5 Brilliant And Talented Women Who Inspired Disney’s Cruelest Villains
What do 3 old women, a drag queen and a Hollywood hell-raiser have in common? They all became Disney villains.
Once upon a time, fairy tale characters lived in people’s imaginations.
Writers like Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers’ Grimm wrote fairy tale books, and readers imagined the characters in our heads.
We sort of knew what Snow White looked like. Hair black as ebony, skin white as snow. But the villains? We were free to imagine those.
Until Disney came along and put faces to the characters.
Walt Disney didn’t create the characters in all those Disney movies at all.
Most were inspired by real people. Sometimes, they were voice actors or live action models, hired to act out the parts while animators sketched them.
Other times, they were randomly chosen people who inspired a character and were never asked for permission or given credit until after the fact, if at all.
Here are 5 real life women who inspired Disney’s biggest villains.
1. Lucille La Verne
Characters: The Evil Queen and the witch in Snow White
Lucille La Verne was 65 years old when she landed the role as the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
It was a huge, huge win for a woman at the end of her career. Snow White was Disney’s very first feature-length animated movie and her voice would open the movie with the infamous magic mirror scene.
They said she was an incredible actor. She had the perfect mix of haughty and cruel and brought the part to life.
She would. She’d been on stage since childhood. At 14 she was playing leading roles and by 23 she’d formed her own stage troupe and had performed for King George V of England.
The crazy way she ended up with 2 roles…
La Verne had only been hired to play the evil Queen. But Disney was stuck. They couldn’t find someone to voice the witch.
No one sounded “witchy” enough.
So she took out her false teeth and made an audition tape. When Walt Disney himself listened to it, he said stop looking — that’s her.
She was also Disney’s first live action model…
Animators had been working on sketches while they recorded the audio. Disney gave her a cape and microphone. When she started recording her parts, they brought in the animators to capture her in sketches.
Everything you see in the movie; facial expressions, the way she moved her eyebrows, hands, arms and body — it’s all Lucille La Verne.
Later, they said she didn’t just voice the characters.
The characters were her.
“When she went into the Witch with the maniacal laugh; it rang over the soundstage. It was blood curdling.” — Bill Cottrell, Disney
2. Eleanor Audley
Characters: Lady Tremaine (Cinderella) & Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)
After making Snow White, Disney realized the power of animating an actual human performance.
So when they hired Eleanor Audley to play Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, they didn’t just hire her as a voice actor. They hired her as a live action model.
Nine years later, when Disney was about to make Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney didn’t even hold auditions for Maleficent. He told his staff he wanted Audley back to play the part.
When they offered her the role, she had to say no because she had tuberculosis. Disney waited until she was well and asked again.
And that’s how we have the Maleficent we know and love. She wasn’t Walt Disney’s creation, but Eleanor Audley’s.
“The whole studio loved Eleanor Audley... They couldn’t have found anybody better. She had authority, there’s a command in her voice, sarcasm… there are so many qualities that are in her voice.” — Andreas Deja, Disney
3. Verna Felton
Character: The Queen of Hearts, Alice in Wonderland
Verna Felton had been performing since she was nine, when her Daddy died and left her Mother with no income. She sang in roadshows, did radio shows and even had a couple of uncredited bit parts in movies.
She was largely unknown most of her life. Until she was over 50. Her husband was working for Disney as the voice of Pluto when he heard about a casting call for a movie called Dumbo. He suggested his wife. She got the role of Mrs. Jumbo, which led to the role of Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.
Her voice was so warm, so grandmotherly they loved her. And when she sang Bippity Boppity Boo, she became a favorite voice at Disney.
So when they decided to try again with Alice in Wonderland, they called her. They’d started once before. Before the war. But it didn’t come together. They didn’t find the right voices to make it work. 20 years later, postwar, they decided to try again. And they called Verna to play the Red Queen.
After that, most of her career was Disney. She was the voice and inspiration for six more parts. Her last Disney film was The Jungle Book. She had a stroke after recording and never got to see the movie released.
“In the 2019 remake of Dumbo, there is an employee who works for Vandevere Enterprises named “Miss Verna. ” A last Disney tribute to Felton. “— Disney Fandom
4. Tallulah Bankhead
Character: Cruella De Vil
When the book The Hundred and One Dalmatians came out in 1956, Walt Disney scooped the film rights instantly. The question was, what woman could inspire the animation of a character so awful that she murders puppies?
Marc Davis, the head of animation at Disney, had to create Cruella from scratch, so he started looking at Hollywood “bad” girls. Hollywood hellraiser Tallulah Bankhead was at the top of his list.
Davis watched all the footage he could get of Bankhead from silent films and Hollywood movies to create the character in Bankhead’s image.
Both are skeletally thin, wildly rich, and constantly chain-smoking. Cruella recklessly speeds around town in her loud car the same way Bankhead catapulted her Bentley around London.
The bitter irony is that they never credited her. They hired an unknown voice actress with a similarly raspy voice and didn’t invite either of them to the opening of the movie.
“If Bankhead resented the depiction, she very didn’t say anything about it, at least publicly.” — Tatler
Character: Ursula in The Little Mermaid
It all started with Howard Ashman. You don’t know him, but you know his music. He wrote the songs for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and The Beast. Many while battling AIDS as an openly gay man in a time when the world was openly hostile to gay men.
Disney was in the early stages of making The Little Mermaid, a movie they were adapting from the Hans Christian Andersen original.
But they couldn’t get Ursula right.
Animators created several versions. One was a manta ray inspired by Joan Collins. Another was a beautiful but deadly scorpion fish. They kept sketching, but they just didn’t like any of them.
Rob Minkoff, one of the animators was working on sketches when he heard that Ashman was coming to visit. So he made a sketch inspired by the drag queen Divine, and stuck it on the board with the others.
Divine had shot to fame in the movie Hairspray. Ashman loved the sketch. Zeroed in on it and said that’s the one. So they went with it.
Divine never even knew. Never got to see the character.
Divine died of a heart attack three weeks after Hairspray hit the theatres. Later, the documentarian who wrote Divine’s biography said if she’d known, she’d have wanted to play the part herself.
“Had he [Divine] known about Ursula, “he would have wanted to play the part himself” — Jeffrey Schwarz, documentarian
References and more reading:
— The Remarkable Career of Disney’s First Villain
— Disney Legends, Eleanor Audley
— Remembering Iconic Disney Voice Actress Verna Felton
— How Tallulah Bankhead became the inspiration for Cruella de Vil
— How Ursula went from a Joan Collins lookalike to a drag queen