Tuesday, January 14, 2014

DISNEY’S DIG FOR GOLD – can these Hollywood self-embraces finally cease?

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks going round
 and round to promote Disneyland and
 “Mary Poppins” while starring in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

By Dominique Paul Noth

The Golden Globes gave cool reception January 12 to a much touted film timed in its release to woo insider votes. But “Saving Mr. Banks,” may turn hotter with Oscar nominations – since thousands of the Academy voters have close affiliations with Disney Studios, which has been pressuring for the film. 

But here’s hoping not. Here’s hoping “Saving Mr. Banks” writes finale to the movie industry’s fetish for wet sloppy kissing itself in presenting its accolades.

Two years ago there was considerable artistic motivation when Oscar honored “The Artist” – and it was easy to be swept up in the acclaim.  Few wanted to believe that statuette success was primarily about Hollywood in a self-congratulatory fever.

The positive finale from “The Artist”
But ask yourself – how was it possible that a silent film in black and white from a foreign director could seduce thousands of motion picture industry veteran cynics so readily?  While expertly done and using the best storyboard techniques of cinema, “The Artist” was an emotional pat on the back for Hollywood’s self-importance in world culture and its redemptive power.

The story of how the arrival of sound did indeed humiliate and destroy silent film artists seemed at first an attack on the ugly side of the studio system, only to flip in its concluding huzzahs into a triumph of Hollywood righting itself – the big hearts of stars and studios recognizing talent and using the magic of big screen enchantment to reverse suicidal depression.   Forget what MGM did to John Gilbert and Judy Garland, forget Warner Bros suspending Bette Davis. Hollywood corrected its tendencies. Just like real life.

A little self-indulgent glee is natural in the movie industry, but worse was to come. In my view the 2013 Oscars and Golden Globes will long regret passing over the “best film” that will prove immortal, “Lincoln,” to honor “Argo” – but that sad story has more to do with insider agencies and political advertising than artistic judgment.

In fairness, “Argo” had some built-in justifications for its Oscar and Golden Globes wins. One of the rationales behind the “Argo” sweep was the grave snub to Ben Affleck, wrongly passed over for Oscar best director nomination.  It was a better made fictionalization of a true story of heroism than “Zero Dark Thirty” -- and had the advantage of time passing as well (the rescue from Iran in 1979 of Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy using the ruse of a mythical Hollywood film). “Zero’s”  hunt for bin Laden was too close an event to compress and controversially  fictionalize.

Hollywood insiders John Goodman (left) and Alan
 Arkin (center) with Ben Affleck toasting “Argo.”
But few outsiders realized that “Argo” with its canny storytelling and good production values was a ready occasion for Hollywood to again embrace itself in its own virtues, this time for helping save democracy. A few of the community’s leading specialists  (including the late makeup artist John Chambers whom I once interviewed) helped sell the ruse and then kept quiet about it for decades, a rare case of moviemakers keeping a secret.  “Argo’s” best lines and performances are all echoes of that “inside Hollywood” affection -- so clever, so good, so deserving more pats on the back at awards time.

Now,  timed to awards season,  comes “Saving Mr. Banks” -- also based on a true back-story of how “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers proved a splintery British nut for Walt Disney Studios to crack in her determination to preserve her “Mary Poppins” creation from Walt’s manipulations.  The movie spends endless time retracing Travers’ childhood hardships in Australia and the roots of her Poppins fantasy, but it  hardly gives credence – just tons of screen time -- to her prickly nature and suspicion of Walt.

Inevitably, “Saving Mr. Banks” concludes
 with Travers attending the “Mary Poppins” premiere.
The whole exercise ends up serving as the longest indirect trailer the original 1964 film ever had.  It makes us long to see “Mary Poppins” again, a truism reflected in the final credits -- backstage photo memories from the original production.

The highlight reel for “Saving Mr. Banks” should consist completely of the catchy movie tunes and alluring story boards for “Mary Poppins” that Travers so unreasonably resists, until she finally taps her toes. The Disney creative forces imagined by actor Bradley Whitford (with Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the musical Shermans) are the best things in the film, underscoring that Disney’s creative people are the greatest gift to America since the invention of the refrigerator.

The always expert Emma Thompson broods magnificently and with devastating acerbic flourishes as Travers, only to literally melt into Mickey Mouse’s fuzzy embrace for no apparent reason.  Walt Disney in the arms of affable Tom Hanks is almost painfully pleasant, assured, temper controlled, always caring of others. That’s unlike the real Disney, admittedly a PR expert and visionary – but frequently ruthless to rule so huge a dominion.

No tantrums here.  This is father Disney painted by Disney Studios in a major studio promotion as the boss and guru everyone loves.  In reality, the relationship of Travers and Disney has been fictionalized. Disney already had bought the film rights and left her the more problematic script approval rights. Walt wisely left most of those conflict debates to his team, as a final audiotape in the movie amusingly reveals.

Yet the movie still turns Walt into the Carl Jung of Hollywood psychotherapy, figuring out the ego-id secrets behind Travers giving him such a hard time. He explains it all to her and the audience in florid sentences that suggest his love of children and storytelling embody the true genius of our age and anyone who resists his goodwill is a self-abusing silly.

No doubts flights of imagination and the powers of memory are central in all artistic creation, which lends charm to the young Travers (lovely child actress Annie Rose Buckley) and her unstinting  adoration of her wayward father (the ever appealing Colin Farrell).

But “Saving Mr. Banks” is a turgid exercise, beautifully filmed and surprisingly seriously paced, that makes nonsense of a genuine strain in artistic creativity.  Does anyone remember “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)?  It is a similar theme of an imaginative child whose resilience and creativity are enhanced by a drunken, doting poetic father.  This was standard in 20th century literature. Countless authors and screenwriters quietly turned childhood hardships into positive insights, though the best hardly used this to crassly promote one studio and one film.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is the Hollywood pat on the backside so blatant it should slap the industry back into common sense.


The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoast.