The weekly column from Clark Judge:
Defending Mr. Disney
By Clark S. Judge: managing director, White House Writers Group, Inc.; chairman, Pacific Research Institute
As a child, I was fascinated by Walt Disney. Not by his cartoons. Not by the Mouseketeers. Not by Davy Crocket. But by Disney himself, the creator of the company that produced all those films and TV shows. So I was dismayed two weeks ago when, as you have no doubt heard, actress Meryl Streep accused Disney of being a “gender bigot” and an anti-Semite.
Ms. Streep leveled the charges in the course of presenting a best actress award to Emma Thompson for her work in Saving Mr. Banks, which is about Disney, the children’s book author P.L Travers and the making of Mary Poppins. Commentators have noted that Streep spoke midway through the voting period for the Oscars. In a Hollywood meets Washington move, Streep was, some suggest, attempting to deny Thompson that highest profile Best Actress nod, and if so, she succeeded. Thompson and her film failed to snag a single major slot on this year’s lists.
Of course, Streep said the other day that she was “shocked” at Thompson being bumped from Oscar contention, “shocked,” some say, in a Claude Raines Casablanca style. Ms. Streep is among the five nominees.
But what about the charges? Was Disney misogynous or anti-Semitic?
Streep quoted from a 1938 letter describing the studio’s division of tasks between male and female artists. Animation, as opposed to coloring and other support tasks, was confined to men. But if that in fact was Disney’s practice in 1938, it was short lived. The lead animator in Bambi, made four years later, was a woman. And assigning her wasn’t a matter of finding someone could be paid less. Disney’s rule was, as he put it, “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man.”
Regarding anti-Semitism, Disney had numerous Jewish friends, business associates and employees, supported a number of Jewish charities and in 1955 was named the Beverly Hills B’nai B’rith’s Man of the Year.
But here is one reason I am telling this. It happens that some of those friends, business associates and employees were the parents of friends of mine.
As a child, one of my friends played in Disney’s office. His father was in charge of some critical operations at the Disney studios. His mother was the model for Snow White. When he had days at the office with Dad, he would at times be deposited in the boss’ office, where one wall slid open revealing another room filled with Disney character toys and dolls. Today, on a wall at his home, this friend has on display framed Disney cartoons and animation cells, several made especially for his father and mother.
As you might imagine, my friend and his wife bristled at Streep’s accusations, noting that she was recycling smears that originated with the communist attempts to take over Hollywood following the Second World War. This was the same period in which Ronald Reagan was fighting the communists in the Screen Actors Guild, first as a member of the union’s board, then as its president. When Reagan said at his first presidential press conference that the Soviets “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” he was speaking in part from his experience with Hollywood communists. Disney, my friend and his wife attest, was a target of the kind of lying and cheating to which Reagan referred.
The father of someone else to whom I am close was an investor in Hollywood in the 1950s. He was also among the Americans who provided instrumental support for the foundation of the State of Israel. He had a “radar” for anti-Semitism, I am told, and no use for anyone in whom he detected it. He knew and liked Disney and may have invested in Disney’s movies.
Here is the other reason I am telling this story.
It strikes me that, in addition to (if reports are true) grotesque ambition, Ms. Streep reflects a certain warped mindset that is all too prominent in the fashionable circles of our time. I am talking about a predisposition to believe that anything iconically American is corrupt. That anyone who has achieved great things in this country did it through exploiting power differentials derived from gender and ethnicity. That nothing is deserved, except, perhaps, the fashionable circle’s own fashionable achievements. That no other life’s work can be credited, particularly if it comes from, say, a dirt-poor kid of itinerant parents who grew up in the unfashionable precincts of the Midwest and never received one of the fashionable circle’s fashionable degrees.
Ronald Reagan was such a kid. So was Walt Disney.