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Meryl Streep Blasts Walt Disney at National Board of Review Dinner

Emma Thompson, Bruce Dern, Octavia Spencer and Will Forte accept awards at dinner gala

The National Board of Review dinner is like the big pre-game to the Golden Globes, where wine bottles are uncorked in New York and don’t stop flowing until the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s gala on Sunday. But this year’s ceremony will forever be remembered for its nine-minute tour-de-force speech from Meryl Streep.

Streep, for once, wasn’t invited to accept an award. Instead, she was there to honor Emma Thompson for her portrait as “Mary Poppins” creator P.L. Travers in Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks.”

There was plenty of effusive Thompson praising in the speech — with phrases like “she’s practically a saint” and “she’s a beautiful artist” — and it ended with a poem that Streep had written for her friend titled “An Ode to Emma, Or What Emma is Owed.” But Streep also made a point of blasting Walt Disney for his sexist and anti-Semitic stances.

The edgy riff offered a different perspective on Disney from the sugarcoated hero played by Tom Hanks in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Streep was once rumored to be in the running for the role of P.L. Travers, although her remarks suggest why she might not have pursued the project.

“Some of his associates reported that Walt Disney didn’t really like women,” Streep said, quoting esteemed animator Ward Kimball on his old boss: “He didn’t trust women or cats.”

Streep talked about how Disney “supported an anti-Semitic industry lobbying group” and called him a “gender bigot.” She read a letter that his company wrote in 1938 to an aspiring female animator. It included the line, “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.”

The quirky National Board of Review committee announces its winners early, so the real surprise is in what they will say on-stage. This year’s list of honorees included Thompson for best actress, Bruce Dern for best actor (“Nebraska”), Will Forte for best supporting actor (“Nebraska”) and Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress (“Fruitvale Station”). The Weinstein Co.’s drama, made only for $1 million, also received recognition for best-directorial debut (Ryan Coogler) and breakthrough performance (Michael B. Jordan).

“Her” landed best picture and best director for Spike Jonze.

The night opened with Coogler accepting his award from Lee Daniels. Coogler paid tribute to Oscar Grant, whose 2009 BART police shooting inspired his picture, which he partially filmed at his grandmother’s house in Oakland, Calif. “Statistically, I’m not even supposed to be alive from where I came from,” Coogler said. “There are so many Oscar Grants … who see their lives ended senselessly on the streets.”

Michael B. Jordan thanked his father. “He really showed me what it means to be a man,” Jordan said. “He sacrificed for his family and he put himself last a lot of times.”

Jordan remembered getting cast on HBO’s “The Wire” at 16. “Life was amazing,” he said until episode 12 when he learned that his character would be killed on-screen.

“No actor on that show wanted that visit from [creator] David Simon,” he mused. “Actors were dropping left and right.” And then he moved to Los Angeles, where he was on a “7-11 diet. It’s exactly what it sounds like. You go to 7-11, and whatever you can afford, you eat that week.”

Ex-“Sopranos” scribe Terence Winter accepted best-adapted screenplay for “Wolf of Wall Street” from Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi. Joel and Ethan Coen were singled out for their “Inside Llewyn Davis” original screenplay and offered a characteristically short speech.

Some of the winners were repeats from the previous night’s New York Film Critic’s Circle Awards, including best animated feature (“The Wind Rises”) and best documentary (“Stories We Tell”).

The best ensemble prize for “Prisoners” was given to Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano and Terrence Howard. And the trifecta of directors turned actors in “Wolf of Wall Street”–Rob Reiner, Spike Jonze and Jon Favreau–presented the Spotlight Award to Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.

“We were never around when there was naked women,” Reiner complained.

DiCaprio and Scorsese gave a funny speech where they completed each other’s sentences.

“Keep it short,” Scorsese said.

“You mean, under-three-hours short?” DiCaprio asked, alluding to their film’s 179-minute running time.

“Saturday Night Live’s” Seth Meyers introduced his ex-costar Will Forte. “I’m not used to getting awards,” Forte said. “My family members have actually lost friends because they’ve sent those friends to the movies I’ve been in.”

Dern said that at 77, he found the role of a lifetime in “Nebraska.”

“I’ve never had someone give me an opportunity and believe in me and trust me like Alexander [Payne],” he said. “I knew I had a friend who I could trust.”

After thanking Streep for her tribute, Thompson launched into a comedy routine that urged women to stop wearing high heels, among other punch lines.

“It’s such a cold night,” Thompson said of New York’s record-low temperature. “It’s the only time I’ve been actively grateful for the menopause.”

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