“Saving Mr. Banks” & The Problem with Biopics
Article by Charlie Tarabour
Throughout “Saving Mr. Banks”, author P.L. Travers frets about the vulgar Walt Disney Corporation taking control of her brainchild Mary Poppins, when she should really be more worried about them taking control of herself. She loses control of her creation on two levels in the film:
– The explicit adaptation of Mary Poppins from book to screen portrayed in the film
– And the implicit co-opting of her likeness, image and personality being used by the film itself.
I cannot help being brought up in a post-“Mary Poppins” world where not just “Mary Poppins”, but all those old Disney movies, exist with immutable permanence. They have always been. They are like the Sun. And “Saving Mr. Banks” doesn’t depict the creation of the movie as much as the creation of a digestible, cohesive arc involving an amped-up meeting of the minds that largely didn’t take place.
And that’s the predominant trend among biopics, they do not depict and report, they distill and reduce, with plenty of lies in between. They summarize with broad strokes. And in the past few decades, biopics have surely prided themselves on a sense of realism, accuracy, and revisionism. Many biopics attempt to rewrite, or more accurately, reboot old narratives with newly minted claims of authority. This is what “Saving Mr. Banks” does. It attempts to bid you closer with the claims of secret truths. Don’t be tricked, though. It’s got more bullshit in it than “American Hustle”.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is full of blatant indie tropes and manipulative triggers. It has dreamy driving sequences with Emma Thompson looking up at lines of palm trees in shots that wouldn’t have been out of place in “The Bling Ring” or “Spring Breakers”. It’s like a movie that would play at Sundance or be distributed by Fox Searchlight. Then she shares enigmatic dialogue with Paul Giamatti who wears black glasses. All the hipsters in the Los Feliz Theater wondered for a moment what movie they were watching or if something had been slipped into their edible.
Then flashbacks track the inspiration for Mary Poppins in Travers’ youth as Little Girl in the Outback. Her spirited (in both drink and personality) father and his professional and personal tragedies reveal themselves to be the nexus of inspiration for her writing. And here Colin Farrell plays her father, an English Jack Kerouac, to supreme schmaltz and cheap repackaging of vaguely alternative symbolism. Can’t we all just get along? As long as the Walt Disney Corporation is in full control of rights and properties.
This contrived structure (“Oprahesque revelation”, one reviewer said) hints at the limitations of overarching depiction in biopics, not to mention of the director John Lee Hancock. There is always just too much temporal scope and not enough duration. Time jumps will have to be made. The trouble with biopics is that events are organized in patronizing ways that distill instead of develop. The hunt for realist depictions has exhausted what revisionism set out to accomplish. Today’s biopics try to present as much factual information as they can, but it gets so muddled they have to bastardize motivations and events with speculation and outright falsehoods. It’s overeager formalism, the whole modernist project gone awry! And they claim more and more authority. This movie claims to depict Walt Disney and it was put out by a company bearing his name. Goddamnit!
Tom Hanks in “Saving Mr. Banks” is the first time an actor has played the character of Walt Disney in any movie. It’s not laziness that kept mythic Walt from being depicted, but a shrewd sense of control over his image and legacy. Nothing could be accidental. Nothing could be overlooked in the portrayal of Walt Disney, the man. The Walt Disney Corporation needed to provide a Walt Disney for the public to enjoy while still controlling his likeness, like they’ve done with so many other images over the years.
And indeed Tom Hanks’ Walt shines with engineered brilliance. He is down to earth enough and rounded to reality ever so slightly with things here and there, like a subtle mention of his drinking and smoking and a lengthy monologue about his harsh upbringing in rural Missouri. The dog’s leash is loosened for you to pet the dog that is Walt Disney and really experience some joy with him, but he is still on a leash…and might be a hologram. This is how unsure a viewer should feel after they see the movie.
All the facts dug up in the wake of “Saving Mr. Banks”’ release point to a larger and dirtier complexity of events surrounding P.L. Travers and her involvement with the movie of “Mary Poppins”. A particularly scathing LA Weekly article reports on several of these, as well as describing the egregious shortcomings of the movie’s portrayal of Travers and accusing it of “tricking us into cheering for the corporation over the creator.”
This exposes general limitations of the feature film biopic, including the general inability to distill the events of any singular person’s life into a feature film in a way that respects that given life’s entirety. I doubt any conscious film viewer would deem it wise to take any one biopic as authority on a certain subject. And I’m not just talking about mainstream, studio biopics, but more transgressive indies like “JFK” or “I Shot Andy Warhol”. Any individual movie cannot be an authority over a whole, complicated life.
It should all be part of the ongoing dialogue about both movies and, in the case of non-fiction filmmaking, the events they depict. When Oliver Stone put out his biopic of then still sitting President Bush, he said he didn’t want anyone to take his film as an authority on the events of Bush, the man, or his presidency. He hoped to encourage a plethora of films about George W. Bush in order to see how many moviemakers would depict the events in an effort to gain a wider perspective into those events’ meanings.
“Lincoln”, whose success lay in its limited scope and penetrating focus, is an example of where biopics should be going in my opinion. Biopics should consider themselves a part of a larger dialogue about both the themes and events portrayed. All mankind is one author and that sort of thing. Biopics should also embrace their limitations and make the invisible stitching of so-called authoritative biopics obvious. I support biopics that bend reality, like “I’m Not There” or “Kafka”, because that what movies inevitably do.
Once we realize we are all greenhorns at summarizing life, maybe we can actually get somewhere in our conversation about it.