The 2013 AFI Fest opening night at Hollywood’s famed, newly IMAX’d Chinese Theatre was as AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale said “practically perfect in every way” — thanks in no small part to nabbing the North American premiere of Disney’s surefire Oscar contender Saving Mr. Banks. It was a no-brainer on AFI and Disney’s part to launch this holiday release (it opens domestically December 13) which chronicles the turbulent relationship of Walt Disney and Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers during the the making of that 1964 musical classic which had its premiere at the very same theatre a half century ago. Director John Lee Hancock noted that in his opening remarks: “My life just keeps folding around. Just like in Mary Poppins it seems what happened has happened before. Fifty years ago there was a premiere here for Mary Poppins. About a year ago we were here filming the re-creation of that premiere, and now here we are again so it all just feels right,” he said. By the way, Poppins itself returns to the Chinese when AFI Fest hosts a red-carpet screening Saturday with stars Dick Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice and Oscar-winning composer Richard Sherman attending.
Disney chair Alan Horn was taking congrats for the film he actually inherited when he came to the studio, and production president Sean Bailey was also singled out for praise in making this happen. Of course stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson were there, but both skipped the Hollywood Roosevelt after-party where Sherman was the main attraction. I told Horn this is a word-of-mouth movie if ever there was one and should be a big hit for the studio. How it fares in the Oscar race will be interesting considering the last three Best Picture winners — Argo, The Artist and The King’s Speech — all seem to be films that make audiences feel good about themselves with the former two having a special Hollywood connection just like this one. Banks seems to fit the same bill that Oscar voters have been responding to recently, effortlessly blending laughs, tears, comedy, drama and emotion. This was my second viewing in three weeks (I saw it at a small screening shortly before it had its world premiere at the London Film Festival) and it holds up. Hanks and Thompson are slam-dunk nominees here and the film has many possibilities — but it is facing weightier fare in frontrunners 12 Years A Slave, Gravity and Captain Phillips (another film with Hanks, which could make him a double nominee this year).
Before getting to the Oscars, Banks could find itself in an interesting showdown with those films at the Golden Globes. Initially I had thought Banks would be in the comedy/musical category but apparently it is going to be in Drama along with another heartwarmer, Philomena, which also has moments of comedy mixed with the heavier stuff. Both those films try to temper sentimental tendencies to which lesser movies of their ilk might have fallen prey. This could be an interesting race as HFPA members to whom I have spoken seem divided over some of the presumed frontrunners. If Banks could pull off a win in the more competitive drama category rather than musical/comedy (where it might have an easier path) it could add that all-important momentum and lead the charge toward Oscar night where Disney has never had a homegrown Best Picture winner.
The boundlessly energetic Sherman at 85 years old was the center of attention last night. He was mobbed by people wanting to know how true this telling of the development of Poppins is to what he and his late brother Bob (played by B.J. Novak) actually experienced more than a half century ago. Jason Schwartzman, who plays him in the film, said Sherman assured him it would be easy to pull off. “He told me ‘We already lived it once, you just go in an do it again’,” Schwartzman said at the Roosevelt pre-reception orchestrated by Disney (it did the same thing when Lincoln opened AFI Fest last year).
I have known Richard Sherman for years but have never seen him as emotional as he was when he exited the Chinese last night, surrounded by well-wishers, with tears in his eyes. “This is the way it was. This is the way it happened’, he said. “I was only 31 at the time. What did I know? But this whole experience has put it all in perspective.” Sherman offered high praise to all those involved including screenwriter Kelly Marcel and Hancock, who told me having Sherman available during shooting was invaluable. Schwartzman told me he became obsessed with all things Sherman, grabbing every book, piece of sheet music, and bootleg recording he could find. Tonight Sherman leads a Mary Poppins sing-a-long for invited guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel (also a key location re-created in the film).
AFI Fest Presented by Audi has a great lineup this year with what Gazzale said were more than 120 films from 43 countries. It runs through November 14th, when it closes with another Oscar contender Inside Llewyn Davis.