• Angela Lansbury: An Actress for the Ages

    Posted Wed Oct 19, 2022 at 08:00 AM PDT by

    Classic movie fans know her as the saucy Cockney scullery maid in Gaslight, the animated (in more ways than one) Mrs. Potts in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and most notably as the conniving, duplicitous, and diabolically manipulative mother of a brainwashed Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Broadway buffs cherish the memories of her Tony Award-winning turns as the boisterous, flamboyant Mame and lovably ghoulish meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (I was so obsessed with this brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical as a teen, I saw her perform the role four times on Broadway and once on tour in Chicago.) And who could forget her 12 seasons as mystery writer-cum-intrepid sleuth Jessica Fletcher on CBS-TV’s massive hit Murder, She Wrote? The role earned her an Emmy Award nomination each and every year the show was on the air, but she never won - now that’s a crime!

    Of course I’m talking about the legendary Angela Lansbury, one of the greatest and most beloved actresses ever to grace the big screen, small screen, and Broadway stage. Lansbury died last week just a few days shy of her 97th birthday, ending a career that spanned eight decades and more than 100 film and television appearances. She made her movie debut at age 17 in 1944’s Gaslight and continued working in multiple mediums until the very end of her life. (Her final film credit is the upcoming Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, to be released this November.) What’s more, she never gave a bad performance. She was nominated for three Oscars and a whopping 19 Emmys and won six Tony Awards and six Golden Globes. In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Dame Angela with an Honorary Oscar, calling her “an entertainment icon who has created some of cinema’s most memorable characters, inspiring generations of actors.”

    Lansbury’s talent overshadowed her beauty, which Hollywood never properly recognized or appreciated. Often passed over for romantic leads, she almost instantly found her niche in much older character parts, all of which she attacked with customary relish. Most actresses would cringe at the prospect of playing middle-aged women and mothers of grown men while still in their 30s, but Lansbury never batted an eye. She was just three years older than Harvey when she played his mother in The Manchurian Candidate and just nine years older than Elvis Presley when she played his in Blue Hawaii (which is slated for a 4K UHD release next month). At age 32, Lansbury portrayed the long-time, fortysomething love of crotchety Orson Welles (who himself was playing a much older part) in The Long, Hot Summer, and at age 36, she played 24-year-old Warren Beatty’s mother in All Fall Down. (Interestingly, Eva Marie Saint, who portrays Beatty’s lover in the film, is a year older than Lansbury!) And only Cecil B. DeMille would be audacious enough to cast Hedy Lamarr, who was 11 years Lansbury's senior, as her younger sister in the blockbuster biblical epic Samson and Delilah.

    Ever versatile and always authentic, unaffected, and believable, Lansbury played tough career women, waifs, temptresses, prim matrons, bawdy dames, combative wives, and kooky socialites with equal aplomb. She excelled in dramas, comedies (she made a fine foil for the rambunctious Danny Kaye in The Court Jester), and musicals (though sadly she was passed over for the film version of Mame in favor of a badly miscast Lucille Ball). Most importantly, Lansbury was a generous team player who shared the spotlight with her cast mates instead of stealing it from them. Her impeccable poise, steadfast commitment to her craft, unassuming elegance, and spot-on instincts not only improve every film in which she appears, they also engender respect and admiration and cultivate a love for this indomitable and endearing performer that transcends both her passing and the passage of time.

    Below, in chronological order, are several of her noteworthy films that are currently available on Blu-ray:

    GASLIGHT (1944) 

    Lansbury nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her very first film, portraying a sassy Cockney maid who shamelessly flirts with a fiendish Charles Boyer while he attempts to drive his emotionally unstable wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane. Bergman walked away with a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar, but Lansbury, with her sullen demeanor and sly wiles, rivets attention whenever she pops up in this atmospheric and suspenseful thriller directed by George Cukor.


    Twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor plays the title role in this heartwarming family flick about a plucky, horse-crazy young girl who dreams of riding her prized Pie in England's Grand National race, but Lansbury files a warm performance as her protective and supportive older sister. It's not much of a part, but Lansbury, as she would do throughout her lengthy career, makes the most of it.


    Another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod came Lansbury's way for her heart-wrenching turn as the tragic Sybil Vane, who falls in love with the narcissistic, ne'er-do-well Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) and falls victim to his selfish manipulations. The classic Oscar Wilde story about a man who remains forever young while his portrait ages and reflects his moral decay gets a wonderfully creepy treatment from director Albert Lewin, who never sugarcoats the tale's myriad unsavory elements. Keep an eye out for Lansbury's mother, Moyna MacGill, an established actress in her own right, in a small role as a duchess.

    THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946) 

    Legend has it Lansbury, who portrays a sexy, scantily-clad saloon singer in director George Sidney's enormously successful tribute to the trailblazing Harvey House waitresses who tamed the Wild West, was booed by audiences for being mean - on screen, of course - to co-star Judy Garland. She and Garland, who plays the stereotypical good girl who clashes with Lansbury's voluptuous vixen, vie for the attention of saloon owner John Hodiak in this captivating musical that mixes romance, humor, and spectacle and features the rousing, Oscar-winning song "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." Though MGM let Lansbury sing the plaintive ballad "Good-Bye, Little Yellow Bird" in Dorian Gray, the studio chose to dub her vocals here.

