08 January 2017

Exported to the USA: Angela Lansbury

Strawberry blonde and blue-eyed Angela Lansbury (1925) is a British-born character actress, who works in the United States since the Second World War began. She began her career as a teenager in the films Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). She was later known for her mother roles in films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In the 1980s, she obtained her greatest fame on TV as Jessica Fletcher in the mystery series Murder, She Wrote (1984).

Angela Lansbury
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois - D'Haine, no. C 301. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Three Musketeers (George Sidney, 1948).

Angela Lansbury
Dutch postcard by Takken, no. 166. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Other Woman

Angela Brigid Lansbury was born Regent Park, London in 1925. She was the daughter of actress Moyna MacGill, and timber merchant and politician Edward Lansbury, who died when she was only 9 years old.

Her grandfather, George Lansbury, was the British Labour Party leader in the 1930s. Her younger twin brothers are art director and producer Edgar Lansbury and TV producer Bruce Lansbury, and her older half-sister is Isolde Denham.

Lansbury studied acting from her youth. With her mother and brothers, she departed for the United States in 1940, as the Second World War began. In New York City, Lansbury received a scholarship to study drama at the Lucy Fagan school. She was contracted by MGM while still a teenager.

Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award for her first film, Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944). Opposite Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, she played the house maid Nancy. Two pictures later, she was again nominated for Best Supporting Actress, this time for playing dance hall lady Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945), based on Oscar Wilde’s story of a man who makes a supernatural pact to remain young at a high cost. She did win a Golden Globe for her supporting role in this film.

Lansbury landed other major roles, including that of Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944) and opposite Judy Garland in the musical The Harvey Girls (George Sidney, 1946). Now established as a supporting player of quality, she began a long career, often as 'the other woman' in major productions and as the leading lady in lesser films.

Angela Lansbury
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois - D'Haine, no. C 8. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Angela Lansbury
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois - D'Haine. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The manipulating mother

Angela Lansbury became an American citizen in 1951. She appeared as Princess Gwendolyn opposite Danny Kaye in the comedy film The Court Jester (Melvin Frank, 1956), as Minnie Littlejohn in The Long Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958), and as Mabel Claremont in The Reluctant Debutante (Vincente Minelli, 1958).

Her features, while not at all old-appearing, gave her an air of maturity that allowed her to pass as much older than she actually was. She began playing mother roles, often to players of her own age, while yet in her thirties. Lansbury played Elvis Presley's mother in Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), despite only being 10 years older than him.

She was also the manipulating mother of Laurence Harvey in the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962), while in real life being scarcely three years Harvey's senior. The latter brought her a third Academy Award nomination for supporting actress.

Other film roles included The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (Terence Young, 1965) starring Kim Novak, and the biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965), featuring Max von Sydow as Jesus. In the partially-animated Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Robert Stevenson, 1971), she played the witch Miss Price.

However, she concentrated more and more on stage work. She made her Broadway debut in 1957 with the play Hotel Paradiso, a French burlesque set in Paris, directed by Peter Glenville. A role in the drama A Taste of Honey (1961) and the Stephen Sondheim musical Anyone Can Whistle (1964) followed.

She achieved notable success in a number of Broadway musicals. She has been the co-recipient of 4 Grammy Awards for her leading roles in the musicals Mame (1966), Dear World (1969), Gypsy (1975) and Sweeney Todd (1979).

In 2007, she returned to Broadway after more than two decades, performing in the show Deuce. Lansbury played a former tennis pro who reunites with her doubles partner for an honours ceremony at the U.S. Open. Two years later, she won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Blithe Spirit, the revival of a Noel Coward play about a man who is haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife. Lansbury continued her stage work, playing Madame Armfeldt in the 2009 revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones, and in 2012 taking on a lead role in the Gore Vidal satire The Best Man.

Angela Lansbury in The Red Danube (1949)
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois - D'Haine, no. C 238. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Red Danube (George Sidney, 1949).

Angela Lansbury in The Red Danube (1949)
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois - D'Haine, no. C 280. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Red Danube (George Sidney, 1949).

Her greatest success

Angela Lansbury alternated between film, television and the stage for years. In the cinema, Lansbury appeared in 1979 as Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes (Anthony Page, 1979), a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's famous 1938 film. The following year she appeared in The Mirror Crack'd (Guy Hamilton, 1980), another film based on an Agatha Christie novel, this time as Miss Marple, a sleuth in 1950s Kent. She also played the grandmother in the Gothic fantasy film The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984).

That same year, she obtained her greatest success as Jessica Fletcher in the light mystery TV show Murder, She Wrote (1984). For her 12-year stint as the diplomatic, clever and kind fictional writer and sleuth, she became known and loved. From 1985 to 1996, she yearly got Emmy Award nominations for the role without ever winning for it. Eventually she took over production duties for the show as well.

In 2005, she made a notable appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which earned her an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. She also voiced several animated characters for films like Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1991), in which she voiced Mrs. Potts.

Jim Beaver at IMDb: “An institution in American theatre and television, she is also an inspiration for the graciousness of her personality, which is often exploited and always admired.”

Lansbury was married twice. Her first marriage was to American actor Richard Cromwell. It ended after a year in a divorce. A recent authorized biography, Balancing Act, states that Cromwell was gay, a fact she didn't know until after their separation. Her second husband was British actor Peter Shaw, from 1949 till his death in 2003. Shaw became her manager and launched a production company that would be heavily involved in Murder, She Wrote. The couple had two children, Anthony Pullen Shaw (1952) and Deirdre Angela Shaw (1953).

Angela Lansbury was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1994 and the DBE (Dame Commander of Order of the British Empire) in 2014. A year later, she triumphantly returned to London's West End stage after a forty year absence. She starred in her Tony winning role as Madam Arcati in Blithe Spirit. For this role, she won her only Laurence Olivier award for best supporting actress in 2015.

Trailer for Gaslight (George Cukor, 1945). Source: Warner Bros. (YouTube).

Trailer for Something for Everyone (Harold Prince, 1970). Source: Dukece (YouTube).

Trailer The Mirror Crack'd (Guy Hamilton, 1980). Source: Mr80sMovies (YouTube).

Trailer The Company Of Wolves Trailer (Neil Jordan, 1985). Source: Video Detective (YouTube).

Sources: Jim Beaver (IMDb), Biography.com, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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