With Disney’s upcoming release of the live-action film, Maleficent, with Angelina Jolie in the title role, I thought it would be refreshing to revisit the classic villainess in her original incarnation from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, as well as to celebrate the woman who gave her voice: Eleanor Audley.
Maleficent is a classic villain, much in the way that Darth Vader is classic: timeless, formidable, iconic – iconic appearance, iconic voice. Everyone loves to love (or hate) a villain that embodies sheer menace and evil (though Darth Vader’s villain-ness kept getting murkier as the movies went along – he eventually wound up as a petulant boy! I suspect a similar dilution of Maleficent’s evilness in the new film).
And perhaps she’s only a cartoon, but what is Darth Vader: part triangular helmet with black cape and suit, part imposing posture, and part awesome voice.
What I loved about Maleficent is that she is a villain that’s female. That sounds a little obvious, but what I mean is that she is a villain first, who happens to be a woman (I guess, technically, a witch). She is not a femme fatale or vamp, sashaying through the story, swinging her hips and breathing down the necks of every man she encounters; she is just a villain. She’s the only one I can think of whose villainy is separate from her femininity. Men get to be villains, who incidentally are men; why not women?
There is no explanation for why she is evil; she just is, and because she is not invited to the celebration of Aurora’s birth, she curses the child. It seems she so embodies evil, that her mission in life is to wreak destruction. It’s a living, I suppose.
To savor her sheer awesomeness, here is a clip of various scenes from Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent in them
Of course, what makes Maleficent truly come alive is her voice (surely the most menacing voice in cartoon history – she could make a laundry list sound frightening). She was voiced by Eleanor Audley, who had, seven years earlier, also provide the voice for Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella (click here for video of her Lady Tremaine).
When they animated Maleficent, Audley was the live-action model – she dressed in the costume and acted the part to provide a reference for the artists – and they modeled much of Maleficent’s facial expressions after her (to watch the video about how they animated the film from live action, click here. The part about Maleficent begins 2 minutes into the video).
Eleanor Audley mostly did radio and TV, as well as providing the voice for several animated films. Sadly, I cannot, for the life of me, find any information about her personally. She started in radio in the 1940s and 50s, and appeared multiple times in “Father Knows Best”and “My Favorite Husband” (as the mother of Lucille Ball’s character’s husband).
In the 1950s and 60s, she seems to have turned up in practically every popular TV show running: from the TV version of Father Knows Best to I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Wagon Train, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, Green Acres, and quite a few more. She made the most appearances in Green Acres (14 episodes), as the mother of Eddie Albert’s character, Oliver Wendell Douglas.
Since I grew up hearing her as a voice, it was fun for me to go back and find some of these TV episodes, just to see her in person. Here’s a clip of her in the Beverly Hillbillies. She plays a head schoolmistress dismayed when Jethro tries to enroll in her school.
Notes: Here is the trailer for Maleficent. It looks like a Lord of the Rings, “Wicked,” fairytale mash up, to me (are those creatures escapees from LOTR?), but I’m trying not to be prejudge… too much.
Extra:I found this video a lovely tribute to all the great voices in Disney films; which includes Eleanor Audley, as well as Stanley Holloway (as Kaa, Winnie the Pooh, and the Cheshire Cat) and many others.