Here’s an interesting bit of Hollywood trivia. Two of the films nominated for best picture in 1964 were the musicals “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins.” The former starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, and the latter, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Now what’s amusing is that Harrison and Andrews were members of the original Broadway cast of “My Fair Lady,” but when it came time to make the film version, the brass at Warner Brothers decided to pass over Andrews, a noted stage actress, in favor of Hepburn, an established film star. And apparently Jack L. Warner said he thought Andrews wasn’t photogenic enough for the part. (When I first heard this, I erroneously assumed Warner was blind.)
So here is how it all played out. Walt Disney had seen Andrews on the stage in “Camelot” and immediately wanted her for the lead role in his film about a magical nanny. Both movies received multiple Oscar nominations, but Hepburn was not among the nominees for her role as Eliza Doolittle, which Andrews had played on the stage for years. Andrews had the last laugh, however, because she not only was nominated as best actress for “Mary Poppins,” but she actually walked off with the coveted statue.
“Mary Poppins” is one of Disney’s best-loved films, and now in “Saving Mr. Banks,” starring two-time Academy Award-winners Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, we get an intriguing look at the fascinating story of how Disney finally managed to bring the story to silver screen. Disney’s daughters had begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, “Mary Poppins” by P.L. Travers, but it proved a daunting task because Travers balked at selling the film rights to her book for nearly 20 years.
“Saving Mr. Banks” opens in Melbourne, Australia, where Travers Goff (Colin Ferrell) brings his family to live in an isolated farmhouse in 1906, and the story then switches to London in 1961, when P.L. Travers (Thompson) is contemplating granting Disney (Hanks) permission to make a film of her beloved book. Her major objection is she believes no film can possibly do justice to her characters, but she finally agrees to meet with Disney in Hollywood, and the battle between two strong-willed people begins.
At first Travers is impossibly stubborn about the whole thing and disagrees with everything Disney wants to do with the film, including the casting of Dick Van Dyke in the key role of Bert. While Travers is wrestling with the movie moguls, she constantly has flashbacks to her youth in Australia, where she was born as Helen Lyndon Goff (nicknamed Ginty and portrayed with heartbreaking charm by Annie Rose Buckley) and where she must cope with her alcoholic father, whom she loves dearly. During these segments we learn how she first conceived of the Mary Poppins character.
Thompson, who already has earned Golden Globe and SAG nominations as best actress for her work in this film, proves once again why she is one of the best in the business. Travers is a very conflicted person torn between protecting her treasured fictional characters and entrusting a Hollywood giant to put them on a movie screen. Her performance is consistently brilliant, but one of the film’s many highlights occurs when screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) Sherman attempt to sell her on the film’s final song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” Travers’ initial skepticism gradually gives way to complete acceptance, and you really have to see Thompson carry this off to appreciate it. Words cannot adequately describe it.
In a recent interview, Christina Radish of collider.com asked both Thompson and Hanks the following question: “In bringing these two people to life, what were the little breadcrumbs that you used to follow the trail to get the essence of who these people were, rather than doing imitations?”
“My search for P.I. Travers was very breadcrumb-y,” Thompson said. “She went everywhere, so she was like going into a maze. Around some corners, you’d find this terrible monster. And around other corners, you’d find a beaten child. She was the most extraordinary combination of things. I suppose that was the scary thing. In films, we often get to play people who are emotionally, or at least morally, consistent, in some way, and she wasn’t consistent, in any way. You would not know what you would get, from one moment to the next.”
And Hanks replied, “There was a bit of a vocal cadence and a rhythm that Mr. Disney had that took awhile to figure out. A lot of the little anecdotes that we found, specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman, were already in the screenplay, like Walt’s cough. Walt smoked three packs a day. Richard Sherman said that you always knew when Walt was coming to visit your office ’cause you could hear him coughing from down by the elevator. So, you’re able to put that stuff into it, and it just ends up being one of the delightful cards in the deck.”
Watching Hanks and Thompson in this delightfully entertaining and informative film is alone worth the price of admission. Word has it from those who knew Disney that Hanks’ portrayal of him is flawless down to the most minuscule mannerisms. But then who would have expected anything less? All the supporting players are wonderful as well, including Paul Giamatti, who plays Travers’ personal driver. And the scenes between Ginty and her dad will rip your heart out.
As one who loves the “Mary Poppins” movie, I thoroughly enjoyed “Saving Mr. Banks,” and I highly recommend it because it is consistently entertaining and beautifully acted. However, I was disappointed that Julie Andrews was never mentioned in the film, and we never find out how Travers reacted to her being chosen for the lead role. Nevertheless, “Saving Mr. Banks” earns a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious nine, and ever since seeing it, I’ve had the irresistible urge to go fly a kite!