Meryl Streep is right.
At some point in his storied career, Walt Disney belonged to an anti-Semitic group and surely was sexist -- or a "gender bigot," as she put it Tuesday when she presented a National Board of Review award to Emma Thompson for her work as the novelist P.L. Travers in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”
(Thompson played opposite Tom Hanks’ Disney, the creative visionary who desperately wanted to turn Travers’ complicated heroine Mary Poppins into the saccharine character we think of today.)
According to the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Appelo, Streep “caused eyebrows to raise throughout Hollywood” when she characterized Disney as a man who “had racist proclivities” and “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group.”
But of course he did.
Born in 1901, he was a man of his times.
He did indeed belong for a time to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist, anti-Semitic group whose members included some of the most famous names in Hollywood - -including Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Hedda Hopper and John Wayne. ("In our special field of motion pictures, we resent the growing impression that this industry is made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots," says the group's statement of principles. Some things in Hollywood never change, do they?)
Disney biographer Neal Gabler concluded in "Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination" that Disney was not an anti-Semite, but paid a price for his association with the group: "He willingly allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life."
Streep did not raise these issues gratuitously, Appelo wrote. “In fact, that was part of the point Streep was making. While hailing her friend Thompson as a fellow ‘rabid, man-eating feminist,’ she argued that art can redeem an artist who harbors prejudices and that Disney, for all his flaws, ‘brought joy, arguably, to billions of people.’”
And, he concluded, there may have been some Disney corporate strategy at play.
Columbia University professor David Hajdu, a music critic and columnist, told Appelo that Streep's frank appraisal might actually help the movie’s bottom line:
“The Disney company made [‘Saving Mr. Banks’] with the encouragement of the Disney estate, to help boost the Disney brand by showing that Walt Disney was actually a real person, and not merely a logo that signifies industrialized blandness and cheer. To be a real person is to be flawed in your humanity, and Meryl Streep reminded us just how deeply flawed Walt Disney was as a human being. A misogynist? You bet. An anti-Semite? That, too. In terms of the Disney company’s strategy, Streep was right on script.”
There’s nothing anyone can say about Walt Disney that will change my view of the man as a creative genius who had a certain totalitarian streak.
Have you ever been to a Disney park? Did you feel “free” there?
Of course not. The “Happiest Place on Earth” is a carefully crafted, nearly Orwellian, rebuke to the idea that life can ever be intractably ugly and harsh, or that reality ever trumps artifice.
That Disney held attitudes that were ugly or harsh in real life does not detract in the least from his legacy, which, for better or worse, is everywhere you look.