Ken Burns Presents Meryl Streep with HRC’s National Ally for Equality Award
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Ken Burns Presents Meryl Streep with HRC’s National Ally for Equality Award

October 8, 2019


Good evening. I don’t know how you
follow Senator Schumer. What passion. Just go out and vote
for him next time. This is an extraordinary
honor for me to be able to honor someone
I’m lucky enough to know and have worked with
someone who we can all say, without a bit of
artifice or exaggeration, is the greatest person
at her art alive. [APPLAUSE] I think I first became
aware of Meryl Streep when she stood out in
proud feminine relief from all that crazy masculine
energy in the film “The Deer Hunter.” That was 1978, not
her first rodeo, but what an amazing
force we suddenly had to confront and
take to our hearts. Her hair, her eyes, her
unusual, exotic beauty. The stunning way she assumed
her role effortlessly, generously, passionately. A complicated
palette of emotions playing across her face. Her genius on full display. And then what did she do next? “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,”
“Kramer versus Kramer,” “Manhattan,” “The French
Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Sophie’s Choice.” That’s what she did next. She could have
retired then and still be the greatest of all
time, but she never stopped. Thank god, thank goodness. Over the course of her
remarkable professional life– I don’t say career. It’s such an insulting
word in the face of the fact of her work. Over the course of her
remarkable professional life, she completely transcended the
playful, childlike role-playing that gives her work its
joy, its incandescence, its seeming ease, and
made of her characters– all of her characters– distinct
human beings who hold up a mirror to our strengths
and weaknesses, our fears and our dreams. There is startling risk in
every choice she has made, not just with a particular
role, but in it as well. Risk and empathy, a
broad, expansive empathy that spills out of her real
life, and her real self, her real experiences, and
endows each part she takes on with an urgency, a
truth, and a humanness. Whether it’s a dramatic
film, an action-adventure, watch out Kevin Bacon,
those were real biceps. A comedy or musical, whether
she’s the star or a supporting cast member. An urgency, a truth, a
humanness about real life. Many great actors lose
themselves in their parts, are possessed by their
roles, and there often seems little else to them
outside their adopted persona. They are sometimes just ciphers. But Meryl, beautiful,
good-hearted Meryl, actually possesses her
role, brings her self to every occasion and equation. And so we are reminded of
her, the person, in everything she does. We are completely absorbed
by the human being she is bringing to life, but
still in relationship always to her, Meryl, the
real human being. And she is a real person. Down to earth, present, with a
real-life husband and family. Grounded, nothing has
been lost in the machinery and soul-sapping
mechanics of Hollywood. In fact, she’s elevated that
industry like almost no one else has. And girl, she is real. [APPLAUSE] My longtime collaborator,
the writer Geoffrey Ward, never in the 35 years of my
recording voices of a pantheon of actors for our
historical documentary, never once did he ever ask to
sit-in on one of those sessions until Meryl was reading
for Eleanor Roosevelt. After the first practice
take, on the first quote, just for sound levels, I turned
around and saw my friend, a repressed WASP
like me, weeping– weeping at Meryl’s
gift of bringing one of the strongest women in
all of American history alive. A woman Geoff and I
had studied and tried to get to know over years
of scholarship and research. But in two short
sentences, there she was. Right before our lives. Right there. She’d woken the dead. Could she, Eleanor,
even Meryl help us? Nope. We were basket cases, dissolved
in a puddle of our own tears. But wow, did she bring Eleanor
alive and kicking to us, moving viewers and startling
scholars with her art. Art. In the end, it seems to me,
it’s all about recognition. Seeing encaptured
acting moments. Both the heroic
and the quotidian. Something of our
common humanity. And this is where my friend
Meryl Streep and Eleanor Roosevelt merge again. Eleanor’s one of the fiercest. Meryl is one of the most
fiercest, most honest, most brave, most committed
women I know, and I’m the father
of four daughters. She spots bullshit
pretty quickly and holds those in power
accountable fearlessly. She’s a good ally to
have in your foxhole if you find yourself in battle,
and we are now in battle. She champions everyone,
everyone, regardless period. The distinctions,
the powerful impose on our glorious diversity to try
to keep us apart, even enemies, enrages her. That righteous anger
is a fuel and energy we need especially today to tap. After I congratulated her
on her courageous words at the Golden Globes,
she said that if she– [APPLAUSE] She said that if she ended
up in the East River, I would know who’d done it. Well, they’re too scared of
her to do anything, especially when she reminds us constantly
when the emperors of the world have no clothes. They’re too embarrassed
to do anything but hide in their castles and tweet. Today, today is Abraham
Lincoln’s– our greatest president– Abraham Lincoln’s
208th birthday. He’s often credited with
the extraordinary saying “To sin by silence
when they should protest makes cowards of men.” It’s a wonderful
quote, but it wasn’t said by this man, Lincoln,
