Behind the Mic : Eleanor Audley
Born: 19th Nov 1905, New York
Died: 25th Nov 1991, North Hollywood
Memorable Characters: Maleficent, Lady Tremaine
The Disney craze is being reignited around the UK and parts of Europe right now thanks to the launch of Disney+ arriving just in time as we all go into lockdown. Following on from last week’s column about the villainous British accent that has been an integral aspect of Disney villains over the decades, it seemed fitting to pay tribute in this week’s Behind the Mic, to one of Disney’s most infamous female villain voice over artists, Eleanor Audley.
As an actress, she played roles on stage and screen. But something that I found interesting about Eleanor Audley as a voice artist is the variety of mediums she specifically lent her voice to. In addition to animated characters for Disney, she also portrayed characters for radio, audiobooks and famously, the Haunted Mansion attractions at Disneyland and Disney World.
She made her acting debut in 1926, at the age of 21, for the Broadway production of ‘Howdy, King’ and remained primarily a theatrical actress, working on comedy Broadway productions until the mid 1940’s. From the mid 1930’s through to the beginning of the 60’s, Audley worked extensively in providing voices for characters in radio drama serials. A special mention that she received during her early days on radio came in a 1935 issue of Radio Life when writer, Evans Plummer wrote:
“Plums to Eleanor Audley, of the Windy City cast of Three Men on a Horse, who without rehearsal and but thirty minutes’ notice came to the rescue of the Monday night Princess Pat drama when actress Dorothy Mallinson was seized with an acute attack of asthma caused from eating strawberry shortcake.”
This little titbit suggests that she was recognised for her professionalism and natural abilities when performing characters behind the mic. While Audley lent her talents to over 30 radio productions, the roles she was arguably most recognised for were as, Leticia Cooper in My Favourite Husband (1949-1951) - which would later evolve into the beloved TV comedy sitcom, I Love Lucy - Molly Byrd in The Story of Dr. Kildare (1949-1950) and Mrs Elizabeth Smith in Father Knows Best (1949-1954).
Audley is perhaps best known for originally bringing not 1, but 2 of Disney’s most odious, iconic characters to life - Lady Tremaine from Cinderella (1950) and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959) - but a lesser known fact is that she actually provided the voice for another Disney villainess first. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was Disney’s first feature length animation, with the evil Queen voiced by Lucille La Verne (who was uncredited for her role, as was the norm in the early days of animation). However, La Verne passed away in 1945 so when the audiobook of the story was released in 1949, it was Audley who filled her shoes and provided the voice for the Queen.
Quickly following that rendition, Audley originated her own evil stepmother, this time to Cinderella as Lady Tremaine. Then at the other end of the decade came her portrayal of Maleficent. If you’ve not noticed before, you can see the similarities in appearance between the characters and Audley herself. This was due to the fact that Audley acted as the live physical model for the animators and Marc Davis, prominent animator and one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, intentionally created the characters in her image. Animator, Don Bluth, relayed that the animators working on the respective projects under the lead of Marc Davis, would be excited when Audley would come in to record, further suggesting that contrary to the characters she is most remembered for, she was a well liked and respected in the industry.
The strength of her performance as Maleficent, from the live modelling to the power of her vocal performance and the defining cackle is made all the more impressive when you discover her health conditions. Initially, Audley actually turned down the role since she was battling tuberculosis at the time of casting. Thankfully, she was able to plough on, helping to create one of the most memorable, chilling Disney villains - one that has been reimagined and revamped over the years. Angelina Jolie, who portrayed a recent rendition of the character said of Audely and the character of Maleficent that she “had such an extraordinary voice. And something about Maleficent just seemed so powerful and elegant. And she just seemed to enjoy being evil.”
Interestingly, despite Maleficent (2004) being a Box Office hit, critics did comment that some of the best parts were when Jolie channeled Audley's haughty tones, and referenced a preference for Audley’s “unambiguously, deliciously bad” depiction of the character over Jolie’s “unambiguously good, simply misunderstood” version. However, put this box office hit in direct comparison to Disney’s release of Sleeping Beauty, which at the time was considered a bit of a Box Office flop with critics regarding it as slow and lacking in character development. Something that many of us today would completely disagree with (and indeed, so have many critics over the years too). Perhaps it begs the question of what constitutes and creates a Box Office hit - big names or defining performances? Another interesting aside - despite the title of the Disney film being named after the protagonist, Sleeping Beauty - Aurora only has 18 lines of dialogue and 18 minutes of screen time. Instead, the focus of the film and the majority of screen time and dialogue are given to Maleficent.
A final character that Audley is widely celebrated for is Madame Leota Toombs, a spirit medium and disembodied head inside a crystal ball at the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland and Disney World. I struggled to find a date that Audley is credited with having provided the voice but the opening date of The Haunted House was 1969. This being a year before she retired, it makes sense that this may have been amongst her last performances.
Eleanor Audley has a voice that I feared and adored as a child - the perfect mix of chilling villainy and seductively witty sardonicism. As a voice over artist, I feel that she epitomises the range that can be employed to create an iconic, unabashed, fabulous baddie. She also reminds us that characters can be created, remembered and live on through the power of their voice.
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