Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Look at "Saving Mr. Banks" and Why it Will Be a Front Runner

Tom Hanks
For those that have been reading The Oscar Buzz in the past few months, I have claimed from time to time to have a vague theory as to how director John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks is going to sweep the ceremony, provided that patterns hold up. While I am excited to be disproved by the recent buzz around 12 Years a Slave, I still believe that the film has the potential to be one of the big films. It is not based off of any quality mark, but just a look at recent trajectory based on the past few years of Best Picture winners. While I doubt that it will win, here is an elaborate theory as to why I believe that we're looking at one of the biggest contenders and don't even realize it yet.

Let me start at the beginning statistics. In order to understand everything that follows, let us become aware of the past few Best Picture winners. The winner for 2012 was Ben Affleck's Argo in which the C.I.A. infiltrates Iran to free hostages under the disguise of a film company. In 2011, the winner was The Artist, which not only has the distinct honor of  being the first silent film since Wings to win Best Picture, but is also a callback to the glory days of when cinema was transitioning into a more talkative period. In 2010, the winner was The King's Speech, which despite not being about movies directly, focused around a form of acting and finding your voice.

What do all of these have in common? Besides the fact that Argo has a scene featuring a stagnant shot of an Oscar award, they all have some form of attachment to the performing arts. The latter two are more strictly tied to cinema and how it can have a cultural impact. I theoretically believed that Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were similar films in their portrayal of patriotism in war, but what gave Ben Affleck's film the edge was not only the universal appeal, but also the idea that it was a "movie about movies." 

Anyone who watches any piece of the Oscar ceremony on any given year, you will notice that they try and heighten the significance of film. Through interviewing actors and just the concept of the award in general are testaments to how much the Oscars is about movies. There is nothing wrong with having a slight bias towards something that you promote. However, it is arguable that having a movie awards show give awards to movies about movies is a little too on the nose. Once or twice is okay, but the back-to-back win of The Artist and Argo did feel a little bit of a cheap shot, even if both films are really good.

It got me thinking that in a hypothetical situation, this could be the Academy's trend for the current time frame. If you look in any given period, there is a theme overall. Maybe not consistent or intentional, but something is there. If you look at the 00's, there is a sense of finding identity (A Beautiful Mind, Crash) through empowerment of the self (Million Dollar Baby, Slumdog Millionaire) with the most blatant of this theme being The Departed and the concept of everyone ratting out each other. Sure there are tonal, cultural differences among them all, but as a whole, they all reflect the same themes, which I feel speak to their times. It is why watching and researching each winner is key in understanding the Academy Awards psychologically. It may not always make sense decades later, but within the patterns lies the understanding.

Left to right: Leonardo di Caprio and Cate Blanchett in The Aviator

Which brings me to the next point. What is the pattern of the '10's? There is a strong sense that it is about the performing arts and how it defines the person. Even if 12 Years a Slave changes the course, my initial belief is that Saving Mr. Banks is going to get heavy promotion because it does have a fortunate similarity not only to Best Picture trends, but to other biases that have been going on at the Oscars for quite some time.

The most notable is historical figures. For those who don't know, Saving Mr. Banks is the tale of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) helped to fund Mary Poppins. We'll get into further bias, but somehow there is a field that benefits from playing actual people: the acting fields. Even if they don't win, there are those that have been nominated. In fact, the Best Actor winner last year (Daniel Day-Lewis) won for playing president Abraham Lincoln. The year prior, the Best Actress winner was Meryl Streep, who played Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. To say the least, the quickest way into the Academy's heart is to play a character who actually existed. There are several to choose from in the past decade alone (arguably Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote is one of the best ones), and unless Saving Mr. Banks decides to bastardize the Disney mythos with fiction, there won't be a shortage of potential. 

Even in the realm of other movies about the making of movies, there has been some bias. The two notable films include The Aviator, which so far is the flagship bearer of Academy bias, with both Leonardo di Caprio and Cate Blanchett receiving Oscar nominations for playing Howard Hughes and Katherine Hepburn respectively. More recently, My Week with Marilyn featured nominations for Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh who played Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier respectively. Of the two, The Aviator was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Million Dollar Baby. However, these two films could have had far different stories had they come out at this time simply because the Academy seems more lovelorn for biopics about movie culture.

The only loophole that I haven't quite figured out is a film succeeding that is based on the making of a film that has won major acclaim. As powerful as The Aviator and My Week with Marilyn were, neither of those two subjects were runaway successes come awards time. The closest that I can find is Blanchett's performance as Hepburn, in which she won Best Supporting Actress. Hepburn holds the record for most acting wins (four) and the second most nominations (12) only behind Meryl Streep. 

Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

Here is where the theory starts to develop. In order to understand why I believed that Saving Mr. Banks stands much of a chance at all is to look back at the record books. A quick research on IMDb will show that Mary Poppins received 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Julie Andrews in her debut role). Of those, it won five. It currently holds the record for most nominations by any film released under the Disney corporation. It has gone down in history as one of the most beloved musicals and the subject of many different satires.

Since the film isn't directly about Mary Poppins, but the making of, we might as well look at the other component: Disney founder and head Walt Disney. He revolutionized animated films as well as created one of the most successful empires of family entertainment. He is probably one of the most famous names in movie culture, and the work released by his studio continues to receive nominations, even though he has long been dead. That alone is enough bias to consider a story about him to be fascinating. However, the real catch here is a more historical landmine. Not only is Mary Poppins the most nominated Disney film in history, Walt Disney the man was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, 22 of which he won.  This record remains unsurpassed and makes the project seem more of a juggernaut.

To catch everyone up to date, revising for the facts revealed: Saving Mr. Banks is the story about how author P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson. Travers was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay) was coaxed by Walt Disney (nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winner of 22) into making Mary Poppins (nominated for 13 Oscars, which is still a Disney record). Almost everything in that sentence can be dissected as a bias. That is why I believe that the film is already being prepped for Oscar contention sight unseen. Even if the trailer doesn't sell me on it being a great film, I almost feel confident it will show up handily in a lot of the categories.

In comparison, everything else seems hearsay, but let us just be humored on what makes this film a little over the top in terms of potential Oscar juggernaut bias. We have already looked at patterns both involving past winners and Mary Poppins itself. Now we must look at the roster assembled.

Left to right: Emma Thompson and Hanks
The film was directed by John Lee Hancock. While he has not actually received a nomination for Best Director, his most popular film is The Blind Side. It helped Sandra Bullock to receive a Best Actress win and the film also was nominated for Best Picture. Even if this is too lukewarm of bait for guaranteed nominations, it means that Hancock at least already has his foot in the door. The Blind Side may have not swept the ceremony and was one of the weaker contenders for that year, but that is enough credibility to raise the consideration.

Then we get to the meat of the argument. As I stated with The Aviator/My Week with Marilyn comparisons, actors playing famous people is almost guaranteed nomination bait. Add in that the lead performers are Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, and it makes the potential harder to ignore. Even if Hanks hasn't been nominated in 12 years, he has somehow managed to pull an impressive 2013 with Captain Phillips almost seeming like a surefire Best Actor nomination. Still, as a two time winner (Best Actor for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump) and beloved actor overall, he does seem poised to enter the ultimate bias position when he plays the most nominated man in Oscar history. Even Thompson, who has won two Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility and Best Actress for Howard's End) stands somewhat of a chance, even if P.L. Travers' name isn't nearly as popular as Disney's.

I will get more into the actual potential of the film when times draws closer. However, all of these ideas add up and makes me believe that we could be looking at one of the front runners not necessarily in wins, but just in terms of nominations. If you consult statistics website Gold Derby, it all makes sense. Thompson currently is in fourth place in the Best Actress race with odds of 12:1. Hanks is in third for Best Supporting Actor with odds of 6:1. It is in fifth in the Best Picture race with odds of 16:1. The only category is comes in short of the ones discussed is Best Director, where Hancock doesn't even register. Remember, these numbers are subject to change.

Of course, my unexpected joy is coming from the surprise leads in potential with both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Both are performing far better than I expected and with Steve McQueen's new film expected to be the ultimate winner, Saving Mr. Banks almost seems obsolete to even discuss Oscar chances. However, if the Academy were to play it "safe" and go based on a trend, there is little argument that it wouldn't go this way even in the slightest. It is only a matter of time to see if it joins the ranks of The Aviator as a Best Picture nominee about the making of films or My Week with Marilyn which got a lot of lesser nominations.

Is Saving Mr. Banks able to ride the coattails of Mary Poppins? Is 12 Years a Slave too much of a powerhouse at this point for the Oscar bias to even be applied?


  1. You wrote "Saving Mr. Banks is the story about how author P.L. Travers...tried to coax Walt Disney... into making Mary Poppins."
    In actuality, the movie is about DISNEY coaxing a very reluctant Travers into letting him make the film, NOT the other way around.

    1. Thanks for the note. I will fix that.