“Those of us who were 12 or 13 when the war started were absolutely thrown into the mainstream. We had to grow up instantly and take care of ourselves.” — Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury in “Gaslight” (1944)

It’s her birthday today.

Her performance in Gaslight, at age 18, is one of the most auspicious debuts of all time. She makes a huge impression as Nancy, the maid in that crazy house. She’s saucy, smart, tough, and has a life beyond the screen. You don’t forget her. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar, her first time out of the gate.

Lansbury’s career has spanned almost 90 years. Is a career like Lansbury’s even possible now? The entertainment world has changed so much. She did it all: serious films, comedies, musicals, a huge hit television series (which she also executive produced), television movies, smash hits on Broadway. She is a star who can still fill a theatre on the draw of her name alone.

Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

One lazy afternoon in Chicago, Mitchell and I turned on the television, and the 1992 TV movie Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris was on. We settled in to watch. There’s a scene where Mrs. ‘Arris (Angela Lansbury) sits on a park bench and breaks down into tears. There are so many great moments in her career, but that one stands out as one of the most heart-wrenching.

Omar Sharif and Angela Lansbury in “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” (1992)

Mitchell and I watched the scene in silence, and then glanced at each other when it was done, and saw we both were sobbing. The movie went on, but Mitchell sobbed next to me, “I’m trying to get past it … but I just can’t …” I sobbed, “I can’t either.”

So many iconic moments, so many unforgettable performances. Today I want to link to a clip from the Tony Awards many years ago when she and Bea Arthur took the stage, sang “Bosom Buddies,” and brought the house down.

If you are GIANT GODDESSES, all you need is some simple shimmying, some cross-around walking, a step-touch-step-touch thing … and the audience roars in approval. Your collective energy fills a huge theatre. Your mere presence is exhilarating.

You have not lived until you have watched this clip at Sidetrack, a Chicago bar with a weekly musical-number extravaganza, where clips like this one are played on the 20 enormous televisions throughout the bar, and the hundreds of gay men (and their straight friends) who show up every week sing along at top volume.


And of course … she played Elvis’ mother in Blue Hawaii.

She was only 7 years older than Elvis, because this is the way Hollywood works, but she is very funny in the film, playing a broad character, with a thick Southern accent, and a love of very strong tropical cocktails. Here, she talks with Robert Osborne about Elvis. Very sweet comments.

Happy birthday, legend!

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15 Responses to “Those of us who were 12 or 13 when the war started were absolutely thrown into the mainstream. We had to grow up instantly and take care of ourselves.” — Angela Lansbury

  1. “Little Yellow Bird.”

  2. Rinaldo says:

    She’s a treasure. I’ve been fortunate enough to see her onstage several times.

    I think I remember that moment as Mrs. ‘Arris, and how unexpectedly affecting it was. It may partly be that for all the variety in her long career — we’ve seen her saucy, starchy, zany, warm, elegant, scruffy, imperious, homey, you name it — it’s hard to recall a scene where we see her simply miserable and hopeless like that. So it’s almost as if it really happened to a dear friend.

    It’s funny (and telling) to recall that when she was cast as Mame, after all those years in the movies playing much older than her real age, people asked “but is she right for the part? isn’t she just ancient?” And she surely reveled in the chance to show that she was in fact a sleek, lively 40. And had (so far) another 50 years to go!

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo – I’m envious you’ve seen her live. What have you seen her in?

      I love that you remember that touching moment in Mrs Arris!! Silly TV movie but she was so excellent and that scene was just so sad – exactly right: it was a dear friend who felt hopeless. Unbearable.

      And yes: “too old” at 40. 50 more years to go. And counting.

      Just extraordinary.

  3. Rinaldo says:

    Well, to be fair back then, it was easy to assume she was a lot older than she was — she’d been playing severe matrons and conniving mothers (that mother in The Manchurian Candidate!) in the movies for so long.

    Let’s see… though I’ve seen her in person six times, four of them were in Sweeney Todd — 3 times on Broadway, once in the tour in Chicago. (And it’s worth mentioning that after a long hard spell touring in that vocally demanding near-opera, only two of the cast were still vocally fresh: the young tenor who played the sailor, and Angela Lansbury.) The fifth was as host of a one-night concert of Anyone Can Whistle, in which she’d starred 20 years before, so maybe it doesn’t count, though again she gave lessons in poise and good humor as little things went wrong around her. And finally, a few years back as the dotty medium in Private Lives, which she then took on tour just last year.

    • Rinaldo says:

      Argh, not Private Lives of course, I know better than that — another Coward play, Blithe Spirit.

    • sheila says:

      // only two of the cast were still vocally fresh: the young tenor who played the sailor, and Angela Lansbury //

      I love to hear that. So professional.

      And yes, I had heard about her in Blithe Spirit! Still touring at 89 years old. I am so glad she exists.

    • Paul Outlaw says:

      That “young tenor” was probably (at least once) the 30-year-old Victor Garber. (Also saw Sweeney Todd twice on Broadway.)

  4. joelnox says:

    She really is indefatigable. I know she holds several records but if she doesn’t hold the record for longest consistent performing career as a name actress she must be moving in on it.

    Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris is such a charmer of a film, it inspired me to read the book it was based on which was also highly enjoyable. It’s actually the first in a small series of four. All three I read so far have been terrific, surprisingly written by the same man who wrote The Poseidon Adventure!

    Thanks to TCM’s mini festival of her movies today I was at last able to catch the final one of her theatrical films that I had yet to see, The Hoodlum Saint. It wasn’t anything special though it had a good cast, William Powell, James Gleason, Frank McHugh etc. Angela was terrific as a worldly club singer, especially effective since she was 20 when she made the film but then playing a more mature person was a specialty of hers. It was certainly better than some of her other obscure films, Mutiny…The Red Danube, that I’ve struggled through.

    • sheila says:

      I love Paul Gallico!!

      I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear how many people remember Mrs. Arris Goes to Paris. That warms my heart.

      I haven’t seen The Hoodlum Saint and I am sorry I missed it.

      Thank you for your comment!

  5. Rinaldo says:

    Since the first comment mentioned “Little Yellow Bird,” it’s amazing to recall that in the early years when she was primarily working in movies, her singing was always dubbed (as in The Picture of Dorian Grey). Now, of course, we know her as a queen of musical theater, with an instantly recognizable vocal quality.

    • sheila says:

      Silly, right?

      You know, I watched that clip of her and Bea Arthur again – and I usually get so bowled over by their collective star power that I haven’t actually watched it for the details.

      There’s a moment about halfway through when Bea Arthur criticizes Lansbury’s sense of style. Lansbury has taken a proud model-isn pose which she holds – and as the insult comes at her from the side – she still holds that pose, but you can see her face go blank and icy.

      It’s SO FUNNY.

  6. JessicaR says:

    One of my favorite roles of hers is as Orson Welles’ sweetheart in The Long, Hot Summer. It’s a small part but it’s an undeniable part of what makes the film tick. She fills this character with so much shading and life that she steals every scene she’s in. To do that character, and then decades later to do Miss Lovett on Broadway, that’s range.

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