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  • Interview: Mary Costa, the Voice of Sleeping Beauty

    Tue, 23 Sep 2008 18:33:53

    Interview: Mary Costa, the Voice of Sleeping Beauty - "Princess Aurora" speaks to ARTISTdirect about her role in the film Walt Disney considered his masterpiece

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    Relaxing at her Tennessee home, Mary Costa exclaims, "I'm very excited. It's always a pleasure for me to talk about Sleeping Beauty." Even though the film turns 50 next year, it feels fresher than ever. That's due in part to Disney's phenomenal new DVD release of the movie [out October 7]. Yet, regardless of the technological makeover, Sleeping Beauty is a timeless classic that will resonate forever. It's everlasting because people like Miss Costa brought a pure and honest vibrancy to the film. She gave a singing and speaking voice to Princess Aurora, Sleeping Beauty herself. Mary vividly remembers everything about the film, and in this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect, she discusses making it, interacting with Walt Disney, and how she became a princess.

    What is it that makes Sleeping Beauty so timeless? It truly is a classic.

    I got to see it again three weeks ago, and I feel the same way that you do. I feel what keeps it timeless is the fact that everyone involved was so intent on making something special. They were all picked because they were unique personalities. The producers, the director, the genius animators—of course Marc Davis—and everybody else were so intent. They had such a love for the project. They loved it as much as Walt Disney did. I feel like it's timeless because of that love. Everybody that worked on the film had a very layered personality. The Godmothers were distinct in everything that they did. They were humorous and loving. For instance, [Color Stylist] Eyvind Earle's backgrounds were like paintings that had come to life. When I saw it three weeks ago, I noticed that, because this new technology makes it so clear. There's just a depth of clarity, sound, and color. Eyvind represented what Walt Disney really liked: unique talent. He was not a copy of someone else, nor was anyone that was cast in the film. That's why it will always be timeless. The music is timeless. The Tchaikovsky was timeless, and [Music Adaptor] George Bruns did such a masterful job of adapting it for the screen. I could go on and on to tell you, but I think it will always appeal to a contemporary audience because there are so many elements that stand the test of time. I don't know how many times I've seen it, but on this last time, I saw things that I'd never seen before!

    The people behind the scenes seemed just as vibrant as the colors and the story were. There's true passion on every frame. That comes across now more than ever with the film's new transfer.

    I agree with you totally. At that recent screening, I saw and heard things I'd never seen before, and the audience was enveloped by the sound and what was on the screen. They were just enraptured by what was going on. They were clapping and cheering, and it was just a lot of fun [laughs].

    When a film can elicit so many different emotions like Sleeping Beauty does, it truly is a classic. There are sad parts, happy parts, and funny parts. It's a classic story in that sense.

    Yes! You know, I think you'll like this story. Just before I started to record, Walt Disney telephoned me and said, "I want you to go in and meet Marc Davis where he's animating. I want you to go in while he's animating and discuss the character with him. I want you to know Briar Rose: how she feels about her godmothers, how she feels about being in the forest, how she feels about playing with the animals—all aspects of her. I want you to know that she's a very layered character. She's different. She's calm, yet she's playful. She has a sense of humor, and she has an imagination. I want you to have all of those colors in your mind. Some of them may even be black and white. They might be sad, but when you get in front of that microphone, I don't want anyone to read a line for you. I want you to think out, and I want you to drop those colors onto your vocal palette and paint with your voice." For me, he was such a teacher, and he established a work ethic for me that followed me all through my operatic career. I didn't know Marc Davis very well at the beginning, but initially I said to him, "How do you think Briar Rose feels in the forest? How do you think she relates to the animals?" He said, "All I can tell you Mary is, in the forest, let it caress you." I don't what it is about that, but that remark relaxed me about anything that went on or any line they wanted me to read. It was just a fantastic experience to work with these people who were so intent on having it be 100 percent. When I sat in the audience, we had a panel on the stage, and I answered some questions. They asked me if I wanted to see the film, and I said, "I do! Yes, I really want to see it!" Watching it, I was smiling because I thought, "I'll bet you Walt Disney is smiling because this is perfection, and this is what he really would always strive for."

