From 'Nanny' to 'Fair Lady,' multihyphenate stays busy
Her two Oscars have a relative pride of place — they live in the loo. The BAFTAs and the rest of her heavy metal, however, are hardly visible, quietly gathering dust on the uppermost shelf in the library, and certainly not under a spotlight.
“I’m typically British, so any kind of pride in an award is not really allowed,” says England’s favorite luvvie, Emma Thompson. “If I kept them on the mantelpiece, people would go, ‘Oh my gawd! She keeps her Oscars on the mantelpiece! How pa-the-tic!’?”
Although clearly pleased with her hard-won trophies, the oh-so-British actress-scribe tellingly describes her London abode: “It’s a family home and you certainly don’t want to litter it with the by-products of your work.”
Some of those byproducts include Academy Awards for her adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and a best actress win for her perf in “Howards End.” The three BAFTAs come from her winning perfs in those two pics plus the 1987 comedy “Tutti Frutti.”
Never willing to be boxed into a type, Thompson is driven to explore new territories — both in her acting and in her screenwriting.
“I would be very bored to play the same kind of character every time,” she admits. “As a writer and then as an actor, you’ve got the glory of swapping up. That reinvigorates me. And it’s less likely to bore the audience.”
“Swapping up” has taken Thompson from Jane Austen sensible Elinor Dashwood to E. M. Forster’s cultured Margaret Schlegel to the “amusingly ugly” disciplinarian Nanny McPhee.
The magical snaggle-toothed Nanny is back this month in “Nanny McPhee Returns,” a Thompson adaptation of Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda character.
“I’m super-involved with Nanny McPhee,” Thompson offers. “She is this person who people end up loving, having not loved her at all in the beginning. Building on that has been a great joy.”
Is there more of the “Nanny” franchise in the works? “I’m not through with her yet,” she replies.
Although nothing could appear to be more British than a nanny, Thompson reveals that she finds her inspiration elsewhere. “The stories are kind of based on Westerns that I grew up watching with my father — everything from ‘High Chaparral’ to ‘The Virginian.’ Stuff like that,” she begins. “There’s something in Nanny McPhee that I imbibed from Clint Eastwood and his ilk. Nanny is sort of ‘Shane,’ really. She’s this mysterious stranger who rides in from out of town, changes everything using rather unorthodox methods to resolve conflict and then must leave. That’s the Western. With a Western, you can tell any story. Think of what Mel Brooks did with ‘Blazing Saddles,’ which is again Nanny McPhee. It’s the same form.”
While the screenwriter finds challenges in all writing, the trickiest stunt for Thompson is composing those stories meant to appeal to both adults and children.
“You’ve got to make something that pleases in two directions,” she points out. “And for me, it’s vital that the tone of the ‘Nanny’ films be such that grownups can feel they are for them as well.”
Nanny McPhee, however, is Thompson’s K2 challenge, as opposed to the Mount Everest of her Eliza Doolittle. Her screen adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” looms large for fans and skeptics alike.
“I didn’t treat it as an icon in my mind,” says the screenwriter. “I just looked at it and said: ‘How could it be improved?’ So I was very cheeky.”
That cheekiness began with a much tougher look at Eliza’s father, the boozy Alfred P. Doolittle. Quite simply, Thompson views him as a manipulative and calculating slave trader.
“He’s more brutal,” she explains of her interpretation. “It’s a very terrible thing he does, selling his daughter into sexual slavery for a fiver. I suppose my cheekiness is in saying: ‘This is a very serious story about the usage of women at a particular time in our history. And it’s still going on today.’?” She admits, “Yes, OK, it’s a wonderful musical, but let’s also look at what it’s really saying about the world.”
It’s no surprise, then that Thompson doesn’t much like the iconic 1964 Oscar-winning film directed by George Cukor.
“I find it chocolate-boxy, clunky and deeply theatrical,” she begins. “I don’t think that it’s a film. It’s this theater piece put onto film. It was Cecil Beaton’s designs and Rex Harrison that gave it its extraordinary quality. I don’t do Audrey Hepburn. I think that she’s a guy thing. I’m sure she was this charming lady, but I didn’t think she was a very good actress. It’s high time that the extraordinary role of Eliza was reinterpreted, because it’s a very fantastic part for a woman.”
That fantastic part is headed Carey Mulligan’s way, according to Thompson, while all sorts of people are pitching for Higgins.
Can we expect more songs — new songs — in the revise?
“No, God almighty,” Thompson snaps back. “It’s so-o-o-o long. It’s incredibly long. The audience can expect less songs!”
As Thompson began to dig deeper into what she thought would make her retooled “My Fair Lady” more relevant, she found herself psychologically drawn to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the play on which the musical is based, and “intrigued with Shaw’s shrewd take on the ins and outs of human foibles. What Shaw did in ‘Pygmalion’ was say, ‘Be careful what you wish for because this could happen.’
“His attitude was very much more clear-eyed and cynical about what Higgins was up to,” Thompson stresses. “And it certainly was not something that could have led to a romantic entanglement. Shaw was a great champion of women, and yet there were also the problems that he shared with his fellow man at that time. Women were not considered to be the intellectual equal to men.”
That said, “My Fair Lady” is a romance for romantics.
“So my job was to pull that into a not necessarily more modern but a more emotionally connectedly visceral piece so that Higgins and Eliza’s relationship becomes absolutely central in a slightly different way,” concludes the screenwriter. “My version exists in the real world.”
The burning question: Will Thompson the screenwriter give Thompson the actress a role in the film?
“I have quietly nudged the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, in my own direction,” she offers, and then goes on to joke, “and if they do decide to cast me, I have a whole slew of new songs for her that I’ve written — just to build her part up a bit. And, by the way, Higgins goes off with Mrs. Pearce in the end.”
Very cheeky stuff indeed.
Emma Thompson’s novel take on “My Fair Lady” will come as no surprise to anyone who knows her extensive philanthropic endeavors.
“I’m a feminist,” she points out. “I believe that women are profoundly repressed and oppressed around the world. That’s always influenced my writing and the roles that I choose.”
The actress-writer is chair of the Helen Bamber Foundation, a U.K.-based human rights org founded in 2005 to help rebuild lives of survivors of human-traffic violations.
Three years ago, Thompson met one victim, Elena, who lived in a small village in Moldova and, at age 19, was sexually exploited and forced into prostitution.
To illustrate her story the foundation created an art installation called “Journey” that depicts Elena’s hellish experience, and Thompson has taken the installation around the world to raise funds, educate and create awareness.
“It’s time people learned about this new slavery and did something about it,” she says with passion. “It’s on the rise. We just had another girl come in from Albania. And, once again, her story is so awful.”
Thompson also works with the Refugee Council, the largest org in the U.K. that offers help to refugees and asylum seekers. “How we deal with people who ask for our help is the mark of a civilized society,” she believes.
“I understand that one cannot help everyone, but when people have managed to get here, and are survivors, they are rather remarkable and have a great deal to offer. They just need a little bit of help to recover from their trauma. The Refugee Council offers just that.”
For Thompson, her involvement with the council could not be more personal. Seven years ago, she attended the org’s Christmas party and met Tindyebwa Agaba, an orphaned child soldier from Rwanda, who could neither read nor write English and was sleeping rough on the streets of London.
“I invited Tindy over to our house for Christmas,” Thompson recalls. “That was the beginning of our relationship, which has become a familial relationship.”
She and her husband, Greg Wise, adopted Tindy, who is now 23 and recently graduated from Exeter U. with a degree in human-rights law.
“The Refugee Council and his own proclivities point to Tindy working in the area of development and human rights,” says the proud mother.