Dear Awards Season: You So Got Meryl Streep WrongJanuary 9, 2014 • By Sasha Stone
The post-game chatter about Meryl Streep’s intro for Emma Thompson at the National Board of Review completely missed the point of what Streep was saying. Moreover, the beauty in Streep’s speech was shunted to the side as the churning and hysteria found its way from comments section to blog to comments section. “Streep has insulted Walt Disney! Streep has hurt Emma Thompson’s Oscar chances! Streep has insulted everybody! Streep just blew it for her own Oscar nomination.” And so yeah, that happened.
The funny part of it is Streep did exactly the opposite. She didn’t “insult” Walt Disney. She did two things with her speech. The first, she spoke THE TRUTH. OH MY GOD, not the TRUTH! The second, she tried to spin the filthy way Emma Thompson has been treated by the press in light of the so-called Saving Mr. Banks scandal, that is, the insinuation that Thompson had something to do with the slick makeover of P.L. Travers.
What Streep did — now listen closely, Oscarwatchers because it looks to me like y’all missed the point — was take some of that heat off of Thompson and put it on Disney, where it belonged. Do I think Saving Mr. Banks is a good film? Yes. Do I think it deserves to be ripped apart by people who don’t have a presidential election to tweet about? Nope. Should any of that “controversy” have impacted, in any way whatsoever, Emma Thompson’s chances at winning an Oscar? Do I even have to answer that question?
Here is Streep’s speech in its entirety. I really hope that those making the story about how Streep acted out and hurt Thompson’s or her own Oscar chances will read this. (Courtesy of Vulture):
[Streep walks on stage wearing one of the "Prize Winner" hats from Nebraska, which had been scattered on the tables as promo items] What? Oh? Oh. Okay. [Takes off hat] I’m not the prize winner. It’s so weird! This is a very late night, and we have Spike Jonze — twice — coming up, so I want to say to you, I have a short, sweet, kind of funny version of this tribute to Emma Thompson, and I have the long, bitter, more truthful version, so I would like a vote — and I’m serious! I’m happy to do just the short one. I’d love to do the long one. [Lots of applause, one audience member hollers, "Go for it!"] Anybody want to leave? Go now. I guess that’s the long one.
Some of [Walt Disney's] associates reported that Walt Disney didn’t really like women. Ward Kimball — who was one of his chief animators, one of the original “Nine Old Men,” creator of the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, Jiminy Cricket — said of Disney, “He didn’t trust women, or cats.” And there is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd, or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult. That along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity, or decency. We are familiar with this trope in our business. Mozart, Van Gogh, Tarantino, Eminem … Ezra Pound said, “I have not met anyone worth a damn who was not irascible.” Well, I have — Emma Thompson.
Not only is she not irascible, she’s practically a saint. There’s something so consoling about that old trope, but Emma makes you want to kill yourself because she’s a beautiful artist, she’s a writer, she’s a thinker, she’s a living, acting conscience. Emma considers carefully what the fuck she is putting out into the culture! Emma thinks, “Is this helpful?” Not, “Will it build my brand?” Not, “Will it give me billions?” Not, “Does this express me? Me! Me! My unique and fabulous self, into all eternity, in every universe, for all time!” That’s a phrase from my Disney contract. I’m serious! “Will I get a sequel out of it, or a boat? Or a perfume contract?”
Ezra Pound said, “I have not met anyone worth a damn who was not irascible.” Though he would say that because he was supposedly a hideous anti-Semite. But his poetry redeems his soul. 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. Here’s a letter from 1938, stating his company’s policy to a young woman named Mary Ford of Arkansas, who had made application to Disney for the training program in cartooning. And I’m going to read it here in Emma’s tribute, because I know it will tickle our honoree, as she’s also a rabid man-eating feminist like me!
“Dear Miss Ford, your letter of recent date has been received in the inking and painting department for reply. 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. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school. The only work open to women consists of tracing the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink, and then, filling in the tracing on the reverse side with paint according to directions.”
