Geoffrey Rush and his wife Jane Menelaus arrive at court for the first day of the trial (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

This is act five in Inq’s series on the media trial of Geoffrey Rush. Read the full series here.

“Mr Moran is a gossip columnist … an investigative journalist he isn’t”

Geoffrey Rush’s defamation trial against News Corp subsidiary Nationwide News kicked off on October 22, 2018. The courtroom, on the 18th floor of the Federal Court on Phillip Street in Sydney’s CBD, was packed. 

The Oscar-winning actor, dressed in a navy suit, jewel-blue shirt and matching tie, walked into court with his wife Jane Menelaus. Menelaus, with her dark caramel hair, thick-rimmed glasses and serious demeanour, ignored journalists as she walked alongside her husband. 

The pair have been married for more than 30 years, having met on set in Adelaide during a production of Michael Frayn’s Benefactors in the late 1980s. While Rush is considerably more famous than his wife, it’s not uncommon for the couple to star alongside one another: they’ve appeared together in The Eye of the Storm and Quills, as well as in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest. Menelaus and Rush also had a cameo in Kath & Kim, playing a neighbouring couple with a passion for lycra and speed walking.  

The two have two children, Angelia, 27, and James, 25. Through Menelaus’ battle with breast cancer and now a defamation case involving sexual harassment allegations, Rush and Menelaus have stuck by one another’s side. 

With camera operators trotting backwards metres in front of him and microphones shoved in his face, Rush kept his head high. “Are you looking forward to your day in court?” asked Nine News reporter Damian Ryan. Rush raised his eyebrows, smiled and looked down. “Is that nod a yes?” asked Ryan. Rush’s face quickly dropped, as he shook his head and hurried inside.

The public gallery was packed with journalists from every major newspaper, as well as from ABC, Nine, Seven, Fairfax and Ten. Journalists spilled out into the jury box. The court accommodated the intense media interest, setting up special media rooms near the courtroom and allowing one ABC camera in for the first 10 minutes of the morning’s session.

One TV reporter complaining about the quality of the shot was overheard being reminded by a colleague that “it’s not Spielberg”. Footage of Rush sitting by his wife, shots of the barristers and a wide shot of the courtroom would be replayed in news segments for weeks to come. 

With a cheery smile and banter at the ready, Rush’s barrister Bruce McClintock SC began: “On the evening of 29 November 2017, not quite a year ago, Geoffrey Rush had had an extraordinary career. To the point where one could describe him, without exaggeration, as one of Australia’s most famous actors.”

Almost gushingly, McClintock listed Rush’s Hollywood roles, painting a picture of the actor alongside some of Hollywood’s greats. “He has given, over those years, your honour, pleasure to millions … it really is not going too far to describe Mr Rush … as a living national treasure.” 

Everyone, said McClintock, had a favourite Geoffrey Rush film: “Mr Blackburn, I am sure, given his media clients, probably prefers Pirates of the Caribbean,” he said, referring to the Telegraph’s barrister Tom Blackburn SC. 

McClintock then turned to the achievements of Rush’s accuser, Daily Telegraph entertainment reporter Jonathon Moran: “Mr Moran is a gossip columnist … I don’t wish to be unkind, but an investigative journalist he isn’t … He was obviously desperate for a story … Poor Mr Moran.” 

The barrister’s tone turned sombre as he moved onto the impact of Moran’s stories. “These articles have had a devastating effect on Mr Rush, your honour, personally and professionally … As well as the destruction of his reputation and the naming of him falsely as a pervert and a predator and someone who engaged in sexual assaults, there is, of course, as I said, the hurt to his feelings.” 

McClintock outlined the effect on Rush’s earnings. Across five months from July to November 2017, Rush earned $1.5 million. That number dropped to $44,000 across the ten months between publication of the articles and the date of the hearing. 

* * *

When Rush took the stand, his testimony started with his early career. He explained how he was quickly typecast into playing old men. 

“I was very adept with makeup. I was a transformational. I was a character actor. I was very skinny. I wasn’t particularly a very good looking boy, so I never got the central heroic roles,” he said. 

Late in the afternoon, Rush finally started to speak about The Daily Telegraph’s stories regarding his alleged harassment. Upon seeing the second story published by the Telegraph, which was compiled of social media comments from fellow actors, Rush said his “blood kind of ran cold”: “I went to jelly because I thought, ‘this is the beginning of a boxed set’ … The story is going to continue and it’s wilder than you think, dear reader.” 

Rush said he knew so little about the allegations that the first clue he got was when he saw the word “touching” printed in one article: “Theatre cast back accuser, as Rush denies touching,” the article’s subheading read. 

“It was the only new clue I had to what ‘inappropriate behaviour’ may or might not mean,” Rush said. His lawyer, Nicholas Pullen, had advised him inappropriate behaviour could cover personal hygiene, bad breath, bullying or body odour. 

“I was being demonised by untruths … It has been the worst 11 months of my life,” he said. “I felt as though someone had poured lead into my head … I felt I had been ambushed. I was in freefall … I think [the front page] looked like a police lineup, it made a madman from the theatre look criminal in reality.” 

By the time Rush stepped down from the stand that first day, the court had only begun to hear about King Lear and how Rush had a say in casting his co-stars. Rush had previously boasted to The Sydney Morning Herald, “I hand picked them. I couldn’t be more thrilled. The chemical balance feels right. 

“There was another choice of a co-star, Yael Stone … I said to [King Lear director Neil Armfield], ‘Look, for me the personal alchemy and the fearlessness of Yael’s artistry and theatrical savvy,’ I said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have her as the Fool and possibly Cordelia’.” 

Armfiled later told the court Stone had been his and Rush’s first choice to play the characters of both Cordelia and the Fool: “There was a particularly powerful actoral relationship, I think, built between Geoffrey Rush and Yael Stone…”

Stone declined when she was offered the part of Cordelia alone. 

Instead, Eryn Jean Norvill was cast.

Next: A star is torn