For lyricist's family, Oscar nominations are bittersweet

February 21, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Beauty and the Beast" made motion picture history Wednesday when it became the first animated feature ever nominated for a best-picture Academy Award. That's the beauty of it. The beastly side is the recent death of one of the men most responsible for the movie's success. Howard Ashman, the film's Baltimore-born executive producer and lyricist, died of AIDS last March at age 40.

Yesterday his mother and sister spoke of the mixture of pride and sadness with which they received the news of the Oscar nominations, which include three for original songs and two others for score and sound.

Despite his failing health, Ashman played an instrumental role in the Disney film. One of his cleverest ideas was to turn the crockery and furniture into singing and dancing characters.

"When they were doing the film, Howard was quite ill and not able to travel to California, so Disney sent everybody and everything they possibly could to New York," his mother, Shirley Gershman, said from her Mount Washington apartment. "They also put a fax machine in the house, and not a word of the script went into the finished product until he checked it over."

Gershman said she was delighted by the best-picture nomination, but she wasn't surprised since the movie has

already received three Golden Globe Awards, including top prize for a musical or comedy film. However, referring to her son's other award-winning work -- including "The Little Mermaid" and "Little Shop of Horrors" -- she added, "I can't help but wonder, if time had been on his side, what he could have accomplished because he did so much in such a short time."

Gershman traced Ashman's interest in animated films to his early childhood when his maternal grandmother would take her four grandchildren downtown to the movies on Saturday afternoons.

Ashman's sister, Sarah Gillespie, a vice president of the United Media syndicate, cited another childhood influence she feels contributed to the success of "Beauty and Beast." Speaking from her New York office, Gillespie, Ashman's only sibling, explained, "Howard's whole thing with writing for kids was that he amused adults as well as children. He never wrote down [to children]. He understood that because he was in kids' theater in Baltimore for so many years. I think that's why ['Beauty and the Beast'] is being accepted as a mainstream movie."

"Beauty and the Beast" has sold $106 million in tickets, and the soundtrack is the best-selling album in the history of Walt Disney Records. Nor will it be the last opportunity to hear Ashman's lyrics. Before his death, he and "Beauty and the Beast" composer Alan Menken wrote several songs for a Disney animation of "Aladdin," due to be released next winter.

"As I said at the Golden Globe Awards, it's true that Howard didn't leave children, [but] these songs are his children. He left us something, and it's wonderful that it's being recognized this way -- wonderful for us and obviously tragic that he had so much more to give," Gillespie said. She and her mother are both planning to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, along with Ashman's longtime companion, William Lauch, a New York architect, and his agent.

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