but by a woman, of course. A fierce and courageous
woman like our honoree. She was a poet. Her name was Ella
Wheeler Wilcox. Please remember her. It’s not Abraham Lincoln. “To sin by silence when
they should protest makes cowards of men.” I’m reminded of the
heartbreakingly sad song by Paul Simon American too
and I’m sure you all know it. You know we come in the
age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American
tune, but it’s all right. It’s all right. We can’t be forever blessed. With Meryl, it seems to
me we remain blessed, and in these trying
times with her around us, somehow those hours
seem less uncertain. We love you, Meryl,
so very much. Please help me welcome
HRC’s National Ally For Equality award
recipient, my friend and my hero, Meryl Streep. [MUSIC PLAYING] I’m coming every year. Thank you, Ken. Thank you. This man is writing the
visual history of our times, and we are so lucky that someone
with the capacity of mind and heart and the integrity
is taking on that job. Thank you very much. I do like football. I want to make this clear. I gave seven years,
seven of my youngest, prettiest years to being a
cheerleader for football, basketball, and wrestling. I have watched more peewee
football, Pop Warner football, JV and varsity high
school football, JV and varsity college football
and professional football in 60 years than anybody here. But if you hear a
woman in a restaurant say my son is very
interested in the arts, she’s not talking about
football or mixed martial arts, because they’re just
not the same thing. Some of us like football,
some of us like the arts. Many of us want
both in our lives. And it isn’t helpful to
make it us versus them. I was making a joke
and Mike Nichols told me if you have to explain
the joke, Meryl, you’re doomed. So I honestly can’t
imagine what I have done to deserve this great honor. In The Hours all I did
was kiss Allison Janney in take after take
after take after take. And it wasn’t that hard at all. And I’m also fairly proud
of a very jolly portrayal of a gay conversion therapist
on Lisa Kudrow’s web therapy that I did. And I feel our Vice
President might want to check out those
episodes because my character’s views seem to dovetail with his,
although it involves comedy, so I don’t know if it’s
going to penetrate. And I want to thank Chad and
everybody at the Human Rights Campaign for this moving
and very meaningful honor, which I dedicate to
my gay and trans teachers, colleagues, mentors,
directors, friends, all of whom should take the credit
for me being up here because they taught me,
from a very young age, and they continue to remind
me every day of the very best lesson and that is to be
yourself and love and take joy in your work and what you do. And I’m very grateful to
this incredible organization, the Human Rights Campaign, for
what you have done in such a smart, strategic,
and systematic way, to secure and safeguard the
rights of LGBTQ Americans. Most of the advances in
acceptance and advocacy and law have come straight from the
work of this organization. Well I don’t know how
straight it is but– But you have, you
have made the lives of people I love better,
stronger, and safer. When I was a little girl growing
up in middle class New Jersey, my entire artistic
life was curated by people who lived in the
straight jacket of a very conformist, suburban life. In the late 50s and
early 60s, all the houses in my neighborhood
were the same size. In the developments, they
even were the same shape and color and style. And in the schools, your job was
to put pennies in your loafers and look the same
as everybody else and act the same
as everybody else. Standing out,
being different was like drawing a target
on your forehead and you had to have a special
kind of courage to do it. And some of my
teachers were obliged to live their whole
lives hidden, covertly. But my sixth and seventh grade
music teacher, Paul Grossman, was one of the
bravest people I knew because later, when I
was in graduate school, I read that he had
transitioned and become one of the first transgender
women in the country. And after the operation,
she reported back. As Paula Grossman. To our middle school
in Basking Ridge, New Jersey where she had
taught for 30 years and she was promptly fired. But she pursued her case
for wrongful dismissal and back pay, through the
courts for seven years, all the way to
the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, her
case was not accepted and she lost, but she won her
pension under a Disability Allowance settlement,
although she was disabled only by the small minds
of the school board. She was a garrulous,
cantankerous, she was a terrific teacher,
and she never taught again. But her case did set the stage
for many of the discrimination cases that followed. She and her wife raised
their three girls. She worked as a
town planner and she had an act playing piano
and singing in cocktail lounges around New Jersey. But I remember her
as Mr. Grossman and I remember when he
took us on a field trip to the Statue of
Liberty in 1961. And our whole class
stood at the feet of that huge, beautiful
woman and we sang a song that he had taught us that
was taken from the lyrics, the lyrics were
taken from the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved at
the base of the monument. [SINGING] Give me your tired,
your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the
wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless,
tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside
the golden door. I can’t remember what I did
Tuesday, but I remember– I remember that song Mr.