    STATE OF THE UNION (1948) 

    Lansbury really sinks her teeth into the role of Kay Thorndyke, a powerful newspaper publisher who shamelessly promotes the political career of her married lover, Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), in director Frank Capra's slick, incisive adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Katharine Hepburn plays Grant's estranged wife, who puts aside her personal feelings to aid his campaign and ultimately reform and redeem his soul. Van Johnson, Adolphe Menjou, Lewis Stone, and Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton also star in this biting, topical satire that brims with Capra's trademark idealism, but it's Lansbury's fire-and-ice portrayal that really fuels the film and rivals the priceless chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn.


    Though largely ornamental, Lansbury looks regal and lovely as Queen Anne, the sympathetic British monarch whose priceless jewels become a central plot point in this colorful, acrobatic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic swashbuckler. MGM's opulent production boasts an all-star cast that also includes Gene Kelly, Lana Turner, June Allyson, Van Heflin, Frank Morgan, Vincent Price, Keenan Wynn, and Gig Young.


    The ravishing Hedy Lamarr steals everyone's thunder as the titular temptress in this mammoth biblical epic from producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, but once again, Lansbury contributes memorable work...before her character conveniently dies to pave the way for Delilah's devious doings. Released just before Christmas in 1949, Samson and Delilah was the top-grossing film of 1950 and remains a notable example of DeMille's legendary showmanship.

    THE COURT JESTER (1955) 

    Prior to this riotous romp starring the irrepressible Danny Kaye, Lansbury's comic talents went largely untapped, but the actress shows off her deft flair for daffy humor as Princess Gwendolyn in this rollicking farce about a minstrel who assumes the identity of a court jester to save his skin and the infant heir to the throne. Kaye's uproarious antics dominate the film, which also stars Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Mildred Natwick, and Robert Middleton. Though it flopped when first released, The Court Jester has since garnered a lofty reputation and in 2004 was added to the prestigious National Film Registry.


    The first movie to co-star Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, this excellent adaptation of a William Faulkner tale focuses on bad-boy barn-burner Ben Quick (Newman) and his stormy relationship with the powerful but dysfunctional Varner family that rules a small Mississippi town. Lansbury portrays Minnie Littlejohn, the brassy, earthy mistress of portly patriarch Will Varner (Orson Welles) and the only person who can knock some sense into the gruff, irascible, and oh-so-stubborn mule. Though it resembles Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in many respects, director Martin Ritt's well-made film stands as an absorbing, often steamy drama that also features top-notch work from Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick, and Richard Anderson.



    As a gossipy, sly-as-a-fox socialite mounting an extravagant coming-out party for her teenage daughter, Lansbury shines in director Vincente Minnelli's sophisticated romantic comedy. Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, and Sandra Dee are the top-billed stars of this frothy confection that chronicles a rebellious American teen's rocky introduction to high-toned British society, but Lansbury is one of the film's most colorful characters and she maximizes every screen moment.


    Director John Frankenheimer's riveting adaptation of Richard Condon's frightening political thriller is hands down Lansbury's finest film and contains her most iconic and enduring portrayal. As the ruthlessly ambitious and domineering mother of a brainwashed Korean War POW (Laurence Harvey) who's programmed to be an assassin while in captivity and is activated upon his return home by a subversive U.S. political faction that plans to overthrow the government, Lansbury embodies insidious evil in a deft, nuanced performance that resonates long after the movie ends. As I wrote in my 2016 review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, "Lansbury...steals the show, crafting a bravura performance that was justly rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to Patty Duke's Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.) Rarely has villainy been portrayed so convincingly or with such calculated precision, making it impossible to concentrate on anyone else while she's on screen. Despite the fact she was only three years older than Harvey, their relationship as mother and son is utterly believable, and their interchanges crackle with tension. Eleanor is a part that easily could have been overplayed and transformed into a caricature, but Lansbury embraces and nails every nasty element, even outshining the magnificent Meryl Streep, who gamely tackled Eleanor in the 2004 remake." Also starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Henry Silva, and James Gregory, The Manchurian Candidate might have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, but it feels eerily plausible today and still packs a devastating punch.


    Lansbury's first Disney film is a delightful fantasy that combines live action and animation á la Mary Poppins and is packed with Oscar-winning special effects. As wannabe witch Miss Eglantine Price, who hopes to use her newfound skills to stop the Nazi bombing of Britain in World War II, Lansbury files a spritely, quirky portrayal that's a fun departure from her more traditional roles.

    DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) 

    This all-star adaptation of the famed Agatha Christie whodunit is vastly superior to Kenneth Branagh's recent remake and features Lansbury as the outrageously over-the-top romance novelist Salome Otterbourne, one of several passengers on an Egyptian river cruise who might be a killer. Dripping in garish jewelry and donning an array of lavish costumes, Lansbury contributes a priceless comic performance that outshines many of her estimable cast mates, including Peter Ustinov (as Hercule Poirot), Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, David Niven, and Mia Farrow.


    As the empathetic, maternal teapot Mrs. Potts, Lansbury is the heart and soul of this enchanting animated Disney classic. The tale of a prince who's transformed into a beast and the humble country lass he imprisons in his castle may be as old as time, but Lansbury's touching rendition of the beautiful title song by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is timeless and will now carry extra emotional weight following her passing.

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