Monday, January 6, 2014

In My Next Life, I Want to Be As Brutally Honest (and Still Likable) As Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks"

I have yet another confession to make: I've never watched the classic 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins, the one for which Julie Andrews, making her big-screen debut, won the Best Actress Oscar. If I did sit through the entire thing as a child, I certainly don't remember any of the story. I know the movie only through its music. "A Spoonful of Sugar" might, in fact, very well be the first song I ever loved -- or the second, after "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes" by Perry Como.

My mother had the soundtrack on vinyl, and when I was a kid. my three older siblings and I played it so much that at one point, I must have known every single song on that thing by heart. So while watching Saving Mr. Banks, a biopic focused on two weeks in the making of Mary Poppins, I couldn't care less whether they cast Dick Van Dyke (he'll always be Rob Petrie to me, in much the same way that Mary Tyler Moore will forever be Laura Petrie, not Mary Richards, in my book of historic TV stars), or if Mr. Banks had a moustache or not. It was all about the tunes.

I couldn't pry my eyes from the screen during the scene depicting how "Let's Go Fly a Kite" won the approval of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the Australian-born author of the Mary Poppins series of novels who, at that watershed moment, began to thaw and come that much closer to handing over the rights to her character to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). It was like one of Disney's patented and totally manipulative feel-good music sequences (and Walt Disney Films did, in fact, co-produce Saving Mr. Banks with BBC Films), but it was only partly about the tune. It was mostly about Emma Thompson's dramedic rendering of the second of Travers' three come-to-Jesus moments, this one as the song's writers auditioned it for Travers.

Like any deserving Best Actress Oscar contender, she was the main reason to sit through all two hours and five minutes of Saving Mr. Banks. The film itself is kind of Episodes meets Hitchcock. You have the transplanted Brit coming to America and thoroughly hating everything about it in that condescending British way (Episodes' Beverly Lincoln could be a direct descendant of Travers) and the sort of behind-the-Hollywood-curtain shenanigans that framed Hitchcock driving a story that's executed with all the emotional subtlety of a Disney fairytale. There are flashbacks of young Travers aka Helen Goff aka "Ginty" (played by Annie Rose Buckley, who looks a lot like the actress who plays young Amanda Clarke on TV's Revenge) to tug at your heartstrings and show us why Travers lugs around so much baggage (which she then insists on storing in the seat directly above her first-class seat).

As the adult Travers, Thompson, channeling Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn and something all her own, makes the character thoroughly maddening and immensely likable at the same time. It's a performance full of physical details and precise facial expressions. At 54, Thompson is a full decade younger than Travers was when the events of the film took place, and kudos to Thompson for constantly furrowing her brow, contorting her face and allowing herself to be lit so that she looks every minute of her age and then some. She's like the headmistress who demands the impossible from her students while somehow inspiring them to make it happen (which they somehow do resentfully and cheerfully), all the while delivering delicious zingers that leave everybody running for cover.

While watching her awkward human encounters throughout the course of the movie, I thought of a copy editor I worked with years ago. When we were introduced and I offered a "Nice to meet you" without extending my arm or any other body part, she praised me. She told me that she found it offensive when she met strangers and they tried to shake her hand, not because she was afraid of germs, but because she just felt it was something strangers shouldn't do.

"...especially when it's a man," she added.

"Would you rather they hug you and kiss you on the cheek?" I couldn't resist a sarcastic crack.

She didn't know what to say. P.L. Travers never would have had that problem. (In the movie, she actually said, "I always know what to say.") She wouldn't have had to think of a comeback to put me in my place; one would have just rolled off her acid tongue. Preferably, it would have come without banishment to a corner, face facing the wall, which is how she punished the over-sized stuffed Mickey Mouse doll in her Los Angeles hotel suite before admonishing, "And you can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety." At least Mickey got to go back with her to London and sit with her at the tea table. I should be so lucky.

For Your Consideration, Too

Remember Colin Farrell? Just when I'm about to forget all about him, he pops up again to remind me that he's still out there, which doesn't say much about the predictive powers of all those movie critics and journalists who spent several years after he burst onto the scene in the 2000 film Tigerland treating him like the next big thing. Roger Ebert convinced me to rush to the theater to see 2004's A Home at the End of the World when he compared Farrell's performance in it to Charlize Theron's in Monster. Neither the film nor the performance lived up to Ebert's thumbs-up hype.

Though he's worked steadily since then, winning a Golden Globe for 2008's In Bruges, being my second favorite thing (after Jennifer Aniston's body) in 2011's Horrible Bosses, and according to a recent date who worked on the South African set of his 2006 film Ask the Dust, getting to enjoy an on-set fling with Salma Hayek, he's never quite achieved the Hollywood status that he once seemed destined to snag. Maybe someday. He's still only 37.

As Travers Robert Goff, P.L.'s alcoholic father in the film's flashback scenes, he was a hopeless drunk, slowly unraveling. Travers was a nightmare of a husband, insensitive and undependable, but thanks to Farrell's charisma and charm, he also came across as the fun, doting dad that any kid would want. Frankly, I'm over watching drunks bellow, howl and stumble about onscreen, and Farrell and the movie wisely underplayed that aspect of Travers' character until his (literal) final stand.

We saw him taking swigs out of his booze bottle, but the focus was not on his drinking, or even on what a disappointment he was. The flashbacks revolved around his relationship with Ginty, the daughter he adored even if he couldn't remember her age. He was a dreamer who made life seem like a grand adventure, but he didn't know when to wake up and face reality.

Though the movie was a bit heavy-handed in its linking of past and present, even without Thompson's tears and the swelling soundtrack during P.L.'s first and third come-to-Jesus moments, Farrell's approach to the character would have let us see how he was able to have such a profound effect on P.L., inspiring the Mr. Banks character in her books and also influencing the inexorably linked whimsy and gravitas (to use her own word) that P.L. brought to her work and to her life. (Clearly her stern but loving maternal aunt -- played by Rachel Griffiths in too brief an appearance -- helped shape P.L.'s grown-up outer shell as well as Mary Poppins herself.)

The thing I appreciated most about the flashback sequences and Disney's own childhood recollections (told only through a monologue delivered by Hanks with admirable restraint and understatement) was how they so perfectly captured the great contradiction of youth, how it can be both the most carefree and the scariest time of your life, with parents being so crucial to both aspects. Children have no real worries because they are dependent on their parents to protect and take care of them. "Do you trust me?" Travers asked P.L. when she got on the horse, facing him, in one of the scenes between them that stood out most for me. (It reminded me of how I would never let my dad carry me on his shoulders, only on his back. Did I not trust him -- or was it just an early manifestation of my fear of heights?) How how scary is that, living at the mercy of someone else's whims and mood swings and horsemanship?

In some ways, our relationships with our parents are the most pivotal relationships of our lifetime, even more so than our romantic ones, shaping our earliest memories and the people we end up becoming. Saving Mr. Banks brought up a lot of long buried memories from my own childhood, not just the good times dancing around the living room to the Mary Poppins soundtrack, but the love and the fear that dominated my childhood and continue to loom over my adult life.

As kids, we love our parents, and we fear them, too, not just for what they can do for/to us but for what they can do to themselves. Through her books, Travers got to do for her dad what he couldn't do for himself: She saved him. Although Thompson and Farrell shared no scenes, theirs was the pivotal relationship in the film and both pulled it off masterfully, emphasizing both its beautiful tragedy and its tragic beauty.
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