Leonie Naughton: The Pleasure of Reinvention

Leonie Naughton was my Honours supervisor, PhD principal supervisor and mentor in my sessional teaching work at Monash University during the 1990s. Leonie Naughton took over teaching German Cinema when she arrived at Monash in 1990, and had also been appointed to teach courses about popular film. She quickly achieved prominence in the Department of Visual Arts for her ability to do this in ways that were exciting, stimulating and entertaining, and which made the study of popular cinema tangibly relevant to the lives of her students.

A lecturer with a new approach

In her work as an expert on German cinema, a film scholar, feminist, teacher and mentor, Leonie seemed to combine numerous paradoxes. Her expertise on the politics of the contemporary German film industry, for example, was combined with an interest in low comedy films that “no one will admit to having seen” (Naughton 166). Her enthusiasm for the visceral pleasures of gangster films and the action genre coexisted with a deeply felt love of romance films. She seemed an expert on feminist theory and experimental cinema of the 1970s, but was also intrigued by the popularity of films disparaged as sexist, such as Porky’s (Canada/USA 1982). As a lecturer, she might offer a bold assessment of the physical attributes of actor Antonio Banderas one week, and a few weeks later analyse the film Little Angel [Engelchen] (Germany 1996) with such sensitivity as to suggest that Leonie saw in herself the heroine’s self-effacing qualities. This apparent plurality of interests was echoed in Leonie’s speech, which juxtaposed the Australian vernacular, fluent German, scholarly discourse and an adopted academic accent, as though this combination was perfectly natural.

For students and the staff who worked for her, Leonie rendered the pursuit and display of knowledge more attractive than Australian culture normally recognises these activities to be. Physically striking, she easily attracted admiration, sometimes near worship, from students and sessional staff. Yet not all knew the private Leonie who described herself as shy. If they had, ironically they may well have accommodated this apparent contradiction. Although Leonie’s flamboyant lecturing style suggested an extroverted personality, few students realised that this unusually charismatic scholar was delivering a performance.

The Leonie students didn’t know

In private, she was an avid reader within and outside her discipline, possessing academic and critical skills that could impress as much as her ability to engage the attention of two hundred first year students. Her adeptness in probing the motives of outlandish film characters and undergraduate students, alike, seemed to issue from a reservoir of experience that she spoke of only infrequently to me. Although Leonie the academic could be disarmingly direct, often seeming indomitable, she was more vulnerable than was immediately apparent.

In 2001, Leonie left Monash University in circumstances that reflected the strains of teaching film in an academic section that was not devoted fully to film, and which was under considerable financial stress. Consequently, it is at great cost to Australian and international academe that Leonie and her career were damaged by a confluence of factors, prominent among them repercussions of the Howard government’s funding cuts to Australian universities during the late 1990s.

The traits attributed above to Leonie are less contradictory than they might initially appear. Leonie’s abilities to combine the scholarly and the ephemeral, the hedonistic and the political, the intellectual and the empathetic, industry analysis and fan-like enthusiasm, were among her resourceful and creative responses to transitions in feminism, film scholarship, academe and eastern European politics.

Scholarly reinvention

Indeed, Leonie Naughton was a master of adaptation and reinvention, a quintessentially forward-thinking academic and individual. In relation to feminism, for example, Leonie’s career bridged the transition from the second wave to post-feminism. While her glamorous lecturing persona and her homages to male stars reflected the latter, her work was always firmly underpinned by principles acquired from the former. Alongside post-feminism, Leonie embraced film scholarship about formulaic genres and spectacle in Hollywood cinema, shifting her relationship to the earlier theory that had formed her original training. She was adept at applying psychoanalysis to films, but used other approaches in her PhD thesis, which formed the basis of her book. That Leonie’s research about German cinema was fundamentally historical, focusing on contemporary history that was still happening, presented another facet of her personality. It highlighted her aptitude as a champion of what was emerging in film, pedagogy and popular culture.

Leonie’s teaching approach was also dynamic and up-to-date with film industry developments, engaging with the increased blurring of distinctions between popular and high culture, mainstream and independent filmmaking, and academic and popular discourses. Her advice to me about academic publishing has continued to be invaluable to my career. Her ability to engage students enthusiastically in film studies seemed informed by her knowledge of film industry marketing strategies, gleaned from her research about German cinema and her knowledge of the contemporary American film industry. Indeed, the centrality of reinvention to Leonie’s work achieves its most profound development in her research about German cinema around the time of unification. Having lived in Berlin before, during and after the fall of the Wall, at a time when both Germanys were undergoing imposed systematic change, Leonie found in the fate of contemporary East German cinema a research subject in which the possibilities of reinvention, and the way these could be denied, were a motif that resonated strongly with her view of human experience.

Exploring entertainment’s relationship to society

An intrepid researcher and teacher, Leonie’s ability to analyse with intellectual depth and rigour aspects of film culture that appeared frivolous epitomised her ability to find light and optimism even in grim surroundings. Unappreciated by some, Leonie’s commitment to hope as a principle is best exemplified by her analysis of the East German “Trabi Comedies”, which centre on adventures of East German Trabant cars (Naughton 165-205). Although Leonie’s analysis of the Trabi films involves no illusions about these productions or Eastern Bloc vehicles, her identification of such positive qualities as exuberance, admiration and trust in the Trabi films’ exploration of east-west relations (204-5) embodies a central strength of her work.

This strength is Leonie’s ability to establish an academically credible relationship between a social, political or industrial context and films that are not obvious candidates for scholarly analysis. Indeed, the research in Leonie’s book, That Was the Wild East, focuses on numerous films that were critically denigrated while having achieved box-office success. More profoundly than most scholarship about comedy, Leonie’s study of unification comedies reaches to the heart of this genre’s relationship to pain. She identifies the frivolity of unification comedies as a source of “relief” (122) from the torture, trauma and loss that occurred during unification (xi). Her analysis of these films displays empathy where a dull scholar would be disengaged. Leonie’s ability intellectually to conceive frivolity and loss as parts of the same picture has been and remains an important inspiration for my research about comedy.

Leonie Naughton was a successful and accomplished researcher who played an important role in the growth of the film studies program at Monash University. Her influence is still evident in this program today. Combined with formidable academic skills, her exceptional capacity for creative reinvention, intellectually and in relation to the visual, rendered film studies exciting and endlessly stimulating.


Naughton, Leonie, That Was the Wild East: Film Culture, Unification, and the “New” Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Lesley Speed is a lecturer at the University of Ballarat. She completed a PhD at Monash University under Leonie Naughton’s supervision and taught with Leonie. Lesley’s research about teen films, comedy and contemporary cinema has appeared in MetroJournal of Popular Film & TelevisionInternational Journal of Cultural StudiesSenses of CinemaContinuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies and Screening the Past.

Created on: Thursday, 19 December 2007

About the Author

Lesley Speed

About the Author

Lesley Speed

Lesley Speed lectures in Media and Screen Studies at Federation University Australia. Her research interests include screen comedy in Australia and the United States; youth cinema; discourses of generation in screen culture; and popular screen genres. She is the author of the books Australian comedy films of the 1930s: Modernity, the urban and the international and Clueless: American Youth in the 1990s. Her research has also been published in journals in Australia, the USA and the UK.View all posts by Lesley Speed →