Meryl Streep Tells Us How She Really Feels About Walt Disney

A couple of weeks ago the National Board of Review Awards did much more than just give Hollywood its customary warm-up to the Golden Globes. The event also set the acting world abuzz with unexpected controversy when accomplished actor Meryl Streep (possibly the most loved and decorated female actor of our time, no?) made some bold statements about Walt Disney in the speech she gave to present fellow outstanding female actor Emma Thompson with the best actress award for her role as Mary Poppins author PL Travers in the feature film Saving Mr. Banks. The movie tells the story of how Walt Disney himself pursued and persuaded Travers to let him bring Mary Poppins to the big screen. While Streep’s lengthy presentation speech included lavish praise for Thompson, including a poem Streep composed for her colleague, it also included an element that no one was expecting – namely, a harsh criticism of Walt Disney, the person.

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Streep’s condemnations of Mr. Disney were two-fold, on the issues of racism and sexism. She said he “had some racist proclivities” – citing his membership in an anti-Semitic lobbying group in Hollywood and also that he was a “gender bigot” when it came to women. She read aloud a letter he had written to a female job applicant to Disney’s animation department in 1938 – telling her that women weren’t even considered for this kind of job – to drive this point home, saying it would sure “tickle” Ms. Thompson since she was “a rabid man-eating feminist like me!”

Whether or not you agree with Streep’s assessment of Disney as a man, (many are already offering up defenses) you do have to admire her boldness for making her opinions known in such a public manner, especially since she is under contract with Disney for the recently-shot film Into the Woods. Not to mention that Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Disney opposite Thompson’s Travers, is truly an effort by the Disney company to show the very best qualities of Disney the man, and thus far has been very well-received by audiences and critics alike.

Whatever her reasoning, Streep did take this highly public opportunity to bring sexism in Hollywood to the forefront of conversation during awards season. And highlighting the gender inequality in the film industry is always appreciated by those of us equally as passionate about this issue.

What did you think of Streep’s speech?

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  • LAHill

    Something that I always wonder when controversies such as this pop up-and NO-I am not excusing the behavior, this is simply my brain running on: Considering the era in which they lived and were raised, is this attitude a product of their time or a true feeling of gender bias?

    • brendachapman

      I think it might be a little of both. Yes, that seemed to be the social norm back then, but it doesn’t make it right. And obviously, there were men out there who didn’t think in that way, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it this far. Because of the “social norm” we wouldn’t have had the ability to make a change if the door didn’t open somewhere.

      • LAHill

        Yes, I am a year late reading these. Sometimes I lose track, imagine that! Take care Brenda.

  • Guest

    I think it’s easy to dismiss the actions anybody

    • M.

      -*of anybody that is widely admired such as Walt Disney, but that it’s important to bring these things to light (to spark discussion if nothing else) and I admire the way Meryl Streep chose to do it.

    • M.

      * of anybody that is widely admired such as Walt Disney, but that it’s important to bring light to issues of racism and sexism (to spark discussion if nothing else) and I admire the way Meryl Streep chose to do it.

  • Were there’s no denying how the studio was set up in his days, with the Ink & Paint Girls and the Animators (Men), the most flexible place was the art department. Personally I like to look for the best in people, but given that there is good and bad in all of us and Mr Disney was not

    What Meryl said has some merit and we know he certainly DIDN’T build a system where woman could work free of experiences like the one you had first entering the story department, Brenda.

    I still would have LOVED to have met him and gotten to know Walt Disney for myself…and I LOVED Saving Mr. Banks!

  • gregmaletic

    > Whether or not you agree with Streep’s assessment of Disney as a man, (many are already offering up defenses) you do have to admire her boldness

    So any comment is “bold”, regardless of its irresponsibility? There is truth to Streep’s charges, but they’re presented without context (most notably, that Disney’s hiring policies reflected every studio chief in Hollywood, not just him).

    I can’t agree that there’s anything to admire in her recklessness.

    • brendachapman

      I respect where you are coming from. I’ve thought about that, too. But even if it was the social norm at the time, that still doesn’t make it right.
      Disney has brought a lot more good in this world than bad, but he did do some bad. Studios were bringing in women nearly 20 years before they did at Disney – all based on the culture that Walt created. I found it very surprising that I was the 1st woman in the story department in 1987!
      I still look at Streep’s comments as bold – and not reckless.

      • gregmaletic

        They anti-Semitic charge has been completely debunked elsewhere. Regardless of your stance on the gender topic, rehashing that old issue was unfair and uncalled for.

