Emma Thompson as author and creator of Mary Poppins P.L. Travers resists Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) attempts to get her to “twinkle” like one of his cartoon characters, in the enjoyable Just-so story about the making of the movie Mary Poppins and the magic of storytelling Saving Mr. Banks.
At one point in Saving Mr. Banks, an exasperated Walt Disney, desperately trying to figure out what makes author P.L. Travers tick so he can get an angle on how to finally convince her to sell him the film rights to her novel Mary Poppins, asks her, “Where did Mary Poppins come from?”
And an even more exasperated but also angrily defensive Travers tries to deflect the question. “I don’t know. She just flew in through the window.”
Now, I don’t know if the screenwriters were using the line as an in-joke to show they’d done their homework or if the line was an inspired bit of improvisation by Emma Thompson. But, whichever and however it came to be in there, it’s also a missed opportunity.
Travers is telling the truth but the truth is not that one day she was suddenly and unexpectedly inspired as if Mary Poppins appeared in her imagination whole and in flight with her talking umbrella and bottomless carpetbag.
Mary Poppins flies but she would never be so impertinent or impolite as to come into someone’s house through a window.
She lands primly and properly on the doorstep and knocks.
But someone else flies in through windows, uninvited, and flies out of them too, with enthralled children in tow, leaving his shadow behind.
As a synecdoche for how stories inspire more stories, you can’t do better than Peter Pan.
And one of the themes of Saving Mister Banks is how people use stories to both understand life and to hide from it or at least disguise its true nature.
But as it happens, Peter Pan is the story---one of the stories---behind this story.
Saving Mr. Banks exists as a story to be told because the movie Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins exists because the novel Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins the novel exists because Peter Pan exists.
P.L. Travers, who began her adult career as an actress, was a great admirer of J.M. Barrie and when she sat down to write Mary Poppins she consciously used Barrie’s novelization of his play Peter Pan as one of her models.
Travers wasn’t the only child whose imagination Peter carried off with him to Neverland or the only adult for whom he left behind his shadow.
Walt Disney always said it was a touring company production of Peter Pan he saw as a boy that inspired him to become a storyteller as well as an artist.
In real life, Disney would have recognized Travers’ allusion immediately and he’d have used it to try to make the connection he’s struggling to make in Saving Mr. Banks.
But in the movie, he treats it as merely the deflection she intends and continues to focus on the business at hand.
Disney’s failure to pause and take notice of what she’s just said is a...well, a synecdoche---Don’t often get to use that word even once in a blog post.---for one of the flaws of Saving Mister Banks, a generally enjoyable movie mainly enjoyable for Emma Thompson’s and Tom Hanks’ performances.
Let’s get this out of the way first.
Emma Thompson has been robbed.
She deserved to have been nominated at every venue this Awards Season, including and especially the Oscars.
Meryl Streep? Again? What is there, a California Law that Meryl Streep has to be nominated every year no matter what movie she does? And it wasn't even the actual lead.
And I adore Amy Adams as much as anyone but the only explanation I can come up with for why she was nominated for American Hustle is that after nominating Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, Academy members were worried she’d feel left out and nobody wanted to make Amy Adams cry.
Well, there you have me.
But if Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine was the standard this go-round, then Thompson more than meets it.
As P.L. Travers, Thompson has a task similar to Blanchett’s as Jasmine. She has to carry a whole movie while playing a difficult, often dislikable, and, in a different way than Jasmine but still hard to sympathize with, destructive character. And she has to do it without the same or as many opportunities to act. Jasmine is an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. Travers is addicted to…tea. You just don’t look as dramatic spooning in the sugar as you can popping pills and tossing back a vodka martini.
Plus, Blanchett has help from a large and varied troupe of character actors. Thompson’s small company of supporting players, which includes Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, and Melanie Paxson, do a fine job but that job mainly consists of sitting there looking stunned as Travers alternates between bullying them, insulting them, insulting their beloved boss, and making impossible demands. The difference is the like the difference between a solo and a sonata. Blanchett has more to play off of and play with. Thompson has more scenes that depend on what she can do on her own.
Then there’s the fact Thompson has no lines that were written by Woody Allen.
Don’t get me wrong. Blanchett’s performance was edgier and riskier. Jasmine isn’t only her own worst enemy. She’s the enemy of just about every sympathetic character we meet, to the point she’s practically the villain of the story, and Allen and Blanchett constantly tempt us to turn completely against her.
Saving Mister Banks is always, if not always whole-heartedly, on Travers’. She’s unlikeable and disagreeable and abrasive and only some of that is warranted by her situation. But the movie takes a We All Have Our Faults view and so makes no attempt to punish her for her flaws and foibles. And it doesn’t take the position she should have just accepted that Uncle Walt knew best. She’s not expected to be able to see into the future and know that the movie she’s resisting being made out of her book will be a classic. We’re allowed to be amused when she objects to something that we know will turn out to be a favorite part of Mary Poppins but we’re not for a moment to think her objections are foolish or her suggestions are bad in themselves. We’re even encouraged to think she might have at least half a point as she’s busy trying to sabotage one of the most beloved movies of all time.
Still, it’s a tall order and you don’t have to take my word for it that Thompson carries it off brilliantly. Here’s Meryl Streep presenting one of the awards Thompson was not robbed of, the Best Actress Award from the National Board of Review:
Nobody can swashbuckle a quit-witted riposte like Emma Thompson. She’s a writer, a real writer, and she has a relish for the well-chosen word. But some of the most sublime moments in Saving Mr. Banks are completely wordless. They live in the transitions where P.L. traverses from her public face to her private spaces. I’m talking about her relentlessness when she has her verbal dukes up, and then it moves to the relaxation of her brow when she retreats into the past. It’s her stillness, her attentiveness to her younger self; her perfect aliveness, her girlish alertness.
What I said, about Thompson and the Oscars? Robbed!
Tom Hanks was robbed too. Not for Saving Mr. Banks. For Captain Phillips. Still, he’s very good as Walt Disney. More convincing as Walt Disney than Walt Disney was himself. Hanks plays the character Disney tried to play in his introductory scenes on The Wonderful World of Color. Kindly, genial, avuncular, with a touch of gruffness that lets you know he’s not someone you want mad at you but without the real Disney’s mean streak or will to dominate, an artist who can’t always keep his own creations under control, a Merlin with still a touch of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and that’s how he seems to think of Travers---as one of his own cartoon characters who’s come to life with a mind and will of her own. She baffles him, frustrates him, makes his blood boil, but, fundamentally, she amuses him and makes him a little proud. This mixture of vanity, condescension, paternalism, and solipsism keeps Hanks’ Disney from becoming just the loveable old Uncle Walt Walt tried to pass himself off as and helps keep us on Travers’ side. No matter how wrong she might ultimately be about how to make her book into a good movie, she’s right to resist being turned into a Walt Disney character along with her Mary Poppins.
Saving Mr. Banks is a slight film. You could argue it’s a dishonest film. I know you can because I’ve seen people do it. It’s dishonest not in the usual Hollywood way of leaving out facts or altering them or making things up to suit the needs of the plot, although of course it does that. But Hollywood and its audience long ago came to an understanding about that sort of dishonesty.
If you want to make the case Saving Mr. Banks is dishonest, its dishonesty is in its refusal to take its two main characters seriously, either as artists or as difficult, complicated, and problematic personalities. The movie presents it as a settled question that both Travers and Disney were genius storytellers, with Disney being the greater genius, of course, or at least the broader-thinking one. And the serious defects in each of their characters are glossed over or treated like harmless eccentricities.
By 1962, when the movie takes place, Walt Disney hadn’t been an artist in his own right in years. He had ceased to be a great entertainer or even a showman. He was a salesman selling Disney-ness, not as a brand, but as a way of life, almost as a place to live, with the theme parks being model neighborhoods.
But the possibility that Disney was a showboating fraud and a ruthless corporatist who made his name and his dough exploiting true artists like Travers, either because that’s what he’d become or that’s what he’d always been, is never considered.
And, as I said, Hanks leaves out his mean streak. And left out of the script is his appalling sexism. Meryl Streep again:
When I saw the film, I could just imagine Walt Disney’s chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers’ favor for 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter, in a woman, an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own, considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination.
Streep could imagine it, but the movie doesn’t, not really. In the few moments when Disney's sexism is allowed to surface, it’s presented comically, as the understandable bafflement of a typical man of his time having to deal with an individual who refuses to conform to his idea of how a typical woman of the time should behave. And he’s immediately set straight by his executive secretary. In this, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t just reflect the times. It’s practically an apology for them.
On the other side, the fact that the real Pamela Travers could be a ruthless go-getter in her own right who exploited and abused others as she needed on her way to a level of success and personal happiness that always eluded her is also never considered. Neither is the possibility that she was a posturing mediocrity, a poetaster (and poet-chaser) who’d luckily hit on a late-blooming career as a children’s author by shamelessly mimicking the works of her literary idols.
The opposite isn’t there either. Travers isn’t set up as a champion of artistic integrity (as opposed to a defender of her own artistic creation) opposing a one-time fellow genius who could no longer distinguish between a work of art and a commodity.
Travers doesn’t like what Disney sells and she’s sharply critical of what about it she doesn’t like but she offers no real critique of it, either in what she says or what she does. She is not, as Streep would like to imagine, the least bit “dismissive of his considerable gifts.” And for his part, Disney is certain of Travers’ talent because his daughter loved Mary Poppins when she was little and the judgment of children is always pure and never wrong.
Neither one doubts or questions his self or herself as an artists. Neither doubts or questions the other.
In short, they don’t talk about Peter Pan.
They don’t discuss or even bring up how it inspired both of them but in very different ways to very different purposes.
At any rate, you could make the case that in leaving all that out or in giving it short shrift, Saving Mr. Banks is a dishonest movie if it was a movie for grown-ups or just for grown-ups.
Saving Mr. Banks is a movie for children who love the movie Mary Poppins and for those children’s parents and grandparents who loved Mary Poppins when they were children themselves and as such it’s not meant to be realistic.
It’s meant to be something of a fairy tale, like Mary Poppins, Disney’s movie and Travers’ novel.
Saving Mister Banks is a just-so story about stories and about how stories come into being or, in this case, how a story almost didn’t come into being.
Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t have a full-time narrator, but it opens with a short bit of narration spoken by a voice we'll come to recognize as that of Travers' wistful, romantic, and soul-tortured father.
Winds in the east / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin / Can't put me finger / On what lies in store / But I feel what's to happen / All happened before.
Which happens to be a variation on the opening lines of both Disney's Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.
Behind every story is another story, a true story. And behind that story is another story. Sometimes the hidden story is a funny one about grownups behaving like children, like the story you’re watching now. And sometimes the story is a sad one about grownups and children who are unhappy and in pain, like the story behind this story, which, as it happens, thanks to the magic of movies, you’re also watching at the same time.
That other, sad story is the story of Travers’ less than happy childhood in Australia where she lived an emotionally and financially precarious life with her younger sisters and their alcoholic but charismatic and doting father (Colin Farrell) and their emotionally fragile mother (Ruth Wilson) who probably would have had a hard time coping even if her husband had been more reliable and their life more stable.
But despite her father’s inability to make himself reliable or provide that needed stability, he is still a hero to his eldest daughter and he passes along two great gifts.
A faith in the power of stories to make life bearable and beautiful and a confidence in her own abilities as a storyteller.
