Writers on Writers: Rosanne Cash on ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

"Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith very casually — and elegantly — let the audience in on the big secret of artists and writers."

In the screenplay for “Saving Mr. Banks,” Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith very casually — and elegantly — let the audience in on the big secret of artists and writers, in the middle of a key conversation between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers. Disney, in trying to convince Travers to trust him with “Mary Poppins,” says: “We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again.” That took my breath away.

For those of us whose childhoods have a crack down the center, and who have made our life’s work in both the playgrounds and the dark caverns of the imagination, those two sentences are more than a wise reflection on creativity, they are a mission statement.

That scene, although a linchpin, is not just a great moment to be lifted out and reflected upon, but part of a graceful and muscular screenplay. It is so finely layered and seductive that I felt I was on the inside looking out of Travers, not an observer of her story.

At first, her irascibility seemed too relentless and too studied, almost a caricature, but as her story was revealed in flashback, I began to see her inflexibility and chronic irritation as valiant. She became easy to admire. It’s the natural inclination of those who are deeply damaged in childhood, particularly women, to become people-pleasers; to try to heal the wound by manipulating others into fixing it for them. Travers went the other way, but her abrasiveness was not just protective, it was heroic: utterly in the service of her work. Her heroic qualities extended much deeper than I first realized, however.

She has dark secrets, and they lie on her like a mist. Everything she says is behind an intricately woven veil of unspoken and tormented memories and fathomless — and fatherless — longing. Walt Disney navigates the mist with increasing acuity, but he is also in thrall — not just to his own imaginative visions, but to the elaborate internal reconciliations of his own childhood. The places their secrets and pain intersect, and eventually dovetail, are a source of enormous creative dynamism.

A pivotal exchange between Travers and Disney early in the creation of the film version of Mary Poppins begins to reveal her private raison d’etre:

Travers: I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.

Disney: Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children!

Travers: You think Mary Poppins has come to save the children?

As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Thankfully, there are some who use the irreconcilable wounds of the not-dead past to make great art, to restore order for themselves — and the rest of us — with their memories and imagination. The women who don’t people-please — P.L. Travers, who is cranky, complex, yearning and alone — and Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, who masterfully recount and reconstruct a watershed moment in her life, and the life of Walt Disney, do what all great artists do: they instill us with hope. Again and again.

Rosanne Cash is an author, songwriter and Grammy-winning recording artist with 11 No. 1 country hit singles and two gold records. She is the author of “Bodies of Water” and the children’s book “Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale.” Her most recent book is “Composed” A Memoir” and her next album, “The River & the Thread,” will be released in Jan. 2014. She is the daughter of Johnny Cash.

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  1. malarson3 says:

    I find it so interesting that I read Ms. Cash’s analysis here within hours of reading, finally, Anna Gunn’s very interesting Op-Ed she wrote in The New York Times back in August when the show, ‘Breaking Bad’, in which she’d appeared for several years, was coming to an end.

    Her piece was a successful attempt at understanding why so many people felt so much hatred and disgust towards her character, Skyler White. Most of the reasons given on the various ‘I Hate Skyler’ sites that had cropped up were related to her strength and her ability to stand toe-to-toe with her criminal husband in spite of all of his bad-assness.

    It seems there is quite a parallel between Ms. Gunn’s fictional character and Emma Thompson’s real one. She’s described here so aptly by Ms. Cash as an abrasive, cranky, and complex women with dark secrets.

    Skyler White could be described with those exact words. And all are traits that come across as net negatives by either the male characters inside the film, or the males watching television from the outside.

    But they are certainly looked upon as interesting, self-assured, and admirable by me.

    A lot of time has passed between Mrs. Travers’ encounter with Walt Disney and Anna Gunn’s encounter with a vitriolic American public.

    Fifty three years to be exact.

    Seemingly more than enough time for people to no longer think negatively about strong women who don’t choose to ‘suffer silently’, as Ms. Gunn put it. Aren’t we living in a time long past the one in which women were looked as trouble makers for standing up for themselves?

    I think these characters have gotten – and are getting – so much attention because they show that, sadly, we are not. And all we need to do is to look to other female characters in these same creative mediums to know this for sure.

    After all, how could naked phallic-licking singers, fixers who sleep with married presidents, or the damsels/girlfriends who exist solely for their super heroes to have someone to save and kiss at the end of the movies ever tell us anything otherwise?

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