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From the time that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released as the first feature-length animated movie in 1937, it took the Academy 54 years to recognize the medium with a Best Picture nomination. That honor went to 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which set the stage for Disney’s decade-long string of traditionally animated hits and proved that “cartoons” deserved to be taken as seriously as their live-action counterparts. Don Hahn was Beauty’s sole credited producer at the Oscars, and though the film ultimately lost to The Silence of the Lambs, he insists that the nomination itself was reason enough to celebrate. Below, Hahn shares his memories of the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony, during which Beauty picked up statuettes for Original Score and Original Song.

Beauty and the Beast was a big turning point. When we won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical, I was sitting way in the back — practically in the kitchen. Three years later, when we won for The Lion King, I was in the very front table. I said to myself, “What am I doing here? I make cartoons for a living and I’m sitting next to Diana Ross!” That kind of shows you the journey that happened in just those three years.

For Beauty and the Beast, we campaigned in a way that animated films had never done before. We campaigned as though it were The Artist or Hugo this year, where you’re doing Q&A panels. We showed it at the Directors Guild of America. We showed it at the Academy. We had filmmakers in to talk, we had musicians in, and we really marketed it as though the fact that it was animated was incidental.

I was incredibly nervous going to the Oscars show. It was my first time sitting in the audience, and you don’t get into animation to sit with celebrities at award shows. You get into animation to sit in quiet rooms and draw. I was in the seventh row, so there I was sitting next to Anthony Hopkins, Sylvester Stallone, Barbra Streisand, and Meryl Streep. The other weird thing is my name got read by Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Those two were iconic, like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and they were saying, “Beauty and the Beast. Don Hahn, producer.” It was such an out-of-body experience. I thought that it was worth everything just to have Liz Taylor say my name.

I don’t remember much of the show because I was so nervous. And I had to go to the bathroom in a big way. I had all this water before the ceremony, and we were getting into the second hour of the ceremony. You have to be really careful that you don’t get locked out of the theater during your own category. So, much of my time there was managing when to go to the bathroom.

We were full of flop sweat all night wondering if we had a chance to win. We actually thought we may have a chance. I had my crumpled-up acceptance speech. But even though I didn’t get to use it that night, it was absolutely thrilling to be invited to the party. It was that feeling of, wow, Cinderella really did make it to the ball!

Getting the Best Picture nomination was like the U.S. hockey team beating the Russians. That’s what it felt like. Disney Animation was in a warehouse in Glendale, Calif., with broken glass in the parking lot and barbed wire. We were trying our best to make good movies, and in many ways, we didn’t know what we were doing. But we had amazing talent there, and we had nothing to lose. So it did feel like an unbelievable upset just to get nominated.

We had lost [song lyricist and executive producer] Howard Ashman to AIDS the year before, so we really felt this emptiness that he couldn’t be there to share it. Animation is collaborative, but if you had to point to one person, anybody who worked on Beauty and the Beast would point to Howard Ashman.

When Howard and [composer] Alan Menken won for the song “Beauty and the Beast,” Howard’s partner Bill Lauch accepted the award and gave a touching tribute to Howard. That was really emotional — it was the first time an Oscar had been given to someone who had passed away because of AIDS. This was in the middle of the AIDS crisis, and when Howard was working with us, he was at first afraid to admit that he was HIV-positive because he thought his insurance was going to get turned off, or that he would be stigmatized because of it. Of course, the opposite happened. The studio embraced him and said, “Let us know what we can do to help you.” During preproduction, we moved to Fishkill, N.Y., near where Howard lived, and we set up in a Residence Inn. All the music in Beauty and the Beast comes from that time in a little hotel conference room. Howard was able to work through it. He was able to work on that music even though he had literally lost his voice and could hardly whisper, and he was able to produce these joyful lyrics for us.

The film got three song nominations, and we were worried that the vote would get split. We tried to guide voters to the title song. Celine Dion, who was unknown at the time, was drafted out of Canada to sing the song because we couldn’t afford a big singer. Actually, we were worried about her singing it alone, so we paired her with Peabo Bryson, who was a bigger star at the time. So that song was put front and center in the run-up to the awards, and that’s the one that won.

During the show, all the animators who worked on the film gathered at the old Hollywood Palace studio. We had rented it for the night. Everyone wore tuxedos — it was like prom night. They put up big-screen TVs, and when Alan Menken won, there were cheers from the crowd. After the show, Alan, [former Disney studio chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg, and I went to the Hollywood Palace and got to hug everybody and thank them for what they had done on Beauty and the Beast. It was a chance to say, “Wow, we really did a very cool thing with this movie, and maybe changed the course of animation a little bit.”

(As told to John Young)

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Beauty and the Beast (1991)
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