Tom Hanks may be able to get millions of grandmothers to pay $13 to watch him have a two-hour conversation with a volleyball, but but can he get those same Ethels and Gertrudes to root for a fascist?
In the upcoming Disney film Saving Mr. Banks, America's lovable uncle, Tom Hanks, will be the first man ever to portray the eccentric patriarch of family cinema, Walt Disney, on film.
The inventor of Mickey Mouse, Gus-Gus the Mouse, other mice, and Song of the South, Disney had a career of sustained creative brilliance. He also had an oft-discussed, oft-complicated relationship with McCarthy-era anti-communism, racial minorities, and the queen of Nazi propaganda herself, Leni Riefenstahl.
Can a mustachioed Forrest Gump overcome bigotry in the happiest place on Earth?
Hanks is a bankable, wholesome star for Disney. He has made a boring concept palatable (a man and his dog solve crimes!) in Turner and Hooch and a potentially creepy concept lovable (talking toys will follow you around for the rest of your life!) in the Toy Story films. The casting of Hanks in the tale of the making of Mary Poppins is a no-brainer, but the question remains: Can a mustachioed Forrest Gump overcome bigotry in the happiest place on Earth?
While Mr. Disney's contributions to entertainment are unparalleled (he has four times as many Oscar nominations as both Meryl and God), his biography includes some episodes that those close to him may wish could stay locked in the Disney vault.
Most controversially, Disney rolled out the red carpet in 1938 for brilliant filmmaker-cum-lethal provocateur, Leni Riefenstahl, on her American press tour for her documentary Olympia — a film that glorified the 1936 Hunger Games/Berlin Olympics. Reifenstahl's sojourn was to be her Hollywood debutante ball, but a mere five days after her arrival in America in November 1938, news broke of the devastation of Krystallnacht. Leni's dance card was suddenly empty. Every Hollywood studio head (from Louis Mayer on down) canceled their invitation due to her inextricable links to the Nazi party (look no further than her epic Triumph of the Will). But Disney still welcomed her with open arms, and his rumored antisemitism (or at least, his rumored sharing of iced tea and cucumber sandwiches with people intrinsically tied to antisemitism) became, according to biographer Neal Gabler, something "he was never really able to expunge...throughout his life."
This wasn't Disney's only questionable association. His others add up like a stream of ill-advised ex-lovers clogging your News Feed (that is, if your ex-lovers were also all Nazis). Disney was a prominent member of the terrifying-sounding Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (meant to defend Hollywood against communist and fascist infiltration), and he testified against former employees in 1947 to the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspected communist activity. He had a Paula Deen-esque mouth (not because it was filled with Crisco but because it was filled with casual racial slurs). Scholars and stupid people alike have recognized the overtly offensive portrayal of racial stereotypes in Disney films like Song of the South and Fantasia.
While the inclusion of these biographical blemishes would make any portrayal of Disney more three-dimensional and true to form, we will have to wait and see if the filmmakers on Saving Mr. Banks feel that his personal prejudices are as worthy of screen time as Mr. Hanks' cool facial hair.
The necessity to separate the artist from his or her art is a question that Hollywood constantly wrestles with.
But would the exclusion of Disney's antisemitic and outdated racial attitudes make the story of how Mary Poppins came to be any less true? Certainly an actor as talented as Mr. Hanks has the ability to show us the humanity behind the Man Behind the Mouse, but will he get the chance? In an interview with Moviefone.com, the film's director, John Lee Hancock, notes that the depiction of Walt is "not sugarcoated." He goes on to qualify that statement, however, noting that his film is tasked with portraying Disney over a period of two weeks in 1961 and not his entire life. Hancock seems to shy away from being blatantly honorific of Disney, but most of his attention focuses on the creative process of Mary Poppins rather than any political backstory.
The necessity to separate the artist from his or her art is a question that Hollywood constantly wrestles with (see Roman Polanski or Orson Scott Card for very recent examples), and Disney's remarkable artistic achievements cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, acknowledging Disney's personal shortcomings in his first film portrayal would only serve to enrich the characterization and spark discussion. I have no doubt that Tom Hanks will make an excellent Disney, flawed or otherwise, and that I will gladly pay my $13 to see it. But hopefully, the portrayal will not be viewed in a vacuum (although come to think of it, I would also pay $13 to watch Tom Hanks play a vacuum).