I could really tell as a little girl that they were snobs,” Armstrong says.
On the other hand, her mother’s mother, Gladys, was an ex-teacher who wore “fox furs and lippy” and let the kids lick from the bowl when she baked. She and her husband, Noel, were the “warm, cuddly ones”. Gladys played piano for a local dance school and lived a vibrant life until the age of 99. It was Nanna Gladys who took an interest in Armstrong’s career and advised her to, “Just make sure you keep getting in the papers and the magazines.”
Armstrong is a very different grandmother. For a start, like many women her age, she is very much engaged with her career (she is currently in the early stages of a new film project). “I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career that I gave me that chance, so I can pick and choose. I’m actually enjoying reading and looking after Buzzy some days.”
Armstrong has certainly struck sexism in the film industry, but what about ageism now that she’s a grand-mother? She smiles. “If Martin Scorsese and George Miller can keep going in their very late 70s, I think I’ll be fine.”
For Armstrong, being a grand-mother has been a very different experience to motherhood. “The joy of having a grandchild I did not understand, even though I have been a mother,” she says. “It’s more an intellectual scientific study. It’s not just about beautiful Buzzy, but it’s about how amazing the human being is.” Seeing Buzz experience the world — watching him look at the sky and reach for trees, visit the zoo for the first time, say words and listen to music — have been revelatory moments for Armstrong.
It’s hardly surprising the director is so entranced by her grandson’s development, given her past work, including “The Story of Kerry, Josie and Diana”, a documentary series that followed the lives of three Adelaide women from 1976 to 2009. “I would have been an anthropologist or a psychologist if I hadn’t become a film-maker,” she says.
Another sense of wonder comes from watching her daughter grow into the role of parent. “I have so much admiration for my daughter as a mother,” she says. “I think she has just been — and is — the most brilliant, patient, incredible mother. Better than me. I really admire her.”