Grossman chose to teach us. It stirred my
11-year-old heart then and it animates my
conscience today. That’s what great teachers do. She died in 2003,
god rest her soul. My piano teacher, George Voss. He was about 80
years old in 1965. He lived– or he was probably
40 and I just thought he was. Whatever. And he lived in a
little house hidden away in the woods in Berkeley
Heights, New Jersey with his lover, Phil. And my mother said his
lover for 50 years. And his house wasn’t
like the other houses. It was a magical place. It was filled with birds
and exotica and collectibles from Central and
South America, which they’d gathered on their trips. I’m not going to
introduce you to all my gay and trans teachers. I just wanted to tell you
about some of the people who made me an artist and
who lived under duress. You know, there is a good
thing about being older. There is. You’ll see. And that is you do get to mark
the decades and the progress of things. You can honestly say
things are better now. They really are better now. But what is that famous quote? “The price of liberty
is eternal vigilance.” everybody thinks that’s
Jefferson that said that, but it wasn’t. It was an Irishman, John
Philpot Curran, don’t ya know. “Eternal vigilance is
the price of liberty.” and he also said– I mean, Ken, great
minds, you know– “Evil prospers when
good men do nothing.” Ain’t that the truth? OK, here’s my theory. I’m going to go very fast, so
you have to stay with me, OK? Human life has been
organized in a certain way. The hierarchy set
who’s in charge, who makes the laws, who
enforces the laws, pretty much the same way for 40,000 years. Yeah, I know, I know. There were some small number
of matrilineal cultures and some outliers who were
more tolerant of differences, very true, but pretty much– and the so-called democracies,
the great democracy of Greece, where women
and slaves were excluded. Pretty much through
our history, might made right and the biggest and
the richest and the baddest were the best. And the man, pretty
much always was a man. But suddenly, at one
point in the 20th century, for reasons that
I can’t possibly enumerate in the two
minutes that I have left, something did change. The clouds parted and
women began to be regarded, if not as equal, but as
deserving of equal rights. It’s true. It was a first. Men and women of color
demanded their equal rights. People of a sexual orientation
and gender identification outside the status quo also
demanded their equal regard under the law. So did people with disabilities. We all won rights
that had already been granted to us in the
Constitution 200 years before, in theory. But the courts and
society finally caught up and recognized our claims. And amazingly, and in the terms
of the whole of human history, blazingly fast, culture
seemed to have shifted. All the old hierarchies
and entitlements seemed to be on shaky ground,
which brings us to now. We shouldn’t be surprised that
fundamentalists of all stripes, everywhere, are
exercised and fuming. We shouldn’t be surprised that
these profound changes come at a much steeper
cost than it seemed we were gliding through them
in the late 20th century. We shouldn’t be surprised if
not everyone is totally down with it. But if we live, if we live
through this precarious moment, if his catastrophic
instinct to retaliate doesn’t lead us
to nuclear winter, we will have much to thank
this president for because he will have woken us up to how
fragile freedom really is. And his whisperers
will have alerted us to the potential flaws in our
balance of power in government, to how we’ve relied on the
goodwill and selflessness of previous occupants
of the Oval Office and how quaint notions of
custom, honor, and duty compelled them to adhere
to certain practices of transparency
and responsibility. How easily all of
this can be ignored and how the authority
of the executive, in the hands of a
self dealer, can be wielded against the
people and the Constitution and their bill of rights. The whip of the executive
can, through a Twitter feed, lash and intimidate, punish
and humiliate, de-legitimize the press and all
the imagined enemies with spasmodic regularity and
easily provoked predictability. So here we are in 2017 and our
browser seems to have gone down and we are in danger of
losing all our information. And we seem to be reverting
to the factory settings, but we’re not. We’re not going to go back to
the bad old days of ignorance and oppression and
hiding who we are, because we owe it to the people
who have died for our rights and who have died before
they even got their own. And we owe it to the pioneers
of the LGBTQ movement, like Paula Grossman,
and to the people on the front lines of all
civil rights movements not to let them down. I am the most over rated
and most overdecorated and currently,
currently, I am the most over berated actress, who likes
football, of my generation. But that’s why you
invited me here, right? OK. The weight, the weight
of all my honors is part of what brings
me here to the podium. It compels me. It’s against every one
of my natural instincts, which is to stay the fuck home. It compels me to stand
up in front of people and say words that haven’t
been written for me but that come from my
life, from my convictions, and that I have to stand by
because it’s hard to stand up. It’s hard! I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be here. I want to be home and I want
to read and garden and load my dishwasher. I do. I love that. It’s embarrassing and it’s
terrifying to put the target on your forehead
and it sets you up for all sorts of attacks and
armies of brownshirts and bots and worse. And the only way you can do
it is to feel you have to, you have to. You don’t have an option. You have to stand
up, speak up, act up! Thank you. You are. You are it! You are it! And when I load my dishwasher
from where I live in New York City, I can look
out my window and I see the Statue of Liberty. And she reminds me of Mr.
Grossman and the first trip there and all my
great grandparents who came through and
passed by that poem. Many of them fled religious
intolerance in the old world and we Americans have
the right to reject the imposition of unwanted
religious practice in our lives. We have the right to live our
lives with God or without her, as we choose. There’s a prohibition
in this country against the
establishment of state religion in our constitution
and we have the right to choose with whom we
live, whom we love, and who and what gets to
interfere with our bodies. As Americans, men,
women, people, gay, straight, LGBTQ, all of
us have the human right to life and liberty and
the pursuit of happiness. And if you think people
were mad when they thought the government was
coming after their guns, wait until you see when they
try to take away our happiness.

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