MOVIES : Ms. Beauty and the Beast : Writer of Disney Hit Explains Her ‘Woman of the ‘90s’
If the independent, brainy Belle, the heroine of “Beauty and the Beast,” is a breakthrough in fairy-tale animation, so is Linda Woolverton--the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney.
“I wasn’t on a soapbox, " she says of her first big-screen outing--the highest-grossing first-run animated film ever and a possible best-picture Oscar contender. “But Belle is a feminist. I’m not critical of Snow White, Cinderella . . . they reflected the values of their time. But it just wasn’t in me to write a throwback. I wanted a woman of the ‘90s, someone who wanted to do something other than wait for her prince to come.”
Woolverton, fearful of being influenced by the imagery of the Jean Cocteau film version, decided not to watch it. She drew inspiration from “Little Women” instead. “There’s a lot of Katharine Hepburn in Belle,” she explains. “Though the character of Jo is more tomboyish, both were strong, active, women who loved to read--and wanted more than life was offering them.”
Not surprisingly, the 39-year-old Woolverton did too. Acting in local children’s theater was an escape from a “traumatic childhood.” Writing became a release from the CBS network executive position she ditched in the mid-'80s. Though she was successful free-lancing Saturday morning cartoons show scripts (“The Berenstain Bears,” “My Little Pony”), she soon tired of TV. “My agent said I wasn’t ready to write a Disney feature,” Woolverton recalls. “I was arrogant enough to think I could.”
In 1987, she got her chance. A Disney executive who’d read a young-adult book Woolverton wrote while at CBS asked her to write for the studio. Though her first script, “Winnie the Pooh,” was abandoned after the TV show took off, “Beauty and the Beast” fared better. “I thought it would be some quick money,” Woolverton says. “Three years later, I was still on the movie. If you stacked up the rewrites and put a piece of glass on top, you’d have a nice little coffee table.”
Because animation, as Woolverton points out, is a field dominated by men, diplomacy was occasionally required. In one scene, the screenplay had Belle pushing pins into a map of the world--places she wanted to visit--while waiting for her father to return. When Woolverton saw the segment on the storyboard, however, she found her heroine decorating a cake. In the end, Belle was shown reading a book--which also had provoked some discussion. Because reading might be deemed a passive hobby, the opening scene has her walking and reading at once--which Woolverton herself used to do as a child.
There’s more than a passing resemblance, in fact, between the writer and Belle. “I’m not shy,” she says. “When it comes to creative things, I’ve got a big mouth. I speak my mind quite loudly, which comes as a surprise to some people. I probably made a bit of a pain of myself.”
And the egotistical, boorish Gaston? He was inspired by past beaus. “There’s tinges of guys I used to date,” Woolverton says with a smile. “Gaston was arrogant enough to plan a wedding without asking Belle first, presumptuous enough--when he stopped looking at himself in the mirror--to inform her it was her lucky day when he proposed. It was a lark writing that character . . . I was trying to poke a little fun. Still, (Disney Chairman) Jeffrey Katzenberg kept harping on the fact that Gaston couldn’t be a cartoon-jawed Dudley Do-right or he wouldn’t be a good villain. He had to be credible, a worthy opponent, full of himself yet charming--someone you’d go out with once or twice.”
At one point, a rather maternal, pedantic Belle was portrayed as “just friends” with the Beast--an approach that didn’t sit well with Woolverton. “At heart, the story is a romance,” she says, “and I didn’t want to disappoint. Belle wanted excitement and adventure in her life--but, like most of us, she also wanted someone to share it with. The Beast is someone who shares her love of books, her values. As a fellow outsider, he’s also misunderstood. He finally realizes he was wrong--and that he can change. In the end, Belle gets a great guy.”
Woolverton, too, seems to be living happily ever after. She and her husband of three years have an infant daughter, Keaton. Disney, thrilled with the response to “Beauty,” has offered her a long-term deal. She is co-writing her first live-action script, a remake of the 1963 Disney film “The Incredible Journey"--the story of pets who cross the Sierras to get home--which will be released by the studio in the spring. Her next animated feature is “King of the Jungle,” an original coming-of-age story set in Africa (lyrics by “Evita’s” Tim Rice, music by Elton John) due out for Christmas ,1993.
“ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a group effort, one in which 500 people wore pencils down to their nubs,” Woolverton allows. “We all shared a vision and, yes, Disney is as hands-on as their reputation. I set my alarm clock for 5 a.m. for 7 a.m. meetings. I got a number of gray hairs, wept onto my keyboard more than once out of fatigue and frustration. I’d never written a musical and was scared every step of the way. I told Jeffrey (Katzenberg) that I had no idea how good it was and he told me you never do--that only the box-office gods will tell. I feel very vindicated. Making Belle so eccentric for that (medieval French) town--and this town--was risky, but the world embraced her.”
No one is happier than Disney, particularly in light of the criticism directed at its last heroine--"The Little Mermaid’s” Ariel.
“There was no mandate from on-high to counteract the finger-pointing,” Woolverton says. “But I think the studio felt confident that, as a woman, I wouldn’t write a sexist character. Actually, I have no problem with Ariel. People perceived her as someone willing to give up home and family to follow this man. But, as (lyricist) Howard Ashman explained to me, she was less obsessed with the prince than with all things human. As the song ‘Part of Your World’ says, she was ‘sick of swimming and ready to stand.’ Ariel was willing to give up her watery heritage and plunge into the unknown. There was actually a lot of pluck in her.”
And in Woolverton who, despite hitting it big, is determined to go on to bigger and better things.
“Friends told me that it’s much better if the first book you write isn’t published,” she says. “My first two were. They told me it’s better if your first produced screenplay isn’t pushed for best picture. Mine is, the first animated film to be considered for this award. This is nice, but real scary to me. I just hope that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ isn’t the greatest thing I ever do.”