I had the great pleasure of interviewing Nicky and Rod from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q, which comes to Dublin this month. I had plenty to ask them about the gay rumours that surround them, but first of all I wanted to get their opinions about similar rumours that have surrounded Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert.
Listen to the full interview here!
Watching Saving Mr Banks, it’s difficult not to imagine PL Travers literally spiraling in her grave. The film, brought to us by the Disney company, tells the story of the culmination of Walt Disney’s 20-year battle to secure the film rights to Mary Poppins, when in 1964 Pamela Travers finally travelled from London to LA, to oversee the development of the film, before agreeing to sign on the dotted line.
Travers was a notoriously controlling character, as was Disney, albeit in a very different way. While the latter, as played here by Tom Hanks, used charisma to get his way, Travers (Emma Thompson) was implacable and ruthless. Much of the film plays this conflict of character for comedy as Walt tries to charm the socks of an unbending Pamela, and with it, Saving Mr. Banks goes a long way in charming its audience’s socks off.
In between we get two other stories: a flashback to Travers’ childhood and the tragic genesis of Mary Poppins in her imagination, and in ‘current time’ the development of the film of her book, helmed by visual scriptwriter, Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the songs, over the course of a fortnight at Disney’s Burbank studios.
As Travers battles against every tiny little decision DaGradi and the Shermans make, she increasingly ruminates on her childhood relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). Even though the flashback segments of the film are supposed to poignantly underpin Travers adult eccentricities and isolation, they’re the weakest, possibly because of Farrell’s performance, which is so increasingly over the top, a sense of realism is sacrificed. Plus these are the parts of the film when Emma Thompson, who literally shines forth with complicated brilliance from every scene she swallows up, is not on screen.
Tom Hanks plays Disney as an inscrutable character, a man who insists on all his employees using his first name, but who is barely accessible on an emotional level. Even in the big moment, in which Walt ultimately convinces Pam to sign over her book’s rights by describing his own brutal childhood, you get the sense of a showman pulling heartstrings to his own ends.
The idea that Travers would have been convinced by such sentimentality is what might have her spinning in her grave. Yes, she did weep throughout the screening of Mary Poppins at a lavish Hollywood premiere to which she wasn’t actually invited, but it wasn’t because the film’s father-child relationships resolved her own childhood suffering. Instead she felt Disney had bowlderised the book she so identified with. She refused to give him rights to any of her other Poppins novels, and the truth is she signed over the first two, from which the Oscar winning film was adapted, because of financial difficulties.
Truth aside, Saving Mr. Banks is a rare thing, a Disney film that’s a very adult entertainment. Whether it will melt your heart will depend on how you like your adult entertainment, dolloped with a spoonful of sugar or ten in the closing reels or not. But in the meantime it’s a witty, dark and acerbic, and even though the Disneyfication of Travers triumphs, it’s not afraid to cast a cold eye over the mass consumerism at the heart of Disney’s particularly American dream. Indeed, old Walt might be spinning in his grave too, just a little bit.
To celebrate the release in Ireland today of Oz The Great and Powerful, here are my five favourite Wizard of Oz spin-offs of all time!
Adapted from Gregory Maguire’s decidedly political novel (which has spawned three sequels, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz) the pop musicalWicked is a current global phenomenon, mixing the universal love of Oz with a music and lyrics Stephen Schwartz that hits all the right notes. It’s a prequel in which the Wicked Witch of the West is re-cast as a misunderstood protagonist, and the Good Witch of the North as her best friend, corrupted by glory. The movie version, directed by Stephen Daldry is set for release in 2014, but casting hasn’t been announced yet. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, who played Galinda and Elphaba in the original stage production will not be reprising their roles, given that they are a bit long in the tooth now to be playing the teenage witches.
2. Return to Oz
A Disney movie in which a 10 year-old little girl is given electroshock therapy in a psychiatric hospital? It can only be the 1985 version of Return to Oz, with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy and Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, who thinks her niece has lost her marbles when, six months after the tornado has hit Kansas, the little girl can’t stop talking about an imaginary place called Oz. The faulty shock treatment catapults Dorothy back to Oz for this altogether very dark film in which the plucky Kansas girl is on a quest to find the Scarecrow so she can rescue The Lion and the Tin Man who have been turned to stone by Mumby, the Wicked Witch’s cousin. Not all of it works, but director Walter Murck’s dizzying display of creativity makes for a very satisfying watch.
3. The Wiz
If you’re watching season two of Smash, you’ll know that its bad-lad director, Derek Wills, is in talks to direct a Broadway revival of The Wiz, starring a startlingly slimmed-down Jennifer Hudson. When Jennifer belts out numbers like Home, you understand why this soul version of The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast won eight Tony Awards in 1975, given that the 1978 movie version, with Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow, was such an ordeal. One critic said the creators of The Wiz, Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown, “found a connection between Frank L. Baum’s Kansas fantasy and the pride of urban black Americans”. You’d wonder, given how times have changed if the Smash version ofThe Wiz would be a smash at all.
4. Tin Man
When it was screened in 2007, this Sci Fi Channel three-part modernisation of Frank L. Baum’s original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was critically panned. But like most things Oz it’s garnered a cult following. Zooey Deschanel as DG (Dorothy Gale, geddit?) led an impressive cast, which included Alan Cumming as the Scarecrow (named Glitch) and Richard Dreyfuss as a drug-addicted Wizard, and O.Z. is the Outer Zone, which bored diner waitress (in a blue gingham uniform), DG must save on discovering that she’s actually the sister of a wicked witch (well, bitch really) who owns some super-sinister flying monkeys. The effects (and much of the story) owe a lot to the Harry Potter franchise, and Beverly Hills 90210’sKathleen Robertson camps it up a storm as the wicked Azkadellia, but all in all, Tin Man is a little lacking in heart.
5. Journey Back to Oz
This animated feature has to be mentioned, if only because Dorothy is voiced by Judy’s girl, Liza Minelli (who worked on it ten years before winning her Oscar forCabaret, but because of financial difficulties the cartoon wasn’t released until 1974), and Auntie Em is brought to life by Margaret Hamilton who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film. Dorothy returns to Oz having been knocked senseless by a gatepost in another Kansas tornado, and finds herself locked in battle with the cousin of the Wicked Witches, Mombi (voiced by an over-the-top Ethel Merman), who is trying to conquer the Emerald City and become Queen of Oz. Loosely based on Baum’s second Oz novel, The Marvellous Land of Oz, it does its best, but there’s something missing, and its not only a pair of ruby slippers.