A mouse, a castle, an unmatchable worldwide empire that bears his name. But in a trick that would dismay today's endless army of personal branding experts, the man himself is often an afterthought at the very mention of his name. Where have you gone, Walt Disney? And did we ever really know you?
And if not, why not?
"Part of it is because he was such a usual person. It's unusual that a head of a company is so intimately involved in every aspect," Jean-Pierre Isbouts, co-producer, co-writer (with Richard and Katherine Greene) and director of the documentary Walt: The Man Behind The Myth told me. And because Disney was such a private man, all we knew was his work -- which, because it was so world changing, led us to fill in the blanks.
"Walt was a person who had that magic touch, could tell what would be entertainment, what wouldn't be entertainment," Isbouts said. "For outsiders, it's difficult to understand because it goes against the traditional role about the American senior executives -- look at the myths around Steve Jobs, people are mystified by executive/artist-creator."
While there have been a few documentary-style attempts to probe the depths of a deeply mysterious man, Isbouts' 2001 documentary is the most exhaustive. Through full access to Disney's personal archives, and interviews with his friends, family, employees and even business enemies, Isbouts' bio-doc looked at, among other things, the myths about the man that had taken root since his death in 1966.
And for a man who painted legends and tales, there were plenty of myths -- and not all of them were the stuff of The Happiest Place on Earth.
Seeking out those closest to Disney, from friends and family to co-workers and even those who were no fans of Walt, Isbouts puts together a story of a complicated man -- and one that, in a country of celebrity and hero worship, closely guarded his privacy. His studio, Isbouts said, was his sanctum, though he wasn't always the best roommate.
Walt was an FBI informant, they say, crushing workers with an iron fist. He was a fire-breathing boss that worked his artists to the bone for little pay, others allege. Isbouts doesn't totally refute some of that point.
"He was definitely a workhorse, a taskmaster," the documentarian acknowledged. But the rumors that came from unsatisfied, striking workers -- the staff was split on the picket lines, and Isbouts interviewed both strikers -- their aggressive leaders -- and more loyal picket crossers. Before the time of accepted workers' rights, Disney sometimes struggled with the idea of collective bargaining, and his stern approach backfired.
There were other, nastier rumors, too.
Long whispered and finally put to paper in Marc Eliot's 1993 biography, the allegation of anti-Semitism beleaguered Disney. Isbouts interviewed close Disney friend and artist, Joe Grant, along with legendary songwriter Richard Sherman (most famous for Mary Poppins) and both, along with black artist Floyd Sherman, vigorously denied charges that he was in any way a bigot.
"Some things, we had to warm them up to talk about, but on that, they were very animated," Isbouts recalled. When I asked whether the interviewees might have felt pressure to say that, the documentarian stressed his independence from the Disney corporation.
As for the rumor that Disney is frozen, ready to be brought back to life when there's a cure for cancer? "I didn't even bother with that," he says.
But perhaps it fits Disney's mysterious legacy, a mysterious creator frozen in time. But why frozen? Why don't we seek to thaw him out, but leave a dedicated few to chip away?
Perhaps after years of giving us stories, Disney's become a story himself, a greater narrative for Americans. Like wishing upon a star meant giving hope, believing these things about Disney means feeling better about ourselves. That using him for our own purposes, to bring him down to a point where we feel superior, that's what we need.
After all, America has a way of giving its heroes a final, distorted role. See: intellectual, populists Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson now re-appropriated for a decidedly anti-populist Tea Party. Or Marilyn Monroe as Goddess or Ronald Reagan as trailblazing Communism-crusher or JD Salinger the old crazy man. We've revived them all to fit narratives that comfort us or serve our purposes, so we can understand or at least feel better about ourselves.
Maybe because fairy tales promised to us don't often come true, or because we couldn't even begin to be the knights in shining armor required, we choose to believe the distortions.
Isbouts' newest project, a documentary called "Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler," is available on DVD.
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