Double Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, who is a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination as P.L. Travers in the Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks,” led a spirited sing-a-long of Mary Poppins hits at the Four Seasons Restaurant last week for an illustrious luncheon crowd.
Guests included Her Majesty’s Consul General in New York, Danny Lopez; director Paul Haggis; historian Amanda Foreman; producer Jean Doumanian; casting director and producer Bonnie Timmermann; actress Tovah Feldshuh; “Banks” producer Alison Owens, and Joy Behar. Christopher Mason accompanied Thompson on the piano, in a musical event that got livelier as the songs became more familiar.
Thompson stars as the prickly and difficult author of the Mary Poppins tales, a self-invented British woman of Australian descent, who gave Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks in a possible supporting Oscar turn) an impossible time as he pursued her for 20 years to get rights to her book, which he wanted to make into a musical with animation, two things she absolutely abhorred.
It was a little early for a sing-a-long, Thompson conceded, especially without aid of alcohol. Last week, she hosted a similar event in the evening at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel, but the Oscar winner pointed out: “We all had three gins.”
“You look so miserable,” she told the Four Seasons lunch crowd. “I’ve made you sing in the middle of the day, on no martinis at all.”
The reality is it couldn’t have been a happier crowd, especially after they warmed up and got to the well-known songs “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” No one even seemed to stumble over the lyrics to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Before the sing-a-long, the charming and gracious Thompson spoke to journalists and guests. When asked if she didn’t think Mary Poppins of the P.L. Travers books was stern and even mean, Thompson agreed.
“Yes, she was kind of brutal and that was brutal, because at the same time as being brutal, she gave them the best experiences of their lives. So you could understand that being kind isn’t necessarily what children always want from you. They’d prefer you were clear, and sometimes brusqueness doesn’t go astray either, as long as long as it comes hand in hand with magic.”
Thompson praised the early Disney movies, especially “Mary Poppins,” starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, whom Travers tried to talk Walt Disney out of hiring as Mr. Banks. The character was loosely based on Travers’ alcoholic, but much loved, father.
“Those early movies have this amazing power. There are bits of Mary Poppins that are positively avant-garde. You know, Dali was a great fan of these films because they’re so startling and so powerful, a lot of darkness.”
For the last few years, Thompson, who is a big fan of the Beatrix Potter series, has been writing some Peter Rabbit books. She said she couldn’t resist, and was charmed into writing the children’s stories after she received an invitation in the form of a personal letter from Peter Rabbit himself. She brought her latest Peter Rabbit book with her to the luncheon.
“That was such a wonderful experience to write those, because I love Beatrix Potter. I love her,” Thompsons said. “P.L Travers called her one of the archangels of literature, and another weird connection, Disney tried asking her for Peter Rabbit and she said no. And she was breeding sheep in the Lake District then!”
She added, “No, this is the point about these women; Beatrix Potter was a mycologist, an expert mycologist, and this woman [P.L. Travers] was an expert in myths and myth cycles. She was an artist, a poet and a journalist, and we know nothing of these things. It’s so interesting.”
The highlight of the event was Thompson coaxing “Crash” director Paul Haggis to join her in a lively rendition of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Thompson belted out the lyrics to the magical song in a beautiful, clear voice.
“I had the best time!” Paul Haggis told me, a sentiment echoed by everyone else who was there.
“Saving Mr. Banks” opens in theaters Dec. 20, 2013. Read more of Paula’s report on the singalong over at Showbiz411.com.