        A completely separate issue: her comments had the effect of undermining the credibility of her “friend’s” movie, making Emma Thompson look at best naive, and at worst foolish, for assuming the role she did. I hope my friends think better of me if I’m ever to receive an award.

        • brendachapman

          We are both entitled to our opinions. I don’t want to get into a debate with you about it. I admire Meryl’s audacity – and knowing Emma, I’m pretty sure she did, too. You do not admire it, that is clear. So let’s agree to disagree and call it a day on this one.

  • star1234

    Obviously, this is not limited to the movie business–I have come to think of it as endemic to last century, and probably into the present. The old-school, fatherly stuff. My father did not want me to become a “hen” medic–as he and his physician pals put it. I was one of the first female lobbyists in the 60s and was subjected to many tacky comments and bad behavior on the Hill and off. Now I am a very superannuated screenwriter, returning to the field after 20 yrs off. Animation–and yes, Brenda, I read you are not allowed to help me. In short, I think we need to take this subject one slight, one insult, one dopey plot at a time.

    • brendachapman

      Of course, it happens in most walks of life. I would love to hear some stories where it is not! I hope you write some great stories that show us in a more rounded way. Cheers!

  • Jacob Boelman

    I tend to do this sometimes when I am passionate about something. I wanted to apologize ahead of time for how long this comment is :/

    This is a difficult topic for me Chapman. I REALLY had a hard time with Meryl Streep’s speech. I wasn’t frustrated because I thought everything Streep said was a lie. No, there was some truth in what she said. However, in no way did she seem interested in understanding Walt Disney. It was more a deceptive ploy to drive a personal agenda.

    Walt is a pretty huge figure in my life. He is the most inspirational public figure I have ever gotten to know. And no, it isn’t because I think he was anything close to a perfect man. I have not just looked into the good parts of Walt Disney. I know him to have been a bit sexist, but also extremely egotistical, suspicious, and unbelievably obsessive about his projects he worked on; sometimes at the expense of his artists. However he wasn’t anything like the character Meryl Streep claimed him to be. When Jewish and black Disney veterans such as Floyd Norman and Joe Grant, who actually knew and worked with Walt Disney, come out to say they didn’t feel he was anti Semitic or racist I don’t understand how people like Streep could stand so strongly on those notions. I have yet to read a film historian try to argue about Walt being racist or anti Semitic. Those statements by Streep only shows a lack of research or care for understanding the real Walt Disney.

    The reason I have a problem with Streep arguing about Walt being sexist is because she seemed to want to narrow him out as more sexist then other producers at the time or try to insinuate that is the reason Disney and Travers didn’t get along. There really is little evidence of those things. Walt actually did work with many fine woman artists before Travers, one of the most celebrated being Mary Blair. And, from the research I have done on Travers it seems she had a strong prejudice against movies; especially in regards to the medium of animation.

    Meryl Streep wanted to compare Walt with the Disney Company of today. I think this is her greatest mistake. One of my great dreams is to someday make a movie of Walt Disney. However, I know the Disney company would never let me make a movie about the Walt I have come to know. I would insist on showing Walt’s dark side and I know the Disney Company would not allow it (Heck they didn’t even let Tom Hanks smoke on screen as Walt). The main goal for the Disney Company of today is MONEY. That was NEVER Walt Disney’s goal. In the words of Brad Bird, “Walt Disney’s mantra was, “I don’t make movies to make money—I make money to make movies.” Whether you liked him or not he was always driving himself and his artists to produce bigger and better things. Every time he received money from one of his successes he put it all back on the table so he could create something greater. His goals were not selfish. He wanted to produce genuine places where people were happy. He wanted to create movies that didn’t talk down to children or adults. And he wanted to see society become a better place. I’m not saying he succeeded in all of this. He was human like you and me… and Meryl Streep.

    I really sympathize with the lack of woman’s opportunity in the film
    industry today. It is wrong and I hope to be a voice for change. I wish Streep could have advocated for change in today’s film industry. I wish she would have brought to light the sexism and the creative control we are seeing in today’s Hollywood. Now, that would have been risky.

    Well those are my thoughts. Sorry again for the long comment.

  • DanaVFX

    I had seen the rumor that Disney was racist/anti-semitic floating around the internet and even in some TV shows this has been stated. I have not been able to validate it completely, but I remember reading Keys To the Kingdom (and Disney War) where Eisner also made some comment about this when leaving Paramount to take over the Disney studios. In my youth, when I wanted to be a Disney animator, I got a book which confirmed that Disney had what they called “ink and paint girls”, which was the closest any woman came to being an animator back when Walt Disney was alive. At the time I got the book, nothing had changed (all the animators were still men).

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