‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Its Unprecedented Oscar Run in 1992: “It Was a Giant Moment for Everyone”
Thirty years after the Disney musical became the first animated film to land a best picture nomination, dozens connected with it — including studio honchos Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, campaign strategist Terry Press and animators and voice actors — reflect on making Hollywood history.
Thirty years ago, an animated film — Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — was nominated for the best picture Oscar for the first time. The same studio had, of course, previously made animated classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (for which Walt Disney was presented with an honorary Oscar, along with seven smaller ones), Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Cinderella, but none of them were ever recognized by the Academy in its top category, nor were any films subsequently released in the era of five best picture slots, not even Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid or Toy Story. (Up and Toy Story 3 made it in after the category was expanded.) So what set Beauty and the Beast apart? On the occasion of this milestone anniversary, The Hollywood Reporter tracked down dozens of people who were involved with the film — from executives to animators to voice actors to PR and marketing specialists — to tell the story, for the first time, of how they made Oscar history and, in so doing, prompted the Academy to create the best animated feature Oscar category.
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The New Regime
Entering the 1980s, Disney’s animation division was at a low point.
MARK HENN, Disney animator (B&B’s “Belle”) The studio was kind of in search of itself, with the combination of the original generation of artists who grew up with Walt retiring and passing away, and a new generation trying to find its way.
DON HAHN, Disney producer (B&B) The studio couldn’t hang on to people like Tim Burton and John Lasseter because the projects and the creative leadership weren’t exciting.
Then, in 1984, Roy E. Disney, son of one of the studio’s co-founders, Roy O. Disney, and nephew of the other, Walt Disney (who had died in 1966), recruited Paramount executive Michael Eisner to come run the House of Mouse. Eisner, in turn, brought over Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg to work under him.
JEFFREY KATZENBERG, Walt Disney Studios chairman The decision of Eisner and I to go to Disney was about the opportunity to pick the thing up off the curb. That’s what was exciting about it. It still had a global brand, but it had lost its relevance and value. The idea of being able to restart that was exciting.
MICHAEL EISNER, Walt Disney Company chairman/CEO I had experience running children’s programming — Saturday morning animation — at ABC, so I knew what animation was about.
BOB LEVIN, Disney worldwide marketing president Michael and Jeffrey were live action television and movie guys. They had done a little bit of animation, but not much. They looked at the company, and looked at where costs were and losses were, and they were going to get out of the animation business. But Roy Disney Jr. said, “That isn’t going to happen.” They couldn’t say no to Roy because the only reason they were there was Roy.
KATZENBERG On my first day of work, at the end of a meeting, I got up to leave Michael’s office — which was Walt’s old office — and I was at the door when he said, “Hey, one last thing before you leave, Jeffrey.” I turned around and said, “What’s that?” He said, “Come over here.” He takes me over to the corner of his office, looks down across the lot, points to a building and says, “See that building there?” “Yes.” “Do you know what they do there?” “No, I have no idea.” “That’s where they make the animated movies.” “Well, that’s nice.” And he said, “That’s your problem.” That was my introduction to animation.
PETER SCHNEIDER, Disney Animation president Jeffrey was driven to make animation successful because it could be his.
TERRY PRESS, Disney vp publicity There was no place to go but up.
LEVIN I remember having a couple of conversations with him about what his interest in animation was. He said, “This is a playground like no other. I can do anything I want here.”
CHRISTINE LA MONTE, Disney director of East Coast publicity You know Jeffrey’s nickname was “The Golden Retriever”? He was like a dog with a bone. He would go after things, learn them and absorb them. He was a really brilliant guy and once he took this on, he was not going to let it go.
DICK COOK, Disney distribution president Getting the inspired leadership of Michael and Frank and Jeffrey added the ingredient that we needed to move forward.
HAHN They introduced scripts — we hadn’t been working off of scripts at all, we were just storyboarding. They introduced a lot of discipline into our process that hadn’t existed, or had atrophied away.
Eisner did not endear himself to Disney’s animators when he ordered them to vacate the historic animation building on the studio lot in Burbank.
EISNER Probably incorrectly, we moved the animation company out of the animation building to open it up for live-action producers.
PRESS The animators were put in horrible industrial buildings in Glendale, five miles down the road, in cinder-block housing on Flower Street.
HENN The building was halfway remodeled. It was wintertime, and I remember for a period of time having to sit in my office and wear my coat because we didn’t have any heat yet in the building.
