The Mouse That Squeaked

Don't believe that Disney's defense of the Dalai Lama is a brave stand for artistic expression. The entertainment colossus simply realized it was more expedient to give in to Hollywood's New Age orthodoxy than to Chinese bureaucrats.

Published December 4, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

To tell you the truth, I've never been very keen on Mickey Mouse. And the more I see his hideous grin all over the world, the more I suspect George Orwell got it all wrong: The nightmare totalitarian future may well be ruled by a relentlessly happy face instead of some glowering dictator's gaze.

Last week, however, the Mouse was a hero to many in what is loosely called Hollywood's "creative community." Editorial writers sang Mickey's praise too. "The Mouse Makes a Stand," thundered the New York Times in a lead editorial. ("The Walt Disney Company demonstrated that it would not accept censorship as the price of doing business in China or anywhere else." )

For weeks now, the rumor on the financial pages had been that the Disney Company was under pressure from Chinese government officials. Disney is the co-producer and the distributor of an upcoming film biography of the Dalai Lama being directed by Martin Scorsese.

As China looms on the horizon as the major economic force of the next century, Chinese officials are increasingly disdainful of American "cultural imperialism" -- versions of history that might differ from Beijing's. In sum, China regards its seizure of Tibet in the 1950s as an internal matter and sees any glorification of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled leader, as provocative in the extreme.

Before the controversy became public, the Disney Company, like many other American corporations, had been imagining a near-limitless future in China -- Oh brave new world, Oh vast new market! (Forget Kansas, forget France. Imagine every Chinese kid with a stuffed mouse under her arm.) Michael Ovitz, Disney's president, had even traveled to China to bestow America's highest honor on the Chinese mainland: The promise of a Disney theme park.

It was bad enough for Disney that Martin Scorsese is directing the Dalai Lama film. Hollywood's creative community regards Scorsese as nothing less than a national treasure. After all, this is the man who has brilliantly photographed Joe Pesci in various stages of sociopathic rage. In "Casino", Scorsese's recent film, we actually saw mobsters being buried alive.

The bigger problem for Disney is the saffron-robed, ever-smiling Dalai Lama. In Hollywood, you can make fun of religion of nearly every sort. You can make fun of nuns. Martin Scorsese can make a movie about Christ that is offensive to fundamentalist Christians. In Hollywood, you can laugh at the Pope or an orthodox rabbi. You can portray an Islamic fundamentalist as a crazed terrorist.

But the Dalai Lama is a different kind of religious presence in Hollywood. He is the pope of the New Age, and Richard Gere is his John the Baptist. Malibu Buddhism -- chimes in the breeze -- is one of those pieties, like Saint John Lennon or whales, that you dare not violate.

For all the talk this week about how the Mouse had saved artistic expression for America, Hollywood has a dismal record of artistic bravery. For decades, this is the industry that did not dare violate anti-black stereotypes popular in America. And when Senator Joe McCarthy started asking embarrassing questions in the '50s, Hollywood quickly hoisted up the white flag.

Cynics in the industry this week suspected that, had the news about Chinese displeasure not come out in the open, Disney officials would have complied with Beijing's will. Disney is a company that famously goes with the flow, casually rewrites classic fiction, even changes history to suit the perceived popular taste.

Think of "Pocahontas," for example. In real life, as historians are wont to say, Pocahontas was an Indian woman who married a white man, was baptized into the Anglican faith and died in England. But the smart boys at Disney didn't like that version. And it didn't suit the orthodoxy of the multi-cultural '90s when Indians are supposed to be separatists and inclined to die in the same house where they were born. So Disney's Pocahontas leaves her blond boyfriend and returns to her people.

Disney is currently busy remaking earlier hits. But does anyone imagine that the Disney Company would attempt to remake "Davy Crockett," its hit of the 1950s? Pollsters inside Disney, after all, must surely be aware of today's vast and growing Hispanic audience and our "sensitivity" about the history of Texas.

Nonetheless, by mid-week, officials at the Disney Company cleared their corporate throats and insisted that "we have an agreement to distribute (the Dalai Lama film) and we intend to honor it." Mickey Mouse is now in line to receive one of those humanitarian awards that Hollywood loves to give itself every few weeks at the Beverly Hilton. In the meanwhile, several real questions persist like: What will Disney do the next time? In corporate America, there is such a thing as self-censorship.

Several years ago for, example, Viking-Penguin published Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," provoking the ire of the Ayatollah Khomeini who found the novel blasphemous. Viking-Penguin tactfully passed on the chance to publish Rushdie's book in paperback.

In the new global economy toward which we are all moving, there may be more languages for the Mouse to speak but less and less that the Mouse is willing to say.

Can anyone imagine the Disney Company taking on a difficult Chinese subject in the near future? Executives at Disney have doubtlessly learned their lesson: Stay away from sensitive issues when dealing with trading partners. Stay away from Davy Crockett. And certainly stay away from the Dalai Lama.

In a country dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of entertainment, Disney is our grandest wizard. This season, Disney is busy selling the children of America (and their unimaginative parents) stuffed Dalmatian dogs for Christmas. The company that rewrote "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is, after all, in the business of happy endings.

As one producer friend of mine reminded me this week, "Entertainment companies are not about art; they are mostly about getting people into the dark."

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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