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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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