boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Nanny being nanny

It's the job that Hollywood loves to love -- and sometimes hate

Show me a mother who would invite Scarlett Johannson to live in her house and take care of her child, and I'll show you a woman in denial.

So it says quite a bit about the state of modern motherhood that, of all the ways Johannson's Annie threatens her employer in "The Nanny Diaries," sex barely registers on the list. The film version of the best-selling novel opens Friday.

No, Annie, a budding anthropologist who takes a job as nanny to a privileged 6-year-old named Grayer, represents a far more basic affront to her Upper East Side boss, Mrs. X. The threat has nothing to do with age, weight, or appearance in tight pajamas, and everything to do with her existence as a child-care provider. It doesn't hurt that she also understands the joys of eating peanut butter straight out of the jar.

Ever since "Mary Poppins" -- and "The Nanny Diaries" is cluttered with references to that old icon of child-rearing -- nannies have occupied one of the more delicate roles in humankind. There is no relationship as fraught with tension as the one between a mother and a nanny: that legal trespasser, perpetual eavesdropper, occupier of children's time and affection. That's why servants, nursemaids, and governesses have served throughout literary history as a sort of snide Greek chorus; "The Nanny Diaries" novel uses quotes from them as chapter epigraphs. And that's why film and TV nannies have existed largely as metaphors: walking, talking, occasionally singing admonishments about what domestic life should really be.

Consider Julie Andrews, who first appeared as Poppins in 1964, powdering her nose atop a cloud. From a child's perspective, Mary Poppins is perfect: sweet, no-nonsense, and able to perform basic magic. And the poor, rich Banks children under her care suffer from basic neglect: Their banker father is too serious, their mother too preoccupied with suffragette rallies (which gives some indication of the filmmakers' ideas about a woman's place).

Mary Poppins teaches the parents to lighten up, helps the kids stay in line, and is exceedingly clear about her boundaries; she departs with marriage intact and the kids in newly capable hands. When Andrews appeared the next year in "The Sound of Music," there was no pesky mother figure to contend with; Maria the governess was a nanny so perfect that she had to become the wife.

Andrews ushered in a string of nannies who dispensed with their duties benignly, teaching the general lesson that it's good to cut loose once in awhile. We've seen wrinkled but dear old ladies (like Linda Hunt, in the 2005 remake of "Yours, Mine and Ours") and bumbling-but-well-meaning men (John Candy in 1989's "Uncle Buck" or Vin Diesel in 2005's "The Pacifier"). The ones who coexisted most peacefully with their employers tended to be the least feminine. What mother would mind hiring Alice, the mannish housekeeper in "The Brady Bunch," who tempers the home with wisecracks and grilled cheese sandwiches, and never thinks to make googly eyes at Mr. B?

Even 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire," a nanny who turned out to be dad in very disturbing drag, has the noble goal of bringing the family back together. The 2005 British film "Nanny McPhee" has the added benefit of being hideous. And there's no mother to threaten because -- unlike in the books that inspired the film -- the mother is conveniently dead.

But a nanny for a single dad is really a cheat; to fully understand her power, the child-care provider has to contrast with a mother. That's what's so refreshingly forthright about the pulpy 1992 thriller "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." The mom, played by Annabella Sciorra, is meek and sexless in her post-pregnancy state, and so centered on a botany project that she needs help around the house. (Yes, she's fixed on growing something that is not her own child, but at least she isn't working for some feminist cause.) Rebecca De Mornay arrives as the perfect foil, blond with ice-blue eyes, and a way of solving schoolyard squabbles with brute force. She has a revenge motive, she's crazy, and she's out to replace Sciorra in the family tree.

Sciorra's childless, working-woman friend, played by Julianne Moore, is the only one who senses menace; she utters the film's central message: "You never, ever let an attractive woman take a power position in your home." The smoking gun turns out to be a breast pump. And when DeMornay finally meets a pitch-perfect demise, Sciorra turns over child care duties to a mentally disabled man, and all is well.

"The Nanny Diaries" arrives amid a different sort of worry, less about the nanny replacing mom than pointing out her deficiencies. These days, there's enough consternation about child-care choices -- and enough new mothers with disposable income -- to fuel a minor industry of handwringing books. In "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," Caitlin Flanagan urges mothers to stay at home (or, at least, to feel suitably guilty if they work). In "The Feminine Mistake," Leslie Bennetts exhorts them to get back to work immediately. There's even a grown body of literature about mother-nanny tension itself, including a 2006 anthology called "Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies."

In "The Nanny Diaries"' Annie has it easy when it comes to moral superiority: It's hard to think of anybody easier to mock than the idle Park Avenue wife. As played by Laura Linney, Mrs. X seems to lack even the capacity to smile. (The film's central lesson, an odd one coming from Hollywood, is: "Money makes people weird! So be thankful you don't have any!")

The novel is filled with examples of rich folks' absurdity: wry observations about costly household products and dinner parties with over-the-top goodie bags for adults. The movie refuses to have quite so much fun; it skips over the crazier stuff and shapes itself into a tidy lesson about how it's good to spend time with your kids, especially when you don't have a job.

Indeed, when it comes to her inevitable comeuppance, Mrs. X has no excuse. Mrs. Banks had noble cause, at least, for largely ignoring her children. In "The Nanny Diaries," Mrs. X ignores her son to shop and attend lectures on mommy-nanny conflict. Like the 2004 film "Spanglish," which wrings its hands over the lot of foreign domestics, "The Nanny Diaries" touches on the class and ethnic tensions inherent in modern nannhyood. Every other nanny in the Xs' privileged circle comes from some foreign land; in one scene, a nanny shrieks in a Caribbean lilt: "Stop eating them boogers!" The mother is nowhere in sight.

So it matters not that Johannson is young and alluring; early in the movie, she lounges in a bathtub, one foot sticking out suggestively, but it's a tease. In the book, Mr. X doesn't give her a second glance. In the movie, Paul Giamatti makes a clumsy move in a picturesque Nantucket kitchen. Even so, Mrs. X has nothing to worry about. Annie the Nanny is only concerned about what's best for the child.

And it's Annie who will ultimately get her heart broken, since she knows that, like Mary Poppins, she'll eventually have to leave. Here, it's Mrs. X, who will learn the requisite lessons in due time, who represents a bigger threat. No matter what sort of wall-to-wall love and entertainment his nanny provides, one central fact remains true: When he's lying sick on the couch, throwing up on the antique Persian rug, Grayer will declare that he wants his mommy. Any nanny's employer, working or idle, can at least take heart in that.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES