As Disney hopes audiences flock to theaters to see Angelina Jolie purr her way through the title role in Maleficent, let's not forget the first woman to embody Sleeping Beauty's evil queen: Eleanor Audley.
While Jolie's take on the character is certainly softened from the unforgiving villainy of Maleficent in the original—the new movie imagines that Maleficent's misdeeds were a result of misguided though justified revenge—Jolie paid tribute to Audley on her press tour. “The original [Maleficent] was so well-drawn,” Jolie told The Telegaph's Craig McLean, adding that Audley "had such an extraordinary voice. And something about Maleficent just seemed so powerful and elegant. And she just seemed to enjoy being evil."
Audley née Zellman didn't just passively provide the voice for Maleficent. Disney actually staged and shot scenes for the animators to reference, and Audley would perform for them so it's not only Audley's voice that you associate with in the character, but also her movement and visage. "If you ever saw an actual still photo of Eleanor Audley you can just think of Maleficent because he [lead animator Marc Davis] drew very much from her personality to bring that to life in the film," historian Jeff Lenburg explained in the "making of" documentary accompanying Sleeping Beauty's 50th anniversary DVD. Don Bluth, an animation legend in his own right, said the animators would be excited when Audley would come to record. "That's her, that's Eleanor, that's the one that's Maleficent, look at her, she looks like what she's drawing," he said they would say.
In a more recent post, Deja recounted a story Audley told him when they met. "Miss Audley remembered that soon after Sleeping Beauty finished production the studio arranged a screening of the film…just for her," Deja wrote. "She said, she was the only one in the theatre watching this big screen spectacle. 'I felt privileged and I adored the film.'"
Audley's career certainly extended beyond Maleficent. She voiced yet another legendary Disney villain years earlier in 1950's Cinderella: Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother. (Cate Blanchett takes on that part in a live action version of Cinderella due out in 2015.) Audley also displayed her vocal talents for Disney as the Haunted Mansion ride's Madame Leota.
Beyond Disney, Audley—who had a Broadway background and appeared on stage with George M. Cohan—was pretty much a constant presence on television between the years of 1954 and 1970. She played Eunice Douglas, mother of Eddie Albert's Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres, and appeared on the likes of I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies. You can see her on that show below:
The best parts of Maleficent are when Jolie channels Audley's haughty tones, doling out nasty, witty asides and cackling marvelously. Whereas Audley's Maleficent was unambiguously, deliciously bad, the new movie falters by making the character unambiguously good, simply misunderstood. So if you do head out to the theater this weekend, don't forget to remember Audley, who was nowhere near as famous as Jolie, but gave us a character to haunt our dreams.