But things started to turn around with The Little Mermaid, for which lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (who had been introduced by Maury Yeston and had recently teamed up on Little Shop of Horrors, which had become off-Broadway’s top-grossing musical ever to that point) were recruited to Disney.
ALAN MENKEN, composer-songwriter (B&B) David Geffen was the common denominator between our work on Little Shop and Disney. David was obviously very connected to and close with Jeffrey.
KATZENBERG David had been a mentor and older brother all of my career, and he said to me, “Jeffrey, go see this play in New York.” David never asks you to do anything, he tells you to do things. He goes, “Fly to New York and meet this guy. I’m telling you, he is unique.” And David highly underestimated how valuable and unique he was. If animation in my era has a guardian angel, his name is Howard Ashman.
MENKEN Having characters break into song and having songs move story forward is a particular skill and experience that we had. And also, our tone and style was contemporary and cutting-edge.
GARY TROUSDALE, Disney animator (B&B co-director) The Little Mermaid was the classic fairy tale thing that Disney had been doing for decades, but with new energy to it.
PRESS There really is no Beauty and the Beast without Little Mermaid. The idea of a heroine with her own mind, “I’m going to get what I want, and hang out with these cute characters, and we’re going to sing, and some bad stuff is going to happen, but in the end I’m smart, so I’m going to figure this out” — they are of a thing.
Upon its release in 1989, The Little Mermaid became the most commercially successful animated film in Disney’s history, and in 1990 Ashman and Menken shared a best song Oscar for the film’s “Under the Sea.” Menken also won for its score. But by Oscar night, it was clear that Ashman was ill.
MENKEN Howard was clearly not well, but he had given other explanations as to what was going on. Then, on Oscar night, at the Governors Ball, he said, “We have to talk when we get back to New York.” Two days later he told me, “I’m sick. I’m HIV positive. I have AIDS.” I thought to myself, “How did I not simply know it?”
SARAH GILLESPIE, Ashman’s sister Howard was afraid of Alan’s reaction. They were great partners, but Alan had young children. Of course, Alan and Disney stood up and were great supports, but Howard didn’t know at that time that they would be.
MENKEN AIDS was a death sentence, physically. It was also kind of a career death sentence. He didn’t want people to know. He maintained that as long as he possibly could.
BILL LAUCH, Ashman’s partner I’m sure you can imagine that working at the biggest creator of family entertainment in the world, and being a gay man with AIDS, was not your natural mix, especially then. There was an awful lot of apprehension about people who were HIV positive and what that meant about them as people. It was kind of a self-preservation thing. Howard didn’t want to lose his job. Plus, your health insurance could be denied.
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Making Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast would become Disney’s 30th animated feature.
TROUSDALE The story is that Walt Disney tried to do Beauty and the Beast back in the ’50s, and they kicked around the story but couldn’t make it work, so they shelved it. It had been somewhere in the studio attic for a long time.
SCHNEIDER We hired Richard Purdum to do Beauty and the Beast and sent Don Hahn with him to London. When they came back a few months later and showed us the first 20 minutes, we realized we had a problem.
KIRK WISE, Disney animator (B&B co-director) I think they felt was it was very slow and boring and not fun. It wasn’t even a musical at that point.
LAUCH This was on the heels of a huge success with Little Mermaid. The Disney people were looking at that and said, “Why aren’t we doing more of that?”
The fairy tale was reimagined as a musical.
SCHNEIDER Jeffrey, who had a house on the beach in Malibu, every year would do an evening party on the beach, and us little animator types were invited to go to and mingle with Tom Cruise and all the other people that Jeffrey was wooing. Here we are on the beach at this beautiful home with catering and superstars, and Howard is there, and Jeffrey buttonholes him — this is before he knew he was sick — and says, “You’ve got to put Aladdin [on which Ashman and Menken were already working, and which would be released in 1992] on hold and do Beauty and the Beast.” And Howard said, “OK.”
LAUCH For Howard, it was kind of a jolt to his system. It gave him something positive to look forward to and something to engage in. You could say it was a distraction, but I think having a purpose in life sustains life.
Trousdale and Wise, two animators whose only prior directorial experience was overseeing a short film for Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center called Cranium Command, were assigned to co-helm the film.
TROUSDALE My guilty confession is I don’t really like musicals.
WISE Howard had this extremely deep love for and instinctive understanding of animation. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever worked with who came from outside of animation and just got it 100 percent. He gave us so many opportunities for physical comedy and visual humor via songs.
TROUSDALE Kirk and I were in New York casting Broadway people. They were coming in and singing and reading for us, but it was Howard and Alan who had personal relationships with these people.
KATZENBERG I kept trying to get Howard to come to L.A. — I was trying to bring Moses to the mountain, because the mountain is here — but it was getting harder and harder with the excuses. Finally, he took me into his confidence and said, “I’m going to tell you what’s going on, but I’m doing it on the condition that you cannot tell anybody.” After that, I kept sending people to New York, and everybody kept asking, “Why are 20 people going to New York to meet with one person?” I would say, “Oh, you know, Alan’s there, and Howard’s better when he’s in his own place, and he’s an artist, and …” Everything but the truth.
MENKEN We did our work at the Residence Inn off Route 9 in Fishkill, New York. Howard was really weak and lost a lot of weight. The neuropathies were beginning to kick in, so he was also losing his voice and eyesight. It was completely unreal.
HAHN Alan was like a short-order cook. Howard would say, “Give me something that’s really fast in the key of G! No, no, no, not that fast! OK, a little slower, and more like a tango.” And Alan could just serve up anything.
WISE It was literally Alan sitting at a rented electric piano in a conference room in a motel and Howard doing the vocals. I remember they sang “Beauty and the Beast,” the ballad that Mrs. Potts sings in the movie, and just getting goosebumps.
HAHN Here’s a man on his death bed writing some of the most joyful musical theater songs in the American songbook.
Meanwhile, Disney’s animators were putting the music to images, and voice actors — including Broadway legends Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach — were providing vocals.
PAIGE O’HARA, actor (B&B voice of “Belle”) Robby [Benson] and I would record our lines standing right next to each other. They don’t usually allow that because it’s technically more complicated and more expensive. It takes more time. But the outcome was certainly worth the time, as they all admitted later. The relationship between Belle and Beast was so much more poignant.
ROBBY BENSON, actor (B&B voice of “Beast”) We played it as if we were shooting a feature. Even though it was an animated feature, these characters were very real to us. I know how actor-y and silly that might sound, but we wanted to bring these characters to life.
TROUSDALE About halfway or so through, our art director, Brian McEntee, came in and said, “You guys are going to make $100 million on this movie.” Kirk and I looked at him like, “What’s he been smoking?” There’d been no animated film that made that kind of money. Little Mermaid made $84 million, and that was considered an over the moon success.
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Work in Progress
As Beauty and the Beast was coming together, Disney’s PR and marketing pros began to strategize about how to create excitement for the film and help people to better appreciate the artistry of animation.
HAHN We did these presentations where we would talk about animation and about Beauty and give a teaser about Aladdin.
PRESS Mark Henn would be down in front with a marker and he would draw Belle on one of those pads where you just turn the paper over. He would talk about her characteristics, and while he was talking, literally, he would draw her.
HAHN We did one in March that got an amazing response from a really A-list group of press in New York. And then afterward, we got into a couple of cars — Jeffrey, David Geffen, Peter Schneider and myself — and went to the hospital to tell Howard. He was there with his mom and with Jodi Benson, who had done Ariel’s voice for Mermaid, and it was just really bittersweet. He had lost his voice, he had lost his sight, but he still had this big heart and passion for hearing about what the press thought of the movie.
LAUCH They had come from the presentation, and they knew that they really had hit the mark. The reaction was so positive. And they told Howard how great it was and how great it was going to be. Don said, “Who’d have thunk it?” And Howard said, “I would’ve!”
GILLESPIE He was wearing a Beauty and the Beast sweatshirt. Howard was not the kind of man to wear logo sweatshirts even for a movie that he loved and was part of. My mother put that thing on him.
HAHN So we each, in our own way, told him what was going on. And then one by one, in our own way, we said our goodbyes, because it was pretty obvious he was slipping away. Within a few days, he was gone.
LAUCH I know he saw rough pencil sketches and partial animation sequences as they were finished and sent to New York on tape. There were lots of storyboards copied and sent in binders. But he never saw a fully edited film.
Ashman died on March 14, 1991. In April, trailers of the still-unfinished film were featured on VHS cassettes of other Disney films. But Disney’s PR and marketing pros were beginning to think even bigger.
PRESS The question was, “How do you move people from thinking about them as ‘cartoons’? That they’re just for children?” I used to have long conversations about this with the genius who I worked for at the time, Gary Kalkin.
HENN It’s funny because Walt Disney himself used to always use the term “cartoons.” At that point in time, it was not a bad thing. But the idea of a cartoon became, “Oh, it’s just something you take the kids to see.”
HOWARD GREEN, Disney vp communications Gary Kalkin is a guy who doesn’t get nearly enough credit. He was an outside-the-box thinker who really sought to elevate the art of animation.
LEVIN Gary was really special. He really understood the idea of messaging.
PRESS He was a marketing guy. Jeffrey had hired him. I’m pretty sure he was at Paramount. And he was my mentor.
LA MONTE Terry was Gary’s protégé, and very close to Bob Levin, as well. She had some good teachers.
CHIP SULLIVAN, Disney events contractor Gary was brilliant. He and Terry were so close.
PRESS We decided that people did not understand what went into an animated movie. They had no clue about the level of physical work and that it took four or five years. So we decided that in order to elevate it, you had to show people that it was art.
COOK Gary and I used to talk all the time. He came in one day and said, “Can I ask you a question? What would you think if we took Beauty and the Beast to the New York Film Festival?” Woah.
KATZENBERG I give all the credit to Gary and Terry. Their strategy was to show it as a “work in progress.”
WISE A complete movie, but it would alternate between storyboards and rough animation and cleaned up animation and color.
KATZENBERG I thought it was a stroke of genius on their part. They had unbelievable conviction and confidence about it. They understood the cachet of it. It’s hard for people today to understand how, 30 years ago, the heart of the media was in New York. That was ground zero.
DAN SCHEFFEY, Disney director of East Coast publicity/marketing New York was still so important. The three networks, Time, Newsweek and Premiere were all in New York. And of course The New York Times was in New York.
HAHN It was a very premeditated attempt to educate the audience on the art of animation. And I think awards were somewhat part of the equation.
TROUSDALE Kirk and I were not happy with this idea originally. It felt like the magician showing the trick.
RICHARD PEÑA, New York Film Festival selection committee chair/Film Society of Lincoln Center program director I’d always said that we were open to anything, so I said, “Let’s look at it.” I have to say that there were a couple of people on my committee who were a little doubtful. It was like, “What?!” It was only my fourth year as the director and people were still taking my measure. It was like, “What is this guy doing?!”
SCHEFFEY I took the idea to Wendy Keys, who was on the selection committee. The print was shipped in. I went to one of the old Magno screening rooms to see Wendy where they were showing it. And later she called me and said, “Yes, we want to do it!”
PEÑA We were all so charmed. It was really a way of almost providing an X-ray of the film for our audience.
Disney was actually further along with Beauty and the Beast than the work-in-progress print indicated, but saw value in showing a rougher version.
PRESS I remember Peter Schneider and I going through and deciding what would be black-and-white and what would be color. The scene with the rose, I’m like, “OK, that’s going to be in color.”
WISE We actually did replace some finished animation with storyboards and rough animation just to get the audience a better insight into the process.
PEÑA We knew that what we were getting was not off the editor’s bench. I mean, we basically showed what we saw in early August.
The film screened twice at Lincoln Center, on Sept. 29 and Oct. 2. Most of the key players associated with the film were in attendance for the first screening.
LEVIN If it had bellyflopped, a lot of us would have had a lot of explaining to do.
O’HARA We were all nervous wrecks. I thought Don Hahn was going to have a heart attack.
HAHN We went to Alice Tully Hall covered in flop sweat, thinking, “What the hell are we doing?!” I got up and said, “OK everybody, here’s what you’re going to see,” and kind of explained the process.
SCHEFFEY People knew what they would be seeing, but they didn’t know what they would be seeing until they saw that thing literally explode onscreen.
O’HARA After the opening number, the “Belle” number, the audience burst into applause.
TROUSDALE Kirk and I were like, “Wow, OK. Maybe there’s something here.”
WISE Then every single musical number got applause as though the audience were at a Broadway show.
PEÑA I remember there were people standing at the end of the “Be Our Guest” number.
WISE And you could hear gasps in the theater when we did that massive crane shot from the chandelier down to the two of them dancing, and Belle and Beast sweep past the camera. Nobody had seen anything like it before, that marriage of hand-drawn animation and a three-dimensional background.
PRESS Let’s face it, OK? It’s the Upper West Side. They go to theater. It was the perfect melding of audience and material.
HAHN I went with Kirk and Gary up to an opera box on the side of the theater where Roy was. Roy was kind of our godfather and we loved hanging out with him. Eventually, Jeffrey showed up. And when the movie was over, everybody stood up and started applauding. Then a spotlight came over on all of us, and everybody turned and applauded. It was like being Eva Perón or something.
TROUSDALE We were just floored.
WISE The standing ovation lasted for five minutes.
HAHN That was kind of the beginning of this long run of getting ready for an Oscar nomination.
