Sapphic moments in “Saving Mr. Banks”

In her “Feminist Friday” column, Ali Davis touched upon a L.A. Weekly article that lambasts the new Disney film Saving Mr. Banks for erasing significant aspects of P.L. Travers’s personal life, including her bisexuality, from the film. In that article, Amy Nicholson says the film’s overriding quest to glorify corporate America, and Disney in particular, results in the whitewashing of Travers’s character in order to make her conform to the role of the disagreeable-yet-acquiescent female:

“In reality, Travers was a feisty, stereotype-breaking bisexual — a single mom who adopted a baby in her 40s, studied Zen meditation in Kyoto, and was publishing erotica about her silky underwear 10 years before Walt had sketched his mouse. Now that’s a character worth slapping on-screen, instead of this stiff British stereotype determined to steal joy from future generations of children. With her longtime girlfriend and then-adult son erased, this frigid Travers seems like she may not even know how babies are made. Maybe Mary Poppins could sing her a song about it.”

Star Emma Thompson even acknowledged certain absences concerning her character, telling Glamour in an interview: “She may have had lesbian relationships. I don’t know if they were sexual relationships, or just companionship, but she was very much in love with men and women. One was a married poet. She was also into fashion and rather vain. She had a good singing voice, and she was an actress. There were many things about her not in the film.”

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Online sources vary on how Travers might have identified—lesbian or bi—but it is generally accepted that she indeed had relationships, intimate, long-term relationships, with women. According to Travers’s Wiki page, her most significant same-sex relationships were with Madge Burnand and Jessie Orage.

Because I love Emma Thompson—“and true love lasts a lifetime”—I had intended to see Saving Mr. Banks prior to reading Ali’s column. Is it an oversight, or worse, to not broach the topic of Travers’s sexuality in a film about the making of Mary Poppins? I frankly don’t think so, although I think a film about Travers herself, and not about her contract with Disney, would be fascinating.

I went into the theater wondering, then, what kind of nods would be given to Travers’s eccentric person, and especially to her homo tendencies. Sure, Travers bristling annoyance with children on her flight to America, and with saccharine Los Angeles, in addition to her demand that there be no inkling of romance between Mary Poppin and Burt, all registered as subversive to me. I also smiled during the two scenes, set at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in which Travers checks out other women in the bar; in one scene she even turns around to eye-fuck a woman’s ass.

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That said, what to me was the strongest, yet most subtle, gesture to her sexuality was the film’s opening shot of a copy of the works of George Gurdjieff, a renowned mystic and spiritual leader to a flock of literary and artistic lesbians. I’m not kidding, his lesbian followers in Paris formed a group called “The Rope,” largely organized by that andro-butch publisher, Jane Heap. Gurdjieff was a lesbian magnet, and his followers and students included the likes of Janet Flanner, Katherine Hulme, Margaret Anderson, and Solita Solano. Even Gertrude Stein interacted with the Rope, although her spiritual leanings were more influenced by Hinduism (her meeting with Swami Vivekananda in 1896 at Harvard introduced her to vedic philosophy) than Gurdjieff’s mysticism.

It was therefore this seemingly inconsequential flash of Gurdjieff’s text that set off my lezdar. Not only did Travers read his writings under the “guidance” of Jane Heap, who had moved to London upon Gurdjieff’s request, she and Jessie, her “companion” at the time, met him at Café de la Paix in Paris in 1936.*

The only moments in the film where Travers’s sexual life could have been of minor consequence are those in which we find her in the personal space of her home in London. Instead of being surrounded by a partner and her 10-year-old adopted son, the film renders her solitary, save for the brief serving of tea by her maid, Polly. Otherwise her sexual life is irrelevant to this film and to Travers’s character arc specifically. The flashbacks to her early childhood concern her relationship with her father, who died from influenza when she was only seven. In regard to Travers’s character, Saving Mr. Banks is about an adult woman reconciling the loss of her father at an early age—it is not about her mystical scissoring exploits. The only reason to be cross with this film, if you fully understand why it was made (to help stitch together the myth of “Disney,” both the corporation and the individual), is that it doesn’t include more moments of Emma Thompson playing a cranky crone. Because Emma Thompson as a cranky crone, or wart-ridden nanny, or a cuckolded wife is utterly magical.

*Valerie Lawson, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

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