Appreciation: The genius of Angela Lansbury: She could play anyone

Angela Lansbury, who rose to widespread fame as the star of the long-running CBS series Murder, She Wrote and has received six Tony Awards (including an honorary award presented this year), was never to be confused with any other actress. A queen in exile, fiercely self-possessed, her syllables arranged like fine china, she was instantly recognizable and easily transformed.

Lansbury, who died Tuesday at the age of 96, didn’t melt into her roles, but she could play anything. She was as much a character actress as she was a star.

Writing a profile of Lansbury in 2014, I asked Stephen Sondheim for his thoughts on one of his greatest performers. He was in London and missed my deadline for the play, but I remember his pithy comments: ‘It’s hard to write about her without sounding like her agent. Suffice it to say that every playwright should have her in his play and every theater songwriter in his musical.”

The daughter of a wealthy English timber merchant and politician who died aged 9, Lansbury was still a teenager when she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after serving as an actor with her mother and brothers in Britain during World War II had left. She was selling cosmetics at a Los Angeles department store at the time to support her family when studio boss Louis B. Mayer, impressed with her screen test, let her shine.

Hired and placed on the MGM assembly line as an attractive utility player, she was cast in supporting roles in “Gaslight” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” earning Oscar nominations for her work in both films. She was Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister on National Velvet, a saloon singer, rival to Judy Garland on The Harvey Girls, and part of a love triangle with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy on State of the Union.

Working with Hollywood’s biggest stars has been both an education and a source of frustration for Lansbury. Cast in parts that didn’t always feel like an ideal fit, she saw the studio had relegated her to the second row. She longed for the stage after studying acting when she came to the United States on a scholarship from the American Theater Wing. But she had a family to support, and after leaving MGM at the end of her contract, she appeared regularly on television throughout the 1950s.

Oddly enough, after one of her most indelible film appearances, the role of the treacherous mother in the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate, she decided it was time to pursue her musical theater dream. The prospect of being typecast as a maternal terror by Hollywood spurred her into action. As Lansbury explained when I interviewed her at her Brentwood home in 2014, “You can’t belittle a role like that. I decided, ‘Forget it. i will sing now I’ll make you happy by singing.’”

She starred on Broadway in the Sondheim flop Anyone Can Whistle, which closed shortly after its premiere. Lansbury played the insane but viciously corrupt “Mayor” Cora Hoover Hooper, and had no interest in reprising a version of her character from The Manchurian Candidate.

She recalled a few screaming fights with writer-director Arthur Laurents, who became a loyal friend. To make matters worse, she hurt her voice singing the role. But this awkward start to her Broadway music career was overshadowed by the tremendous success she would have two years later in Jerry Herman’s musical Mame.

Lansbury played the title role of the extravagantly glamorous New York bohemian who is suddenly saddled with a child and won her first Tony Awards. But something more important was gained: the respected utility player had become a true Broadway star. No matter what else she did — and there would be a lot more to come — she would forever be recognized as a top talent.

In a 1985 television interview with Barbara Walters, Lansbury recalled how she “humiliated” herself to get the part. “It’s the only time in my career that I’ve done that and I did it for ‘mame’ because I knew ‘mame’ is the key that will open me up to a whole new career and take me out of this species doldrums cameo bits I’ve been locked into for so many years.

Lansbury would win her second Tony for her performance in “Dear World,” a short-lived Herman musical that was a descent from the dizzying heights of “Mame.” But the Broadway blitz struck again a few years later with the 1974 revival of Gypsy.

Stepping into the infamous stage mother role created by Ethel Merman, Lansbury knew she couldn’t match the raw theatrical power of her predecessor. Instead, she immersed herself in the dramatic complexity of the character. She teamed up again with writer-director Laurents and delivered Rose’s Turn, which was at once a seismic 11 o’clock number and an all-out nervous breakdown.

Lansbury’s ability to be both expansive and subtle, larger than life yet unmistakably human, was essential in bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the world. Critics were initially respectful but filled with doubts about this gory, Brechtian musical thriller from Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. Lansbury, who by this point had already become widely popular with his spells in the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, pulled off the comedy without undermining the horror. She delivered the Grand Guignol with a wink that was all the more disturbing for being so eccentrically amusing.

It’s Lansbury’s character, Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a seedy bakery, who suggests to Sweeney, the vengeful barber ready to slit throats with his razor, that something culinary could be made with all the corpses he plans to unearth. When it occurs to her that these corpses would make an ideal filling for her meat pies, she treats the matter like a perfectly sound business decision before giddy imagining the cannibal variety she can offer her customers.

You can see the lightbulb come on in Lansbury’s head in the performance, filmed for television at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as it begins “A Little Priest,” the hilariously macabre number in which she and Sweeney share the cakes after the List victim’s occupation. Lansbury’s cockney squeals and goofy devilish music hall flourishes delighted an audience willing to go wherever she was willing to take them, even if it meant imagining Shepherd’s Pie with a real shepherd on it!

Sondheim’s madness genius found the ideal singing character actor. A brilliant theater technician who can juggle cleverness with clowning, she honored Sondheim’s wildly original lyrics with her own musical precision while making the offbeat scenario devilishly entertaining.

Lansbury’s great gift was her ability to step into a fairytale reality regardless of the medium and to put her talents at the service of the narrative. She didn’t shy away from the limelight, but then she learned from her MGM days a star’s power to sell an illusion.

When I interviewed her, she was preparing to reprise her Tony-winning Broadway performance as the eccentric spiritualist Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Ahmanson Theatre. She was 89 and committed to work, even if it meant wearing an earbud to stay on call. Her honorary Oscar stood inconspicuously under the knick-knacks. The future was her main concern.

Lansbury’s relationship with her audience was precious to her. After 12 seasons entering viewers’ living rooms as crime writer and detective Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, the series that began in 1984, she wanted to maintain the special connection that television uniquely offers. The series’ global syndication, not to mention her voice-over performance as Mrs. Potts in the 1991 Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast, only fueled her desire to give back to her growing cross-generational legion of fans.

A consummate professional actress, she was comfortable in her own skin when out of the spotlight. Proud of her British heritage, Irish roots and American homeland, she embraced her past, tragedy as well as triumph, with the same clear gaze with which she approached her limitless variety of characters throughout her long and exemplary career. Appreciation: The genius of Angela Lansbury: She could play anyone

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