WENDY KEYS, New York Film Festival selection committee It was a great night. I’ll never forget it. We showed a lot of films over many years, but this one remains very strong in my memory. There were people roaring and crying during that screening. Seeing that process gave you more respect for how these films were made.
PRESS Elevating it to “art” through the festival is what made people think it was OK to nominate it for best picture.
PEÑA Mr. Katzenberg was really, really pleased. I just remember him beaming.
Sure enough, the screening received glowing coverage …
PRESS The trades had New York offices, so everybody covered it.
PENA Janet Maslin wrote a terrific review in The New York Times. The line that sicks with me was she said that showing the film in the festival was “a masterstroke for all concerned.”
Now it was clear that Beauty and the Beast could play well with adults if they could be convinced to give it a chance. Appealing to them became priority No. 1.
COOK Jeffrey was not only fearless but maniacal about marketing the film to adults. The kids would come. So every television spot and every piece of material was about, “How sophisticated can we make it?”
PRESS The poster of them dancing [accompanied by the text “The most beautiful love story ever told”] looked like an adult poster. It did not look like, say, The Jungle Book. You could have substituted live-action people in that poster and felt exactly the same thing, romanticism. And in fact, years later, when they made the live-action version, that’s basically what they did.
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The finished film ends with a tribute to Ashman: “He gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.”
KATZENBERG We all wanted to do something for Howard on the end of it. And when they came in and said, “This is what we want to do,” it made me cry.
MENKEN The first time I saw the dedication at the end, it was extremely emotional.
LAUCH We didn’t know anything was coming. I think we all broke down and cried at that point. It was awfully sweet and dear, and meant a lot to us, and still does.
GILLESPIE I didn’t know it was coming — I’m going to cry now. It floored me. It was the sweetest thing those people could ever have done. I will always treasure that they did that.
Meanwhile, the dislocated animators received a thank you, too …
KATZENBERG On the night of the premiere of the movie for the team, Eisner announced that we were building a new building for them.
EISNER We built an animation building — a Robert Stern building, specifically for animation.
HENN Eventually we ended up just across the street from the studio on property that was originally looked at for Disneyland.
PRESS No more shitty industrial housing in Glendale. It was like The Jeffersons: “Movin’ on up!”
The film screened for L.A.-area Academy members Nov. 1; had its Hollywood premiere Nov. 10; went into limited release in New York and L.A. that same week; and then opened nationwide Nov. 22., ultimately grossing $146 million domestically and $249 million worldwide, far surpassing The Little Mermaid on both counts, and further fueling Disney’s Oscar hopes.
EISNER It was much bigger than we thought it ever would be.
COOK This was uncharted territory. The makeup of the audience was everyone. We were getting couples without kids. Our evening shows were all filled. It was just something that we had not seen or experienced before.
Meanwhile, critics were raving. Time’s Richard Corliss opined, “Its animators’ pens are wands; their movement enchants … The voluptuousness of visual detail offers proof, if any more were needed after The Little Mermaid, that the Disney studio has relocated the pure magic of the Pinocchio–Dumbo years.” The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert wrote that it was “as good as any Disney animated feature ever made.” And the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel called it “an instant classic.”
PRESS When the reviews came out, I remember saying, “We can do this. This can happen.” Because the reviews were extraordinary. So it was like, “Let’s just go right in people’s faces and say, ‘This is one of the best pictures of the year. Are you going to fault it because it’s drawn, not shot?’”
Disney had only ever received two best picture Oscar noms, both for live-action films: Mary Poppins (1964) and Dead Poets Society (1989).
PRESS They had a “We don’t get nominated, people hate us” mentality.
EISNER At one of our lunches, the marketing department said, “Hey, let’s put it up as the best picture.”
COOK Jeffrey was just fearless and said, “Let’s do it. This movie has got everything that you would want in that.”
Screeners were in their infancy; many voters were excited when a Beauty and the Beast VHS cassette arrived in their mailboxes, but were disappointed to discover it was only a 10-minute promo reel …
PRESS We wanted people to see the movie in theaters.
Before the Oscars, there was the Golden Globes …
LEVIN Every studio had a Golden Globes “handler” in the publicity department because of what the Golden Globes was and eventually got found out to be decades later.
ARLENE LUDWIG, Disney West Coast publicity director Bob Levin was our marketing head at the time, and Bob had said he wanted a Golden Globe nomination. I thought, “Are you kidding?” Howard Green was a great teammate when it came to helping with the letters to the HFPA members. He’s a wonderful writer and wrote a beautiful letter reminding them that this is not just an animated feature.
Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film ever to win a Golden Globe for best picture, and also won score and song Globes.
LEVIN That win at the Golden Globes had a lot to do with Oscar voters waking up to the idea that Beauty and the Beast was not “just” an animated movie, but something special.
The Golden Globes further cemented Disney’s conviction about the Oscars.
PRESS If you’re going to treat it like it’s art, you have to walk the walk, which meant doing what live-action movies did, including screenings for guilds and Q&As.
O’HARA Angela made it really clear that she did not want to sing “Beauty and the Beast” on any talk show. She suggested that I sing it, so I ended up going on the morning shows with Alan. We did a press tour to promote the film. Michael Eisner was totally on board with spending the time and money to get it out there.
TROUSDALE We did do some interviews. We were aware that there was a push by the studio to get the movie into consideration. There had been full-page ads in the Reporter and other trades. There were billboards and things, which you only saw for live-action stuff. So we knew we were out there and there was some buzz.
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Oscar Nominations Morning
On Feb. 19, 1992, at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters, Academy president Karl Malden and actress Kathleen Turner announced the year’s Oscar nominations, which had been chosen by the Academy’s 4,985 members.
LUDWIG If I remember correctly, I was the only one from Disney who was actually there. I’ll never forget when they announced it. They do it alphabetically, so I think it was the first nominee, and I let out a shriek — I got such a thrill that sort of went through me. There was a wonderful response from the rest of the crowd, too [which cheered].
HAHN I got up to hear the nominations and made a cup of coffee. I was sitting there in my underwear and heard “Beauty and the Beast” and threw my coffee up in the air and screamed. Then the phone rang and it was Michael: “Don, I just wanted to say congratulations.” I hung up and the phone rang again, and it was Jeffrey: “Don, this is a proud moment for all of us, you did it.” Then I hung up and it rang again, and it was Roy Disney.
COOK I heard it on the radio that morning. It was a giant moment for everyone.
WISE I pulled a Tom Cruise — I was in my underwear and jumped up on the couch and whooped loudly.
TROUSDALE On the way to work, I stopped at a liquor store and picked up a couple of bottles of champagne and some orange juice for mimosas. I got to work and they were way ahead of me. The secretary’s desk was a bar at that point.
BRENDA CHAPMAN, Disney animator (B&B key story artist) We were all in the hallways around Don Hahn’s office just sort of staring at each other like, “Oh. My. God.”
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Prior to Oscar night, and even during it, some prominent actors demeaned Beauty and the Beast. For example, Sally Field, who was asked to introduce the film as a best picture nominee on Oscar night, did so by noting that there were “no actors onscreen” and cracking, “We members of the Screen Actors Guild hope this doesn’t become a trend.”
CHAPMAN The animators are actors. Not only do they have to act, they have to draw that acting. And it was just really hard to hear some of the belittling comments that were coming from people we thought were our peers.
O’HARA The wise Angela Lansbury said, “Don’t listen to any of that. We know how wonderful this movie is.”
CHAPMAN I remember Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli saying some snarky stuff.
WISE There were a couple of snide remarks that Ms. Field made and Shirley MacLaine made. Something to the effect of “real actors” versus “animated actors.” I thought it was kind of a cheap shot. Interestingly enough, a year later, I ended up directing Sally as a voice in a movie that I was a producer on, a live-action film called Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. She played Sassy the cat. I never brought it up.
PRESS I just remember thinking, “This is someone who’s afraid.” Like, she feels she has to diminish this?
TROUSDALE On Oscar night, walking out afterwards, I bumped into Jesse Corti, who was the voice of LeFou, and he was just furious, swearing up and down a blue streak. “Who the fuck do they think Angela Lansbury is?!”
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Heading in to the Oscars, the buzz for Beauty and the Beast was strong. Even Clint Eastwood said he voted for the film.
HAHN We thought we had a chance. Terry called me up and said, “Jeffrey’s going to sit next to you.” I said, “OK, that’s fine.” And she said, “And he wants to go up if you win the award.” There was a big argument — not with me, but with the Academy — about Jeffrey going up. That’s a whole other story.
SCHENIDER Jeffrey had prohibited me from going up onstage if we won, and that really pissed me off. Jeffrey sort of told everybody that they couldn’t, that it would be him and Don.
HAHN The funniest thing is Michael called me up before the ceremony and said, “Don, if you win, knock on wood, if you could just say, ‘I’m going to Disneyland!’ that would be fantastic. I said, “Michael, I can’t do that.” He said, “No, no, listen, we’ll give a little donation to the charity of your choice.” (Laughs.) That’s actually something I haven’t told anybody.
