FILM- Fairest of Them All: Disney's Beauty, Paige O'Hara.
You may not have heard of Paige O'Hara by name, but you have almost certainly heard her. She is the voice of Belle, half of Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast.
That animated mega-blockbuster received six Academy Award nominations, and won for Best Score and for Best Song (which O'Hara sang during the ceremony). It was also the first animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination. Its soundtrack, in which O'Hara figures prominently, sold over a million copies.
The staggeringly popular Belle was a breakthrough character: Disney's first headstrong, independent princess. Belle's prince waited for her to come, not the other way around.
"She was looking for adventure, and she wasn't looking for a man," O'Hara, 54, says. She was a first in many ways for Disney's heroines. "She was the first bookworm, first brown-eyed princess... ," lists O'Hara. "I can't tell you the amount of mail I've gotten over the years of how much that meant to little girls who have brown eyes.
"I have to say I did identify with the character a lot," she continues. "I was kind of an oddball growing up. I was into Gershwin when my friends were into Led Zeppelin. I was painting and copying Sargent and Turner when I was a little girl.
"I was sort of considered really strange going to acting class... But by the time I got to high school, it was considered really cool. Then I was okay–- I was accepted," she laughs.
At 17, O'Hara arrived in New York. For 20 years, she starred there in a stream of classic musicals, including turns as Maria in The Sound of Music and Fantine in Les Miserables. After reading about Beauty and the Beast, she aggressively pursued the role, winning out over 500 other actresses.
Nineteen years later, the film's popularity remains undimmed with Disney's people teller her that along with The Little Mermaid's Ariel, Belle remains a most successful princess because people can relate. During a recent press tour, she heard from many who grew up with Beauty.
"Now they're bringing their kids to see it," she says. "They said that it was so wonderful and refreshing to see a liberated Disney heroine."
Today, based in Las Vegas, O'Hara appears at the Luxor in something quite different: Menopause: The Musical.
"I'm living it in life and living it onstage," she laughs. "But it's very fun. I play a soap star. Totally the opposite of Belle, an egocentric brat; but she's very funny. I make people laugh every night– that's good." Menopause is now in its fifth year.
Meanwhile, O'Hara's animated counterpart has become immortal.
"It's crazy," she marvels. "Paige can get older; Belle stays the same."
O'Hara will discuss and perform at the 10:30am Saturday, November 6, screening of Beauty and the Beast at the Paramount Theater.