Some Disney villains yearn for world domination. Others are motivated by some sort of prophecy dictated by a magic mirror. Cruella de Vil is one Disney villain who keeps her aims much simpler. All she wants is to take 99 Dalmatian puppies and turn them into a fur coat. Sure, this puppy-fixated antagonist doesn’t have a motivation ripped straight out of everyday reality. However, the Disney version of the character (who originated in Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians) did take cues from reality through real-life actress Tallulah Bankhead.
In a 1985 piece for the Los Angeles Times, animator Marc Davis noted that Tallulah Bankhead, an actress known for playing intimidating women, was one of his key inspirations for designing Cruella de Vil. Bankhead’s influence didn’t stop there, though. In the same Los Angeles Times piece, Cruella’s voice actor, Betty Lou Gerson, reflected that, “In the first recording session, they told me to see what I could come up with. The first voice I tried sounded a bit like Tallulah Bankhead. Everybody said, ‘That’s it, don’t change it!’”
Clearly, Disney’s iconic take on the character of Cruella de Vil owes a massive tip of the hat to Bankhead. While the actress’ influence here is indisputable, Cruella has managed to take on a life of her own. In 2020, kids who watch 101 Dalmatians can still be intimidated by this character even if they have no idea who Tallulah Bankhead is.