TROUSDALE The studio was actually not going to give Kirk and myself tickets. Don put his foot down and said, “If the guys aren’t going, I’m not going either.” So they coughed up some tickets for us.
LA MONTE, now overseeing the Oscar campaign for The Silence of the Lambs as president of Orion, which had gone bankrupt I remember being in a meeting that morning on bankruptcy, going home, getting dressed and going to the Oscars.
Many of the Disney animators donned tuxedos and gathered at the old Hollywood Palace club, which had been rented for the night and outfitted with big screen TVs for a viewing party …
CHAPMAN I just remember being in a big room with all of my co-workers, watching the show and drinking a lot.
SULLIVAN It was so fun. Oh my God. I was just thrilled to be a spectator, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t until I was in a room with the entire production team watching the Oscars that I realized the sheer number of incredibly talented people required to create this masterpiece.
Meanwhile, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, host Billy Crystal was wheeled out onstage, bound to a chair and wearing a mask like Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter. Beauty and the Beast was also well represented on the show, with musical performances of its three nominated songs.
WISE I remember seeing James Cameron in the bathroom. That was exciting.
Ashman and Menken won best song for “Beauty and the Beast” with Ashman’s mother, sister and partner in the audience. On a night when Crystal and many others were wearing AIDS ribbons, Ashman’s partner noted from the stage that Ashman’s was “the first Academy Award given to someone we’ve lost to AIDS.”
LAUCH When it became clear that there was probably going to need to be someone to accept for him at the Oscars, I thought this could be an opportunity to maybe open some doors. Me accepting, as his surviving partner, is different than a mother or sister. It makes a different kind of statement, and I thought, “Howard would probably like that.”
GILLESPIE It was really only years later that I realized what a big deal it was for the gay community.
MENKEN It was a combination of exhilaration and devastation at the same time.
GILLESPIE I was stunned and excited and all those things you are from an Oscar — and also, honestly, bitter and angry, because he should have been there.
LAUCH At the hotel the next day, after I went for a swim at the pool, the elevator’s doors opened and there was Elton John. I brazenly got on the elevator and he turned to me and said, “You did a very beautiful job last night.”
The film won three Oscars — song, score and sound — but was toppled in the best picture race by The Silence of the Lambs, which remains one of only three films ever to sweep the top five awards.
TROUSDALE We were sitting right behind a mountain of cameras and monitors, and we had no direct view of the stage. We were there, but we had to watch it on TV. I was sitting next to Peter Schneider, who leaned over at one point, after all the “minor” awards were going to Silence of the Lambs, and said, “We can probably leave now.”
HAHN It was Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor who announced best picture. Just to have them say [when they read the nominations], “Produced by Don Hahn”? I’m this kid from the San Gabriel Valley who drew cartoons in his notebook. I thought, “I’ll just die right now.”
LUDWIG My feeling is that had it not been for Silence of the Lambs, Beauty and the Beast could have won.
TROUSDALE I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t win. In some respects, I felt like maybe we still had a better movie in us at some point.
PRESS We had won the Bank of America Award [meaning financial success].
After the show ended, the evening continued …
TROUSDALE I remember going to the Governors Ball for a few minutes. I actually got to meet George Lucas there. We left not too long after that.
WISE We went to the Palace and celebrated with our own group for a while.
HAHN We took all the Oscars that Alan and Howard had won and went over there and gave a big hug and thank you to the crew, because animation is such a team sport. Here’s a group of animators who had probably never seen an Oscar in person before. And to hold it in your hand and take a picture with your Instamatic camera or whatever we had back then was a huge treat.
LA MONTE The Oscars were March 30th. I think my last day was May 1st.
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Beauty and the Beast, on the heels of The Little Mermaid, helped to usher in a new golden age of animation at Disney and changed the Oscar game forever.
EISNER I know it’s 30 years ago. It feels like 30 minutes ago.
PRESS There was a sort of innocence about it, right? The movie was great, it made a lot of money and it was at the Academy Awards. You weren’t really spending the kind of money that you spend now. It had not yet become a cottage industry. There were not bloggers. There was not the full-on machinery that goes into this. It was sort of like, “Yeah, we’ll take some ads, we’ll do some screenings and people will love it.” It was not a military operation. Eight years later [after Press’ Saving Private Ryan campaign came up against Miramax’s campaign for Shakespeare in Love in a particularly ugly contest], I was cynical and jaded and aware that this process had turned into its own beast.
