By JH staff
Meryl Streep stunned an audience at a recent National Board of Review awards ceremony, a highly watched pre-Oscar affair.
The perennial Oscar nominee let loose with an odd verbal assault on Walt Disney, saying that the entertainment mogul “had some racist proclivities.” Streep additionally commented that Disney had “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group” and characterized him as “a gender bigot.”
The actress shared her critique while presenting the best actress trophy to Emma Thompson. In the current Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks,” Thompson plays the role of P.L. Travers, who penned “Mary Poppins.”
Streep is no doubt aware that the charge of bigotry is a toxic accusation that can travel at warp speed across the entertainment industry. Interestingly, her timing happened to coincide with the period in which Academy members were in the process of deliberating over Oscar nominees.
Streep’s insinuations about the Disney founder are actually at odds with the facts. In Disney biographer Neal Gabler’s words, there is “no evidence whatsoever in the extensive Disney Archives of any anti-Semitic remarks or actions by Walt.”
In truth, Disney’s merchandising chief was Jewish as were many employees in Disney’s New York office. The mogul himself donated to Jewish charities including Yeshiva College, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, and the Jewish Home for the Aged.
A Jewish author, Douglas Brode, who has written about the content of Disney entertainment product, takes issue with Streep’s Disney remarks.
“We ought to give Disney the benefit of the doubt. Such attacks, including the recent one by Ms. Streep, constitute the repetition of a vicious rumor that has no basis in anything that can be thought of as fact,” Brode insists.
Streep in her comments also portrayed Disney as a woman hater by quoting a Disney animator, Ward Kimball, who said, “He [Disney] didn’t trust women or cats.”
The actress dramatically read a 1938 letter that Disney had sent to a female job applicant in which he stated that women are not to be involved in the creative aspects of animation but should instead only work with tracing, inking, and coloring trade activities.
When making observations and engaging in analyses, the time period in which the letter was written is an important factor to consider in understanding the cultural mindset and societal implications. In the 1930s, the norm in Hollywood was for females in the animation industry to be limited to what Disney had described.
Notwithstanding the times, women were making creative decisions within the Disney studios in the area of story development.
In the 1940s, the Disney company changed its policy, opening up animation opportunities to women. “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man,” Disney himself said.
The 1942 hit film “Bambi” was done by Disney’s first female animator, Retta Scott.
Like most of Hollywood at the time, Disney did not reflect modern enlightenment regarding racial equality. Gabler nevertheless points out in his biography on the mogul that Disney had sought consultation at the time from NAACP official Walter White and other African-American leaders, in conjunction with the partly animated movie “Song of the South,” in order to remove racially offensive material.
Streep’s comments may have had an effect on the voting patterns of Academy members. “Saving Mr. Banks,” a film on many of the short lists of Oscar analysts, was snubbed for a best picture nomination, as was Thompson for best actress, and the snub of the century, Tom Hanks, who played the role of Disney.
Hanks, who according to Streep portrayed a bigoted misogynist, was also passed over for his starring role in “Captain Phillips.”