Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sexing Mary Poppins, and Saving Mr. Banks, Part II

"Nobody ever knew what Mary Poppins felt about it, because Mary Poppins never told anybody anything."


(The first part of this essay appeared earlier this week.)

Pamela (formerly Helen) Lyndon Goff - who would make herself known to the world as "P. L. Travers" - began writing Mary Poppins while cozily ensconced in a thatched cottage in Sussex with her lesbian lover, Madge Burnand.  She was weak from an attack of pleurisy, however, and no doubt felt that at the ripe old age of 34 she had already been blown through several identities and careers: a life in the theatre had long ago been abandoned - although she'd hung onto her stage name of "Pamela" - and she had since crossed the world (from Australia to Bloomsbury) to struggle for some years at poetry, while dabbling in journalism; and through all this time, various masculine protectors had expressed an interest in her talent that seemed somewhat mixed with an interest in her physical person.

Mary Poppins' appearance in the original book.
No wonder, then, that the heroine of her masterpiece is all but tossed at the front door of the Banks household by a gust of wind: "The children heard a terrific bang, and as she landed the whole house shook," is how the arrival of Mary Poppins is described in her debut (compare to the decorous descent of Julie Andrews in the 1964 film). Which makes it clear that this magical nanny is an emissary from an unruly, ambiguous world that's tinged with an aura of chaos. So it's no surprise she has a no-nonsense, almost masculine manner - and refuses to divulge any personal details, while consorting with all sorts of beings high and low (including members of both the Pleiades and the working class). She is, in short, everything the bourgeoisie is not.  And her young charges love her for it - indeed, they're thrilled by both her oddity and her authority: "You could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her," Travers explains. "There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting."  Apparently so; the first edition of Poppins - published by Peter Llewelyn Davies (yes, Peter Pan himself) - quickly became a bestseller.

Poppins' profile, of course, roughly paralleled her author's - right down to her ambiguous identity (like J.K. Rowling, Goff chose her third name, "P.L. Travers" because it sounded masculine). Indeed, Travers herself once excused her own habit of personal secrecy by explaining to her public: "If you are looking for autobiographical facts, Mary Poppins is the story of my life." Her identification with her creation was surprisingly deep, and quite complete.

Therein, perhaps, lies the source of her long distrust of Walt Disney, who began soliciting her only a few years after Poppins became a phenomenon. Indeed, it's probably not too much to say her long negotiation with the movie mogul over her famous property was a battle over her own identity, over how she would come to be and be seen in the world.

But you wouldn't guess that from the new film Saving Mr. Banks, which purports to be a "warts-and all" account of Travers' quarrels with Disney, but which in fact is a commercial fantasy pitched at nearly the level of Mary Poppins itself. No doubt Travers understood in her bones that "Uncle Walt" would inevitably transform her factotum into a straight-laced ingénue, and that in the process, the coy mask behind which her own sexually eccentric nature had moved for years would be forever lost - indeed, would be forever replaced; signing over the rights to Poppins would, in a way, amount to a kind of artistic suicide.

Needless to say, those fears proved prescient.  Early on in the development process, Disney decided the film would be a musical, and pushed back its time frame from the troubled (and troubling) 30's to the nostalgia-tinged turn of the century. (The studio likewise upgraded the economic status of the Banks household - as well as all of Cherry Tree Lane). And as if to add insult to injury, Mrs. Banks was transformed into a ditzy suffragette (a role she would abandon at the finale to return to her family), and the studio even stitched together a romantic interest for Poppins in Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep, "Bert."  The  end result was a version of Poppins who was a close-mouthed as Travers about her identity - but for reasons unknown, as she was essentially another Disney fairy princess from which all strange shadings or dark corners had been erased (below).

The new Mary Poppins and her fabricated beau.

All this is as nothing, however, next to the way that Saving Mr. Banks transforms the identity of the author herself. Like Poppins, Emma Thompson's Travers is shorn of almost her entire backstory (except for her childhood in Australia, that is). She is not a lesbian, nor a bisexual, much less a sexual mystic (in fact she's not sexual at all, she's a kind of British eunuch in the Hollywood harem). And she is not, not a Communist sympathizer. She's not even bohemian - and seems to have no emotional or familial entanglements (although actually her troubled son - whom she adopted on the advice of an astrologer - was very much on the scene at the time).

In the end, Thompson isn't much - but she IS prim.  Very prim.  Which mean she's uptight - and so Thompson, great actress that she is, goes at this one assignment with a vengeance. She clutches at things, or grips them with white knuckles; she tends to tsk, tsk and tut, tut a lot, or shake her head and roll her eyes and mutter in a worried tone, "Oh this will never do!" You can't imagine anybody ever photographing her topless, as Travers was by her gay lover (on an Italian beach, no less); but then the idea that this bisexual free spirit was somehow more tightly wound than the chain-smoking, relentlessly "optimistic" Disney is more than a little ridiculous.

Of course subtracting P.L. Travers' personality from P.L. Travers left the screenwriters of Saving Mr. Banks, Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, with a key question to answer - why, exactly, was the author battling Disney? Why wasn't she happy to take the money and run, especially as sales of the Poppins books had begun to decline?  For Disney offered Travers a lot of money - not just an upfront fee, but 5% of the picture's operating profit - which turned out to be worth millions (this was unheard of at the time, and speaks to how desperate Disney was to get his hands on the material).  Even more bizarrely, why was Travers so set against the use of animation in the film, given that animation was seemingly the natural way to handle the fantastic events of her book?

Well, to be honest, Marcel and Smith simply ignore those questions, which is one reason why their screenplay is so bland, and their movie so hollow - or rather they maneuver around these gaps with a strange, pseudo-Freudian conceit. Their idea seems to be that Travers is resisting the blandishments of Tom Hanks' genially unctuous Disney because of repressed memories of her father's death.  Or something like that; at any rate, the movie moves on two parallel tracks: on the first, we see Travers railing at the mogul during her fabled visit to Burbank (or rather at the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the songs for the film and developed much of its plot; Disney had almost nothing to do with Travers after one disastrous encounter).  And on the other track, director John Lee Hancock leads us obliquely, but relentlessly, toward the early death of Travers' alcoholic father, who was (wait for it) a banker.

Oh, My, God.  And in the movie, Mary Poppins saves Mr. Banks - who is also a banker!

That explains everything!

A visit to Disneyland - tsk, tsk!

Uh - really?  It's hard to see how, particularly as the scenarists barely give Travers (or Thompson) a chance to ponder her father's memory (the flashbacks seem to be happening to us, not her). Indeed, a different impression is far stronger: that the screenwriters have reverse-engineered one of the Sherman Brothers' development conceits into a dramatic plug for the void at the heart of their script. The film might still have turned out well enough, however, if only Marcel and Smith had conjured some sort of identification with the doomed Mr. Goff (a lost-looking Colin Farrell); but their Australian flashbacks are all but bereft of dialogue, and proceed like a blank pageant of picturesque grief. 

Thus we're left mulling the movie that might have been - and wondering at the limits of supposedly "adult" cinema in the millennium. It seems strange, for instance, that in these days of gay marriage, Travers' sexuality should have been so ruthlessly excised from a supposed biopic (shoot, David Lean got away with far more in Lawrence of Arabia) - and by two women, no less!  Indeed, in light of current mores, this particular conflict should have been a gold mine of poignant irony, in that it amounted to a dance of various forms of concealment on all sides.  But perhaps the participation of the "new" Disney studio - despite its efforts to shed its old gay-unfriendly image - meant the movie had to be transformed into a branding exercise, and Travers herself had to be given the Poppins treatment. In a way, the studio emasculated her twice, first with Julie Andrews, and then with Emma Thompson.

You could argue she deserved it. For the great irony of her story is that (I'll admit it) Mary Poppins turned out to be one of Disney's finest efforts. It is definitely not Travers' vision, but on its own terms, it is among the most imaginative and exquisite films the studio ever produced: splendidly realized, and often genuinely witty, even charming.  So who was responsible for that triumph?  The Sherman Brothers?  Director Robert Stevenson (who helmed several superior Disney efforts)?  The brilliantly talented cast?  The production designers?  Some lucky alignment of the Pleiades? It would be wonderful to know, but the movie doesn't even begin to tell us.

Poppins and P.L. with Uncle Walt at the premiere.
The film's saddest deception, however, comes at the finish, when Thompson attends the premiere of Mary Poppins and weeps at the realization of how wrong she was to oppose it.  Only things didn't turn out that way in real life.  Travers did indeed attend the premiere (despite the lack of an invitation), but she took the opportunity to harangue Disney one last time, insisting that the animated sequences had to go, as Disney laughed in reply, "That ship has sailed!" Suffice to say, despite her disapproval of the final product, Travers was happy to accept the royalty checks from its success - which in turn didn't stop her from badmouthing the movie for the rest of her life.

Sigh. Which brings me to one more inaccuracy in Saving Mr. Banks - its conceit that somehow the rights to Mary Poppins were hanging in the balance during Travers' trip to Disney-land. The truth, however, is that the author had already signed these away - in exchange for the right to "consult" on the film, without any power to alter or block it. Thus her visit to Burbank was merely for show, a pro forma charade with the Sherman Brothers nodding and smiling to her many demands (all preserved on tape) even as the production moved forward on Disney's own terms.  Like Saving Mr. Banks, the whole masquerade had little or nothing to do with real life.

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