    While you were working on the film, were you able to visualize what it was going to look like?

    No, I couldn't. The storyboards were beautiful and to watch them be drawn was just something I shall never forget. People will say to me now, "How do you remember everything so vividly? It's been such a long time." I was just with some people including Alice Davis, Marc Davis's wife, and she said, "Oh, I remember everything." Even the remarks that were made or the remarks that Walt would make, you can't forget that. You can't forget the direction they were taking you into. It's just something that lives with you and becomes a part of you. No, I didn't know it was going to look like that, and I certainly didn't know it would ever look like it does now on the DVD, because this is what some of Eyvind Earle's original cells looked like. It's just exquisitely beautiful.

    The individual frames resemble portraits more than anything.

    Absolutely, I agree totally. You've taken the same thing from it that I did [laughs]. I know you'll understand this. I feel honored to have been asked to do this part. Even looking at it now, I realized that I did my very best, and that it was a voice that did fit character. Every time I have seen it, I was so proud that I was a part of it, and I just love all of the people that were connected with it. The Godmothers and I had so much fun together because they were such humorous people. The Prince, Bill Shirley, was rather shy. We loved to tease him. Verna Felton who played Flora would always creep up behind him with a pencil and act like it was a baton. She'd do some fairy work on him and say he was going to be the greatest, handsomest, and all of this. He would laugh and laugh. One of the funniest things is we were so fascinated by Maleficent, Eleanor Audley, because she was not a large lady. As a matter of fact, she was petite, but when she was in front of that microphone and she released that voice, it was like she was nine feet tall. It was wonderful! She was humorous, too. She's so evil, and her voice sounds so evil in that it's so monstrous. At the screening, I had some children behind me getting very upset [laughs].

    It seems like doing an animated film would be harder than a standard acting performance because it's like a gamble. You don't know how everything's going to sync up in the end.

    I didn't think of it that way at the time, but I understand exactly what you're talking about. I think that's why Walt Disney was so intent on having all of these colors in the voice to let the audience know exactly what that character was about, and I've had people say, "Well, she's not on the screen a long time, but she's made a very good impression. How do you figure that?" I said, "Well, a lot of work went into just that scene in the woods to be sure that every inflection of the voice, every color that she wanted to make showing how she felt and all of those of things were there." I think they were. We were not voiceovers. All of the voice work was animated to. I was doing an event with Marc Davis less than 10 years ago, and we were sitting in directors' chairs signing memorabilia. A lady came to me and said, "Miss Costa, how does it feel to be the voiceover to a famous Disney princess?" Marc Davis, who was very funny anyway, said, "Madam, the vocal artists are the ocean of sound upon which we animate!" [Laughs] After she left, I looked at him and just broke out laughing. He said, "She doesn't understand how it was done." And I said, "No she doesn't." [Laughs]

    It was [Walt Disney's] favorite film. All of the elements that he wanted were in the film...so he considers it his masterpiece.

    How did the role initially come about for you?