COOK The world of animation clearly changed. It became more competitive.
In 1994, on the heels of the giant success of The Lion King, Katzenberg left Disney, under acrimonious circumstances, and co-founded DreamWorks, ultimately overseeing its animation division. When the Academy introduced a best animated feature Oscar 10 years after the season of Beauty and the Beast, its first winner was DreamWorks’ Shrek, thanks in no small part to a campaign waged by Press, who had reunited with Katzenberg.
LEVIN Jeffrey was a very demanding boss. The clock meant nothing to him, the day of the week meant nothing to him. He only wanted you to work to the last possible minute to get whatever we were working on to as positive a state as we could.
HAHN Having Jeffrey leave the studio was a mixed blessing. He had a very public falling out with Michael and Roy and everybody else — that’s pretty well documented — but he was a great executive and he pushed us really hard at a time when we needed pushing. By the same token, his leaving and starting DreamWorks, and taking a chunk of our staff down the street? We all benefited from it because there was competition in the industry all of a sudden.
WISE Our movie was the reason why they created a special category for animated features.
LA MONTE I heard rumblings within the Academy that that’s really why that category was established. They did not want animated films competing for best picture.
CHAPMAN The biggest branch of the Academy, the actors branch, was never going to allow that to happen again.
TROUSDALE Some people called it the kids’ table — like, “OK, give them their thing.” But the fact is we got a kids’ table and they were recognizing animation.
PRESS The category has been both freeing and ghettoizing at the same time. Shrek was another movie that audiences loved. It has the same message as Beauty and the Beast: Beauty is only skin deep. The irony is that by that time, animated movies were so baked into the culture that you could have a satire about Disney and it would win the first Oscar in the category.
KATZENBERG People always said to me, “How did you feel about animation being put in its own category?” And I always said, “Are you kidding? It’s the greatest thing ever.” Everybody said, “Yeah, but it’s never going to be the best picture.” And I always said, “To me, that’s looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
PRESS Everyone who voted to nominate Beauty and the Beast saw it in a theater, because they couldn’t not have. And that’s probably for me the saddest change.
Beauty and the Beast lived on through VHS and later DVD; it became the first animated film adapted into a Broadway musical; its characters remain popular at Disney’s parks; and it was remade by Disney in live-action form in 2017. Sadly, Ashman was not the last of the people associated with the original film to fall victim to AIDS. Others included casting director Albert Tavares in 1992 at 39, marketer Robert Jahn in 1994 at 52, Disney marketing vp Ed Pine and, in 1995, the Oscar campaign’s mastermind, Kalkin, at just 44.
SCHEFFEY Howard went before the others, but the trail was long and sad.
LEVIN It was one of the most difficult times in my life. I mean, my department was being decimated.
MENKEN Every time I think of Beauty and the Beast, it’s impossible not to think about Howard. I’m working on The Little Mermaid live-action movie now, and as I look at scenes, it’s impossible not to have tears in my eyes sometimes just thinking about all those years ago when we created those moments. I’ve always felt his spirit around me, whether it’s real or not.
Those who survived say they are constantly reminded of the film’s impact.
TROUSDALE Just a few weeks after the film came out, Chris Sanders, who had done boards and designs for us, and I went to a local McDonald’s in Burbank. We’re sitting there eating and, at one point, over the PA system, the song “Beauty and the Beast” came on. We were like, “Huh, look at that.” Within seconds, a couple of little kids, like 3 years old, said to their parents, “Beauty and the Beast!” Chris and I looked at each other like, “Holy shit, what have we done?!”
O’HARA A little boy in the grocery store once came up to me and said, “Are you Belle?” I’m like, “Yes, how did you know?” He said, “I know. I watch it all the time.”
BENSON I’ve gotten angry with a customer service person on the phone and the person said, “Is this Robby Benson? Are you the beast?” I have to remember, “Take it easy. Don’t scare anyone.”
HENN There’s less than a dozen of us left now at the studio who worked on Beauty and the Beast.
EISNER We found that magic, and we kept that magic going for 20-plus years.
A condensed version of this story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Check out Scott’s past oral histories: “They Got the Wrong Envelope!”: The Oral History of Oscar’s Epic Best Picture Fiasco, “Harvey Always Wanted More”: Weinstein, Spielberg and the Oral History of the Nastiest Oscar Campaign Ever and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Oral History: How Broadway’s Biggest Hit Since ‘Hamilton’ Became an Awards Season Movie