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'Beauty and the Beast' star sees film in whole new light
Paige O'Hara says she remains part of Disney icon Belle
It's only appropriate that the Walt Disney Pictures classic "Beauty and the Beast" is in theaters again, this time in 3D. After all, it's been nearly 20 years since the film made Academy Awards history by becoming the first film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
Reflecting on the nomination, Paige O'Hara, who voiced and sang songs for the film's iconic lead character, Belle, believes the nomination was a watershed moment that changed forever the way actors perceived animated movies.
"The nomination was a big surprise for everybody who worked on the film, but a lot of actors still turned their noses up at it -- but those very actors who complained about it two years later were doing voices in animated movies," O'Hara told me, laughing, in an interview Thursday. "They stopped being snobbish about it and realized that animated movies were sensational. Of course, now, a lot of big stars are doing voices for them."
The release of "Beauty and the Beast 3D" marks the latest celebration in O'Hara's storybook career, which began on Broadway in 1983. In fact, since the original release of the film 1991, the actress-singer-painter's career has been, well, like a fairytale.
"It's been a 20-year job for me," O'Hara said. "I've been working with Disney all these years, doing voice work and now I'm signed with Disney Fine Arts, doing 'Beauty and the Beast' oil paintings. So it's been an ongoing wonderful job."
In fact, O'Hara's paintings are so impressive that, could the next chapter of her life, perhaps, include the words "Disney" and "animator"?
"I don't think I can paint quick enough to do that," O'Hara said with a laugh. "Those animators are really fast. What they do is unbelievable. So I'm very content to just do my paintings. I just got commissioned to do another one -- of the ballroom sequence -- and I'm really excited to start doing it."
Now playing in theaters nationwide, "Beauty and the Beast 3D" tells the story of Belle -- an independent young woman who tries to find the heart of a prince that beats within a cursed beast (Robby Benson), after she's imprisoned within his castle in exchange for her father's freedom.
O'Hara, who screened the film last week before its 3D release, said she was stunned by look of the film in the format.
"The thing that was astounding to me as an artist was to see the detail of the artwork in the film. A lot of times in the original film you notice how beautiful it is, especially in the ballroom sequence. But now you can see little details, like the paintings of the castle, are so magnified in this version," O'Hara enthused. "Plus, the characters are magnified in this version. The studio spent three years just putting this version together -- which is almost as long as it took to make the original film. So to create that third camera for this release is genius."
When O'Hara auditioned to play Belle more than 20 years ago, she said she had to land the part because she <I>was</I> Belle. Like the character, she admittedly wasn't an ingénue, but a bookworm who was a little quirky and had a very strong will. And while she's achieved a great amount of success since then, O'Hara said she's hardly has forgotten where she came from.
"I'm very much Belle at heart, in fact, probably even more so after the loss of my mom and my stepfather, and my sister only two years ago," said O'Hara, 55. "There's a part of me that's like Belle, who gives up her life for her father. There was a period of my life, about eight years in the middle of this whole thing, where I pretty much put my career on the back burner to care for my parents and my sister."
"It was like my life (and the character's life were) coming full-circle. It's was like Belle was older and still taking care of her father," O'Hara added. "I'm older and wiser, but I still dream of doing new things and creating new things. That's part of who Belle is."
Perhaps the greatest thing O'Hara loves about Belle personally is her sense of adventure.
"The wonderful thing about Belle that was different from the other princesses, was that Belle wasn't out to get a man," O'Hara said, laughing. "Her goal was to see to the world and to experience different places, and the Beast just happened. That wasn't her goal, but the Beast changed her and she changed him."
Looking back on the cultural impact of the film, O'Hara said one thing that particularly pleases her is how young fans are able to relate to Belle, no matter how big or small the details are.
"I've read letters from little girls who said they felt out of place and didn't fit in, and one really little girl wrote to me and said, 'Finally, a princess with brown eyes like me,'" O'Hara said. "I love little things like that. Disney had decided to make her a little more identifiable, and less perfect in terms of the physicality. Belle is still beautiful, but she's still the first brown-eyed, brown-haired princess. There are little girls who really love that about her."
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