The problem that past creates in the present, that is the complication that sad story causes in the plot of the comic story Saving Mr. Banks is telling is that Travers has come to see all her stories, including and especially Mary Poppins, as bound up in her very mixed feelings about her father. Basically, she can separate her story from his story and, as Saving Mr. Banks has Walt Disney intuit, she can’t let go of Mary Poppins the way he needs her to in order to make his movie (tell the story he wants to tell) because in her mind Mary Poppins is her father’s story and in letting go she’d be betraying him.
And as soon as Disney realizes this, he hits on the solution.
The still floundering and exasperated Disney tells the still angry and defensive Travers a story. The story of his childhood and his relationship with his father. I should say a story. An alternative story. It’s a true story but it’s not the story because it’s not the story Disney has chosen to be the story of his life. He could have made that story a story about being cold and alone and put-upon and exploited and neglected. He could have made his father the villain of his life. Instead, he calls his father “a good man.”
Any armchair psychologists want to speculate on what the young Walt would have made of the fact that the actor playing Mr Darling also played Captain Hook?
Same thing a lot of children make of it, I’d wager.
Now of course Walt Disney would have had more reason than most people to think his life worked out ok not just in spite of what he had to endure as a kid but because of it. But his point is that the story of a person’s life is the story as she tells it to herself. Travers, he’s implying, is letting the story tell her. She sees it as a story about how she failed her father. And because of that, she sees her own novel as a compensatory fantasy. That’s why she’s so defensive of it. It’s her defense against guilt and self-loathing. It’s not working that way. But it’s all she’s got. She thinks. Disney figures out that she’s stalled, as an artist and as soul. She’s not frigid, as at one point another character accuses her of being. She’s frozen in place. And Disney blames it on her getting her own story wrong. It’s not the story of her father’s and her own failures. It is, in his view, the story of her success.
Well, he would.
But his point is that that story, that success, is Travers’ creation of Mary Poppins. “Finish the story,” he urges. And the finish is that she gives Mary Poppins to the whole world by selling him the film rights.
Well, he’d see it that way too.
At any rate, that’s what I liked about Saving Mr. Banks. Here’s what Emma Thompson herself liked about it (This is from her speech accepting the award Streep presented.):
I’d like to thank Kelly Marcel for writing someone so relentlessly unpleasant. Actually, it was an artistic chance to let out my real and true inner self. It was such bliss torturing all those young men, and I include Hanks, obviously, in that category. He’s always looked like he needed a good smack.
And Alison Owen, who produced a film about a 60-year-old woman which wasn’t about her being a wife or a mother. When does that happen? Never. Extraordinary.
And, of course, John Lee Hancock, who corralled a group of actors who would literally sell their internal organs to get the laugh. We would do anything to get a laugh, and he managed to make us look quite poignant in the end, which was extraordinary, I thought.
The end, but one more thing before they all lived happily ever after, which they didn’t and the movie, to its credit, doesn’t try to make us believe they did.
I still wish upon a star that more had been made of the Peter Pan allusion.
I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to two hours of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers arguing about art, the nature and uses of storytelling, and the corrupting influence of the Almighty Dollar.
That might have made an interesting two-character play, although not necessarily a more true to life story.
But a couple of lines that would have let Thompson and Hanks play the moment would have done the trick.
It would have been fun and funny to see the shock of recognition on both their faces.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't exactly the cinematic equivalent of the best creative non-fiction, but from reading Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson, I was pleased to learn it's a lot more true to the facts than carping commentary on the internet led me to expect. Here's an interview Lawson did with the Chicago Tribune.
And from Smithsonian.com: How Did P.L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins, Really Fare Against Walt Disney?: Historian Amy Henderson searches for the spoonfuls of sugar-coated truth in the new film, "Saving Mr. Banks".
Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Kelly Marshall and Sue Smith. Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Annie Rose Buckley, and Melanie Paxson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters but coming to DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon on March 18.