The beauty of being an elder stateswoman with a recent Oscar under your belt is that you can let rip on your personal opinions and use the platform as a bully pulpit. That's just what Meryl Streep did Tuesday night at the National Board of Review when she boldly stepped up to the dais to present Emma Thompson with the Best Actress Award for the Disney movie "Saving Mr. Banks" – and called out studio head Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks in the movie) for his sexist and anti-Semitic ways.
"Disney, who brought joy arguably to billions of people was, perhaps, or had some racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group and he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot," Streep said. She also read a letter written by the company in 1938 to an aspiring female animator that said, "Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men."
Unpacking the "dark" secrets of Disney's past is nothing new. It's almost a cottage industry. Recently, Andrew Romano at "The Daily Beast" dredged and aired the dirty laundry when the feature opened, putting the myth and the man in context. Referencing the claims, he wrote, "Walt was a fascist;" "Walt was an anti-Semite;" "Walt was a racist." He also claimed, "Walt was an Illuminati pedophile who liked to wear his mother's dresses and lipstick and was obsessed with the human buttocks." (None of those things, by the way, is even remotely true.)
Disney, did, however, smoke cigarettes, a "nasty habit" to which the movie alludes.
So, clearly, Streep was not divulging any shocking secrets when she stepped onstage wearing a "Prize Winner" trucker hat, a reference to another awards season hero, "Nebraska." But, from a completely PR standpoint, not only did she get the most notice at last night's gala – and she doesn't even need to win that Oscar for "August: Osage County" – she pulled off a larger coup: She did her sister actress a solid that Thompson's own publicists may have had difficulty accomplishing in the shadow of the Disney studio machine. Streep managed, in one night's speech in front of a stellar audience, to separate the star from the movie so that Thompson can be a Best Actress contender as "Saving Mr. Banks" sinks from the top five contenders.
Streep doubtlessly didn't feel that she was taking too much of a risk, given that she's deeply embedded in the Walt Disney Studios, playing the character of The Witch in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods," which arrives in theaters over Christmas this year.