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Movie director Fred Schepisi says stigma will remain even if Rush wins defamation case

Renowned Australian director and producer Fred Schepisi has told a court the stigma of the allegation against Geoffrey Rush will remain with the actor even if he wins his defamation battle against The Daily Telegraph.

The Golden Globe nominee, whose movies include The Devil’s Playground, Six Degrees of Separation and Plenty, said the sexual nature of the claims – where the “reprehensible” reports “put him in the same league as some rather disgusting people” – could linger in Hollywood.

Movie director Fred Schepisi leaves Sydney Federal Court earlier today

In an often irritable exchange with Daily Telegraph barrister Tom Blackburn, Schepisi lambasted the “disgusting overkill” of the newspaper’s reports and its “trial by media”.

The 78-year-old movie veteran was giving evidence on the fifth day of Rush’s defamation action against Daily Telegraph publisher, Nationwide News.

Rush is suing the Telegraph and its journalist Jonathon Moran over stories late last year which said he engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” while appearing in a production of King Lear on a Sydney stage.

He claims the stories portrayed him as a “pervert” and a “sexual predator”.

Schepisi told the court Rush was a “basket case” after the stories first appeared last November and was “unable to look forward to what life was going to hold for him”.

In the eyes of Hollywood and the #MeToo movement, the reports put him in the “same league as some rather disgusting people”, he said.

“There was some backlash and it was very strong,” Schepisi said.

Even if he is vindicated Schepisi said the stories will forever be on the Internet and impact his future career.

Hollywood, he added, is affected by, and takes decisions on such report, with the stigma remaing with you “even when you’re proven innocent,” Schepisi said.

Speaking of the effect on Rush personally he told the court: “It was devastating. It was a shock to everybody. It just seemed such a disgusting overkill and trial by media.”

Along with being a character witness, Schepisi prepared an expert report on Rush’s likely career prospects as a 67-year-old.

Blackburn had objected to the report, arguing Schepisi was a friend of Rush and too close to the family to offer an independent opinion.

The report, which was allowed by Justice Michael Wigney, has relevance to the amount of damages awarded to Rush in the event of him winning his action against the Telegraph.

Schepisi rejected assertions that younger actors are in high demand to play older characters in movies, arguing that the cost of prosthetics was too costly for filmmakers.

Rush leaves court at the end of the first week of his defamation action the Daily Telegraph

He added that actors of Rush’s calibre have strong appeal, irrespective of their age.

But he told the court the stigma of the allegations would remain with Rush in a way drug taking and general disruptive behaviour – like that displayed by Robert Downey Junior – have not.

Blackburn put it to Schepisi that he was being an “advocate” for Rush rather than an expert witness.

The director said he was “being a sensible member of the public” who find stories such as those in the Telegraph “reprehensible”.

Schepisi compared Rush’s kudos in film circles to that of Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Sir John Gielgud.

“Are you seriously saying that Mr Rush is the same level….as Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford?” asked Blackburn.

“Yes, because of the variety of the work he does and his popularity outside of America, in Europe and other places,” Schepisi said.

Blackburn, who stressed he was not criticising Rush’s ability, also suggested Rush and Gielgud “are not in the same category” and again questioned his star power compared to the likes of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

“You clearly don’t know how popular he is,” Schepisi suggested.

After Blackburn questioned the number of recent movies Rush had starred in – and noted that last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean sequel had not been well received – Schepisi said acting went beyond films.

Apart from theatre, streaming services have spawned many series in a sign of an evolving industry, he said.

The case continues on Monday.

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