    I was invited to a dinner party. A close friend of mine thought that I would meet some influential musical people. After we had dinner, I heard people singing at the piano, so I wandered over. The man on the end let me in. I didn't sing for a little while, but then they played that beautiful Victor Young song, "When I Fall In Love," and I started singing that. At the end of the song, I turned to thank him for letting me in and we almost bumped noses because he was listening to me so closely. He said, "Miss, may I introduce myself? First of all, let me ask you though, are you a professional singer? I think you are." I told him that I had sung since high school and any place that I could sing. I had sung for the rotary clubs and my church. I sang with Martin and Lewis at UCLA, with Edgar Bergen on radio, and other places. He said, "My name is Walter Shuman." I responded, "I know you. You have that famous choral group." He said, "I'm working for Disney right now, and Walt has been looking for a voice for the Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Now, don't be shocked, but I want you to audition in the morning. Can you do it at 10 o'clock?" I said, "Could I? Yes, I certainly can!" I didn't think I would get the part, but I wanted to meet Walt Disney. So he said, "Okay, I'm going to leave right now. I have to line this up. You will be there?" I said, "Yes, I will. I have to leave now, too, because I have to rest for this." That's how it happened. The next day, my mother drove me over. I was living with my mother, an aunt, and three cousins in Glendale. My father had passed away during my senior year in Glendale High School. So my aunt and cousins moved out from Knoxville, Tennessee where I was born because my mother and I wanted to stay there so she could let me pursue a career. Anyway, she drove me over there, and I did the audition. That audition was unbelievably fun. I don't think I've ever enjoyed anything as much as that audition.

    Did you go in knowing the story?

    I knew the story. I have to do a little commercial of my own [laughs]. I was six-years-old, and my first movie was Snow White. I was in love with Snow White. I would prance around the house with a bath towel around my neck tied like it was a cape. My mother made me a cape for Christmas, which my father gave me. It was a royal blue velvet cape, and still to this day, I think it's one of my most wonderful gifts. I adored that. I certainly never knew that I would be a Disney princess, but I knew the story of Sleeping Beauty. When I went in there, right away George Bruns, this big bear of a man who was also really fun, tried to relax me by saying, "Do you do bird calls?" I said, "Do you have any birds here? I could call them." [Laughs] He said, "No, but I'll play something for you." They gave me the melody of what they wanted me to copy for that bird call in the first part of the woods, and I did that. We talked about it, and he taught me the songs. The booth was full of people. Walter Shuman must've worked half the night to get them all there. Frankly, everyone there worked on Sleeping Beauty. It was amazing. So anyway, right in the middle, they had heard me speak in between the takes. I just wasn't aware of that. I had an accent from Tennessee. When they walked out, the producer said, "Don't panic. We were just a little concerned about your accent." I said, "What accent?" He responded, "However, we thought if Vivien Leigh, a lovely English girl, could portray a Southern Belle then certainly a Southern girl could portray an English princess." I said, "How do you mean?" Marc Davis, in his marvelous way, said, "Do you think you can talk like this?" [English accent] And I said, "Oh yes, I could." [English accent] He said, "How did you do that?" I said, "Because my daddy and I always imitated everything, and we loved doing an English accent. We did that most of all." He said, "Could you sustain it?" I said, "Oh, yes of course, for a long time." [English accent] He said, "Can you let us go for ten minutes?" That's about exactly how long they were gone. They wrote a page of dialogue for me, and I also did the speaking voice. I could make the voice go higher and higher as they requested it. It's really fun to think back on it because people ask me about it all the time. I love to tell this story. Marc and I became really good friends. There wasn't a time that I recorded that he wasn't there sketching me on the sound stage. There were models for the dancing parts and such. But at that time in my life, the character looked a great deal like me.

    Looking back at all of Disney's great films, do you feel like Sleeping Beauty proved especially influential for a lot of the stuff to come?

    I think when it came out, it was a little ahead of its time. I don't think there had been anything quite like it. That's why I think it took some time. It was accepted, but not like now because people [think about what] went into it, and I just think in their own fields there were so many geniuses on this film. In particular because Walt was so connected with it. I know that. It was his favorite film. All of the elements that he wanted were in the film [in] every aspect, from the paintings to Eyvind Earle, and everybody that was cast, so he considers it his masterpiece. I don't know, in seeing it three weeks ago, I felt so blessed to be a part of it because I do think it is the epitome of the art of animation.

    —Rick Florino

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    Tags: Mary Costa, Bill Shirley, Eleanor Audley, Sleeping Beauty

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