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The Big O: Can a Woman Win an Oscar Without Falling in Love?

Awards
by Susan Wloszczyna
December 13, 2013 11:30 AM
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Saving Mr. Banks

If there's a lesson to be learned from likely multiple-Oscar nominee Saving Mr. Banks -- other than, grammatically speaking, the climatic Mary Poppins song "Let's Go Fly a Kite" should be titled "Let's Go AND Fly a Kite" -- it's that a film can be built around a relationship between a man and a woman and not involve romance. 

In fact, as this backstage saga of the making of Mary Poppins demonstrates, the leads don't even have to like each other. Saving Mr. Banks, which opens this weekend (and goes wide on December 20), revels in the antagonistic give-and-take between Tom Hanks' studio founder Walt Disney and Emma Thompson's implacable author P.L. Travers. He relies on his abundant wiles to convince her to sign over the film rights to her magical flying nanny, while she uses her ramrod personality to make sure any agreement conforms to her sometimes outlandish terms.

"What's interesting about the primary relationship in Saving Mr. Banks is that there's no attempt at a romantic B-plot, no hint that Walt Disney ever winked at P.L. Travers, or that she shimmied ever so slightly in his direction," says Thelma Adams, a Yahoo! Movies contributing editor. "While this does give Thompson's author of Mary Poppins a big, meaty role scrubbed of romance's distractions, it also scrubs the woman of nearly any sexuality." I could debate that last point with my esteemed colleague Adams -- Travers' British-bred frostiness and flattering, figure-hugging attire are not entirely a turn-off, if you are into that sort of thing. But, otherwise, it's a spit-spot assessment of not always having to define a female lead by her pursuits of the heart.

Flirting is definitely not in Travers' tool kit, as least in Thompson's interpretation. In reality, the never-married author had multiple relationships with men and women, as her biographer Valerie Lawson reveals in her book, Mary Poppins, She Wrote. She even penned steamy poetry and posed for a topless photo at some point. But Saving Mr. Banks doesn't involve itself in those revelations. Instead, the woman who insisted on being called "Mrs. Travers" -- the Australian-born Helen Lyndon Goff used her father's first name as her pen surname -- appears to have wedded herself to her beloved dad, an alcoholic dreamer who died when she was 7. Not that she would have a chance with the film’s Mr. Disney, a devoted family man whose missus earns a silent cameo.

Saving Mr. Banks might not become the first Oscar contender to avoid any hint of affection between its major female and male characters, but it might be the chilliest pairing ever nominated. Even novice FBI agent Clarice Starling and Hannibal the cannibal had a thing going on -- at least in the latter's fiendish mind -- in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs

That the source of this twist is being released by Disney, which has schooled generations of little girls in the art of pining for Prince Charming, is rich indeed. Especially when the studio's other awards-season entry this year is the animated fairy tale Frozen, the current No. 1 box-office hit, where the love between two sisters saves the day, not the affections of some dashing male interloper. 

Thompson was fascinated by the uneasy bond between Travers, who wants to protect the integrity of her literary authority figure from any sugar-coating, and the Hollywood mogul behind Mickey Mouse, who is so used to people fawning over him that he keeps a stash of autographed photos at the ready when out in public. "Two bonkers artists at loggerheads" is how she refers to the at-odds pairing. "I loved the fact she was so rude to everyone," she told USA Today recently." I like unpleasant people very much, especially difficult, strong women. If they're not using you as a whipping person, they're terribly interesting underneath." She also relished the battle of equals. "It felt like such a good balance, these two artists at the top of their game... and both rather ruthless." Meanwhile, Hanks has dubbed their real-life characters as "the charmer and the harpy."

Saving Mr. Banks director John Lee Hancock tells The Big O, "The first conversation I had with Emma was how a movie about the creative process can be dry and boring fare. Especially about writers. They are often given a tragic romance." Think of roles like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in 2002's The Hours (for which she won the Oscar), Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch in 2001's Iris, and Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in 1977's Julia. Furthermore, when it comes to awards-worthy lead actresses, "the central female in the film will often have a love interest, even if it isn't with their co-star," Hancock says. 

Interestingly enough, it turns out that the other four veteran actresses considered to be front-runners for a Best Actress Oscar nomination aren't obsessed about affairs of the heart, either. Sandra Bullock's stranded astronaut in Gravity creates a few platonic sparks with George Clooney and Judi Dench has a youthful dalliance in a flashback, but romance is the last thing on either of their characters' minds. Meryl Streep's cancer-ravaged matriarch in August: Osage County shares early scenes with husband Sam Shepherd, but she is more invested in her relationship with her estranged daughters. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett's disgraced jetsetter's defining personal connection in Blue Jasmine isn't with Peter Sarsgaard's diplomat, whom she mainly sees as a vehicle to reclaim her lost social status and wealth, but with her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins).

That is a far cry from last year, when Best Actress Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence poured much of her efforts into pursuing Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook when she wasn't coping with her grief over the death of her police-officer husband.

Not that there isn't some bonding between Disney and Travers. Otherwise, they would not be such interesting foils. "There is a mutual respect," Hancock says of their relationship. "She was drawn to strong father figures and had mentors who were men. She had to confess that Walt is formidable and smart. He certainly had a lot of respect for her. Both created their icons, Mary Poppins and Mickey Mouse. Only they knew their true origin stories came from a place of pain."

And that's not to say lovers can't be interesting fighters. Where would Gone With the Wind be without the clash of wills between Gable's Rhett and Vivien Leigh's Scarlett? However, too often women in films are saddled with a man, whether they need one or not. 

Let's conclude by going through the list of best-actress winners in the Oscars' 85-year history and highlighting the performances that featured nonromantic relationships with their primary male co-stars:

--Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched and Jack Nicholson as McMurphy in 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

--Sally Field as a striking factory worker and Rob Liebman as a union organizer in 1979's Norma Rae.

--Field again as a widowed cotton grower opposite Danny Glover and John Malkovich as her hired hands in 1984's Places in the Heart.

--Jessica Tandy as a rich Southern widow and Morgan Freeman as her chauffeur in 1989's Driving Miss Daisy.

--Kathy Bates as the fan from hell and James Cain as her favorite writer in 1990's Misery.

--Susan Sarandon as a do-gooder nun and Sean Penn as a death-row convict in 1995's Dead Man Walking.

--Hilary Swank as an amateur boxer and Clint Eastwood as her trainer in 2004's Million Dollar Baby.

--Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006's The Queen.

--One last, essential example: Julie Andrews as the practically perfect nanny and Dick Van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweeper in Mary Poppins, who -- though obviously fond of each other -- share no overt infatuation. We have Travers, who insisted on that very stipulation, to thank for that.

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