When I saw the film, I could just imagine Walt Disney’s chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers’ favor for the 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter a woman, an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination. But when we sit in our relative positions of importance and mutual suspicion, and we cast judgment on each other’s work, we’re bound to make small mistakes and misconstrue each other’s motives.
Which brings me to awards season. Which is really ridiculous. We have made so many beautiful movies this year, and to single out one seems unfair. And yet, it’s a great celebration, and I’m so proud to be here, in this group of artists. Nobody can swashbuckle the quick-witted riposte like Emma Thompson. She’s a writer. A real writer. And she has a writer’s relish for the well-chosen word. But some of the most sublime moments in Saving Mr. Banks are completely wordless. They live in the transitions, where P.L. traverses from her public face to her private space. I’m talking about her relentlessness when she has her verbal dim sum, and then it moves to the relaxation of her brow, when she retreats into the past. It’s her stillness. Her attentiveness to her younger self. Her perfect alive-ness. Her girlish alertness. These are qualities that Emma has, as a person. She has real access to her own tenderness, and it’s one of the most disarming things about her. She works like a stevedore, she drinks like a bloke, and she’s smart and crack and she can be withering in a smack-down of wits, but she leads with her heart. And she knows nothing is more funny than earnestness. So now, “An Ode to Emma, Or What Emma is Owed”:
We think the Brits are brittle, they think that we are mush
They are more sentimental, though we do tend to gush
Volcanoes of emotion concealed beneath that lip
Where we are prone to guzzle, they tip the cup and sip
But when eruption bubbles from nowhere near the brain
It’s seismic, granite crumbles, the heart overflows like rain
Like lava, all that feeling melts down like Oscar gold
And Emma leaves us reeling, a knockout, truth be told
Ladies and gentlemen, the entirely splendid Emma Thompson.
A brilliant speech by a brilliant woman to another brilliant woman. Thompson, a creative force in Hollywood, gives, without question, one of the best performances of the year, second only to Blanchett perhaps, deserves better than to be the center of a fake controversy that entirely misses the point of what Saving Mr. Banks is supposed to be about. Is it supposed to be an expose of the real life of PL Travers or Walt Disney? No. It is a Disney movie about a Disney movie that is designed to do what most Disney movies do: make you feel better for a few hours.
Streep is saying she is a “man-eating feminist” and so is Thompson and so was Travers. These truths do not have to exist in contradiction with the pretty lies of Saving Mr. Banks. They can all exist in unison. Movies are not our history classes. They are not supposed to take the place of our own education or our own morality or our own ability to think for ourselves. The ideas presented in the film, and the truth, can co-exist. If we continue down this road, this silly Crucible-like hysteria that erupts during Oscar season where each film is taken apart — we will have nothing left but the most bland films that star people who are mostly beyond reproach: white men. Is that what you all want?
The bigger truth about awards season, that if there is a film about women it is either dismissed (mostly) by critics unless those women are either naked or half-naked, with their legs sprung up in the air (bonus points if they aren’t wearing underwear). The more strong of female characters the film is the less chance it has in the Oscar race as its dictated today. When you think of a so-called “strong female character” first think whether her own inner trajectory plays out on screen or whether her only purpose for being on screen is as just one of the many factors that enable the male character’s trajectory to play out.
The headline for Vulture’s article where Streep’s speech can be found said ”
Read Meryl Streep’s Walt Disney–Dissing NBR Speech in Its Entirety
This is how societies break down brick by brick and how women stay exiled on the island of gossip and clucking hens. The lede here should not be that Streep dissed Disney but that she celebrated Thompson. She took a brave stand when everyone else was backing away from the debate about Saving Mr. Banks. That is the story. Walt himself is long dead. The truth about him and Travers is there in the archives for anyone to discover should they go looking.
Read what Streep said very closely and then try to get the bigger picture of what she was saying. If you come out of that speech worried that Streep might have said something that cost Thompson the Oscar you have completely missed the point. What matters here is so far beyond that. Character assassination is what really is at play this year with regards to Thompson and Saving Mr. Banks. Streep gets that. This was her chance to stand UP for Thompson. And that is exactly what she did, elegantly, fiercely and with poetry.
Finally, if you want reality don’t go to the movies.