LOS ANGELES – Meryl Streep’s Tuesday speech in which she labeled the late Walt Disney a “gender bigot” is being criticized by some who worked with the Hollywood legend, and others who have a much different take on the Hollywood giant’s life.
Walt Disney animator Floyd Norman, who worked alongside the mogul on films including the classic “Sleeping Beauty,” told us Streep is simply misinformed.
“I arrived at Disney in 1956 as a young artist. Surprisingly, there were a fair number of young women working in the art department. I too had heard that women were not allowed in animation. So, even in the '50s, things were already beginning to change,” he told FOX411. “While it is true the studio regarded women differently from men in the '30s, I found many young women who had nothing but good things to say about their years in Ink and Paint. Most loved Uncle Walt and never regarded him as a sexist.”
Indeed it was very much the norm in the '30s for women to be closed off from jobs in the animation arena, so some argue that Disney was more of a product of his time. But as early as 1941, Disney is reported to have told male artists working on “Dumbo” that “if women can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man.”
“The myths surrounding Walt Disney are to be expected, I guess. Like most famous men of his time, his legacy has continually been challenged,” Norman said. “No matter how many times we refute the lies about Walt, they seem to continue. I think some people will simply never like the man, no matter what we have to say.”
Another long-term, current Disney employee described Streep’s harsh words as plain “weird.”
“Disney was actually one of the few places that employed women back then,” said the insider.
Also consider the late Marcellite Wall, one of several female employees at Walt Disney Productions when it employed around 35 people. After working in the Ink and Paint department, Wall went on in 1930 to first voice the iconic Minnie Mouse, and also played a key role in defining the cartoon’s personality. Wall described the environment at the studio as “one big family” and even defended her boss during the infamous Disney animators strike of 1941.
Disney legend Dick Van Dyke (“Mary Poppins”) also had nothing but praise for his big boss.
“He impressed me as a nice man, really an old shoe,” Van Dyke wrote in his 2011 memoir “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business.” “I later heard that he was a tough taskmaster, but I only saw his easygoing side, the side that led others to refer to him as Uncle Walt.”
Rob Weiner, Popular Culture Librarian at Texas Tech University, said Disney was also a huge friend to soldiers returning to the work force after World War II, something Streep failed to mention.
“This stands for a heck of a lot. Veterans came home to what seemed like a booming economy, but really wasn’t, and Mr. Disney gave them jobs,” Weiner said. “He was no saint, but Disney did what he could to help them.”
Regardless of what she said, many are impressed with Streep for airing her views in such a public forum, especially since it comes just after the Oscar-winner wrapped a Disney film of her own -- the studio’s big-screen adaptation of the musical “Into the Woods.”
“She wasn’t just funny and delightful up there, she was also frank,” observed the pop culture website Vulture while others hailed the Oscar winner’s speech as “awesome” and “brave” on Twitter.
But at the end of the day, Norman doesn’t think Streep’s views will tarnish Walt Disney's legacy.
“People have been taking pot shots at him for years and will continue to do so. Authors and filmmakers such as myself and others will tell the truth. Yet the truth will never stop people from saying whatever they believe as long as they are given a platform,” he added. “I have a good deal of respect for Meryl Streep and consider her a knowledgeable woman who simply got carried away. However, you'd better back up your comments with facts whenever there are people around who knew Walt Disney and know the real deal.”
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