“It's amazing! I get a little older and Belle stays the same,” laughs Paige O'Hara, the actress who gave voice to the character Belle 25 years ago in Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast. O'Hara reflects that even now it was pretty special to be “part of history like that.”
Disney's 30th animated feature film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and made cinematic history as the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast captured the Oscar for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for the title song to the movie. In 2002 the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
“When we first started on it, we knew that the film was good, but once we got about a year into the project,” O'Hara recalls that she and her co-stars knew they were working on a very unique endeavor. “We knew once we started seeing the animators piecing it together about a year into the project that it was really special.” That was firmly solidified in 1991 at the New York Film Festival when the unfinished film received a rousing ten-minute standing ovation from what is typically a tough Big Apple audience.
For O'Hara and her fellow voice actors Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers and Angela Lansbury, it was two years of their life dedicated to voicing their respective characters. “By the way it was four years in the making which people don't realize,” as O'Hara recounts the painstaking process of bringing the characters to life from pencil sketch to the screen, adding “it would take the animators an entire week to draw 20 seconds.”
Disney originally wanted Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel from The Little Mermaid for the lead role of Belle, but they were seeking a more mature sound. For the veteran stage singer and actress, O'Hara remembers like it was yesterday that she and 500 others, many of them Broadway stars, auditioned for the role of Belle. Identifying with the character from the very beginning, O'Hara recounts that at the start of the process those interested in the role sent tapes to the producers. Anonymous to the creative minds behind the film, O'Hara was picked out of the crowd. “I had five auditions. They sort of closed their eyes when you would sing or read. And truthfully it was totally about the voice,” she adds. The actress also believes that it “helped that Howard Ashman was a huge fan of my Showboat revival recording that I did and the role of Ellie May Chipley in that.”
As for the inspiration for Belle, O'Hara says she could relate to the bookworm beauty. “I identified with her so much as a kid. I felt like the oddball, I was a bookworm. I was into George Gershwin and my friends were going to Led Zeppelin concerts.” The actress says she drew a lot on her childhood for the Disney princess. Just like Belle, O'Hara confesses “I felt sort of out of place but I was very headstrong like Belle.”
Unlike some other animated films, O'Hara got to work closely with co-star Robby Benson who roared to life as the Beast. “It was very rare that Robby and I actually got to work together.” The duo requested to record their scenes together instead of sitting in a studio alone and having a dialogue editor toss lines at the actors to help them with their parts. “It made it so much more, spontaneous and we were allowed to ad lib and a lot of that turned out in the film,” she divulges. “Most of the time, 99% of the time you are in a booth by yourself, you have a script and you do several different versions of a line and they pick what they want.”
Twenty-five years after Belle first graced the movie screen O'Hara is still living the enchanted life these days. If not recording a line of dialogue for a theme park attraction or singing a song for a princess DVD, O'Hara is also thriving in her career as an artist. Painting since the age of three, first with water colors and then with oils, O'Hara started selling her work on the street corners of New York City and cleaning apartments to pay the rent while auditioning for roles on Broadway.
Following the success of Beauty and the Beast, she started painting her alter ego, Belle. It was an autograph signing event where her husband suggested that she take one of her paintings and sell it.
As it turned out, an executive from Disney Fine Art was at the signing and witnessed how quickly the painting sold and how much it sold for and he said the two needed to talk. That caused her to put brush to canvas and offered up some elite paintings of Belle at DisneyFineArt.com. While she is allowed to “change it up a bit from the film,” O'Hara still needs to get approval from Disney before the item is finalized adding that she gets “great joy to do that.”
Named a Disney Legend in 2011, O'Hara has been on a whirlwind tour over the past couple of months celebrating the 25th anniversary Blu-Ray-DVD-Digital HD release of Beauty and the Beast, with appearances at special event, D23 screenings and doing countless press interviews. She was equally excited to see the film once again on the big screen at Lincoln Center, where Disney first screen the unfinished version of the film. The magical evening was topped off with Angela Lansbury singing the title song of the movie live accompanied by Alan Menken on piano.
O'Hara loves spending time with fans of the movie and hear how the film has impacted them and how parents and grandparents are passing the tradition of Disney animation onto their children and in some cases grandchildren. The singer-actress-painter is just as excited about the next chapter for Belle, the Beast and the enchanted objects in the live-action version of the film which arrives in theaters early next spring.
Despite her extensive singing and acting career as well as her lucrative art hobby, O'Hara says Belle is truly the highlight of her life. “You dream of these things. I have been an animation freak forever, my whole life. It's an ongoing job.”