Meryl Streep slams Walt Disney for racist, anti-Semitic views

Actress attacks cartoon icon at awards ceremony, but was her criticism brave or selfish?

(Image credit: 2014 Getty Images)

NOT many Hollywood actors like to rock the boat, but Meryl Streep isn't your average star. Appearing at an awards ceremony in New York this week, she attacked Walt Disney – the man, rather than the studio – for holding views she described as racist, anti-Semitic and sexist.

It was an odd occasion for such an attack. Streep made the comments as she handed a National Board of Review best actress trophy to Emma Thompson who plays Mary Poppins author PL Travers opposite Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks.

Streep herself isn't averse to taking the Disney dollar, says the Hollywood Reporter's Tim Appelo. She is starring in the studio's movie adaptation of the musical Into the Woods which will be released later this year.

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But neither the setting nor her own work schedule stopped Streep delivering a spray at Walt. He was, she said, a man who "had some racist proclivities" and "supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and [was] a gender bigot".

Was her attack correct or appropriate? Some believe it was conclusive evidence that Streep dares to go where others fear to tread. The entertainment website Pajiba, for example, says the actresses' remarks show she has "big, round, hairy cojones" and that she had "ripped Disney a new one".

That may be so, but Forbes' Scott Mendelson questions the timing of her remarks. He points out that Streep's speech was, "by accident or design, likely to hurt the very person it was intended to be honouring, Emma Thompson herself".

Delivered "in the thick of the Oscar season", Streep has done little more than boost her own Oscar chances at the expense of Thompson's, argues Mendelson.

Streep's comments were factually sound, but Disney was a "man of his times", says the Los Angeles Times, and the truth is more nuanced than the actress made out.

Walt Disney was indeed a member of 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. But the cartoon king's biographer Neal Gabler concludes that Disney was not himself an anti-Semite, but "paid a price for his association with the group".

Says Gabler: "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."

However, Streep did not raise the issue of Disney's flaw "gratuitously", claims Appelo of the Hollywood Reporter. "In fact," he writes, "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 harbours prejudices and that Disney, for all his flaws, 'brought joy, arguably, to billions of people.'"

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