Alabama actress Tallulah Bankhead’s influence on Cruella de Vil

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Following the release of the original “101 Dalmatians” in 1961, New York Times film critic Howard Thompson described the film’s main villain, Cruella de Vil, this way:

“Imagine a sadistic Auntie Mame, drawn by Charles Addams and with a Tallulah Bankhead bass,” Thompson wrote.

Tallulah Bankhead (1902 – 1968) the American theatrical leading lady of stage and screen who worked in London and on Broadway during the 20s. Pictured during a scene from ‘Let Us Be Gay’ at the Lyric Theatre. (Photo by Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For years, there were rumors that Bankhead, the Huntsville-born actress who grew up in Jasper, may have partially served as an inspiration for Cruella de Vil. The rumors seemed to have been confirmed from Marc Davis, the main animator for the Disney film.

“I had several partial models in mind when I drew Cruella,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “Including Tallulah (Bankhead) and one woman I knew who was just a monster: She was tall and thin and talked constantly–you never knew what she was saying, but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. What I really wanted to do was make the character move like someone you wouldn’t like.”

Leading up to the premiere of “Cruella,” Disney’s new take on the character starring Emma Stone in the title role, several publications have revisited the many things Bankhead and Cruella de Vil seemed to have in common.

“Once you see it, you will never unsee Tallulah Bankhead as Cruella, and vice versa: They’re both skeletally thin and constantly chain-smoking, the culprit for their deep, raspy voices,” Rosemary Counter recently wrote in Vanity Fair. “Cruella recklessly speeds around town in her loud, monstrous car, just as Bankhead catapulted her Bentley around London. Even indoors, both stumble about breaking glasses and knocking pictures off walls. Each has a signature over-the-top cackle.”

Writing for Town & Country, Annie Goldsmith said she could see the resemblance in both Bankhead and Cruella.

“When you tie in the stick-thin frames and penchant for furs, it’s easy to see how Bankhead became the inspiration for Cruella de Vil,” Goldsmith wrote. “And, funnily enough, Emma Stone, in her costume and exaggerated makeup, also happens to bear a striking resemblance.

Cruella de Vil (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Bankhead, daughter of former Speaker of the House and Sulligent native William B. Bankhead, moved to New York City in 1917 when she was only 15. She soon started acting and became known for her work as a stage actress in both New York and, later, London. She drew critical praise for her performance in the 1939 film “The Little Foxes” and worked with director Alfred Hitchcock on “Lifeboat” in 1944.

However, Bankhead was equally known for her wild lifestyle, reportedly being able to drink an entire bottle of bourbon in 30 minutes as well as frequently using cocaine.

‘The only thing I regret about my past is the length of it,” Bankhead once said. “If I had to live my life again I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.” 

Bankhead died on December 12, 1968 in New York. She was 66.

However, the Alabama connections to Cruella de Vil don’t end with Bankhead. Betty Lou Gerson, who provided the voice for the character in the original “101 Dalmatians,” was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee but grew up in Birmingham.

“Well, I didn’t intentionally imitate her,” Gerson told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I was raised in Birmingham, Ala., and Tallulah was from Jasper (Ala.). We both had phony English accents on top of our Southern accents and a great deal of flair. So our voices came out that way.”

“Cruella” is now playing in theaters and on Disney+.

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