R.I.P. Angela Lansbury

Even if you came to Gaslight clean, without knowing a thing, which is hard to believe, but let’s just pretend: Even if you knew nothing about it, it would be instantly obvious that the teenage girl who plays the maid is almost stealing every scene she’s in (and with Ingrid Bergman giving one of the great performances in cinema, this is no small feat), and you probably might think something like, “Wow. That teenage actress is probably going to work all the time.”

But could you predict an almost-80 year uninterrupted career? A career crossing mediums to a nearly unprecedented level? That that dead-eyed manipulative teenage maid would conquer film, television, and – most of all – Broadway? That she would headline a hit television show – when she was in her 50s and 60s – (again: WHEN does this happen? If it happens NOW, then that teenage actress is a large reason why those glass ceilings were cracked) – a television show that would be a staple in audience’s lives for almost two decades?

I mean, who can predict something like this? As good as she is in Gaslight, who – in their wildest dreams – could imagine a career like THAT?

If you think there is another career like Angela Lansbury’s – if you think a comparison can be made to somebody else’s career – you’re wrong. There IS nobody else. If Judy Garland were still around, doing television and movies and Broadway, then MAYBE. But other than that: Angela Lansbury stands (stood) alone. Angela Lansbury never rested on her laurels, and never stopped working. She showed up everywhere. She was bone-chilling in The Manchurian Candidate. She was sassy and insouciant as Elizabeth Taylor’s teenage sister in National Velvet. She was Auntie Mame. She was Mrs. Lovett. She was Jessica Fletcher, dammit.

And … let’s not ever forget: She played Elvis’ tipsy Southern belle mother in Blue Hawaii.

My friend Dan wrote a very insightful and emotional tribute to Lansbury at Rogerebert.com and I recommend you read the whole thing, but I want to pull out one paragraph:

Watch her even in the most obscure television episode or movie and there will likely come a moment when Lansbury faces the camera and exposes all the knockout passion and yearning in her soul. She could convey a sense of enormous loss in a way that offered no relief or closure for that loss, and this was the wellspring of her creativity.

Yes. YES. I thought instantly of an afternoon in Chicago, a long long time ago, when Mitchell and I turned on the television, and the 1992 TV movie Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris was on. This was when, you know, you had to watch whatever was on. We were happy though: Omar Sharif and Angela Lansbury? Count us in! We settled in to watch. We were totally charmed by it.

But then … There’s a scene where Mrs. ‘Arris (Lansbury) sits on a park bench and breaks down in tears. The sobs tear up out of her very depths, and it is real and it was impossible to keep our distance from it. Mitchell and I watched the scene in silence – her crying was a gut-punch – and when the scene ended, we glanced at each other and saw that we both were sobbing openly. The movie went on, five minutes passed, ten, and neither of us could recover. Mitchell sobbed “I’m trying to get past it … but I can’t …” I sobbed, “I can’t either.”

Dan wrote:

She could convey a sense of enormous loss in a way that offered no relief or closure for that loss.

That’s it. That was exactly what was going on, and it’s why Mitchell and I had such visceral responses. There was no relief or closure, for her or for us. Her crying like that was unbearable to watch. There were so many great moments in her career, but the crying on the park bench in Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris stands out as one of her finest.

Lansbury and Bea Arthur literally taking over the Tony Awards with a duet of “Bosom Buddies” is a moment for the ages, and every gay man I know knows every aside, every gesture, every quip, by heart. In my crowd, loving this clip – loving the two of them – is non-negotiable. What’s so incredible to me is how LITTLE they do, really. They shimmy a bit, they cross-around walk, they do a little step-touch with a shoulder bump … and the audience roars, and the clip will live forever. THAT’S being a star. And of course, they’re not “doing” much but … look at what they ARE doing. Their energy fills a theatre. Their mere presence is exhilarating. They are PROS.

Watch closely. This kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore. It’s part of a lost world. We are losing a connection with something precious with the passing of Angela Lansbury. She was going to turn 97 next week. Almost a century old. She worked in every decade of her life.

She conquered every medium at the highest possible level.

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8 Responses to R.I.P. Angela Lansbury

  1. Cassandra says:

    I just learned that during Murder, She Wrote, she made a point of hiring Golden Age actors who weren’t being hired in Hollywood anymore because of their age, so they could still get insurance and pensions, etc., and she created a recurring role for a colleague who had MS so she could continue to get coverage for her treatment. I love stories about that kind of generosity and using one’s position to help elevate others.

  2. Carolyn Clarke says:

    I loved her as Elvis’ mother and you can tell that he loved her, too. But my favorite role is in The Manchurian Candidate when she tells Harvey how she will avenge the fact that her handlers chose him as the assassin. The kiss, the look. There was absolutely no one like her. She will sorely missed.

  3. Shawn says:

    Democracy Now reported her passing and noted she was a proud socialist. I had no idea.

    “Actor Angela Lansbury has died at the age of 96. She’s best known for her role in the TV series “Murder, She Wrote” and appeared in the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate.” Angela Lansbury considered herself a “proud socialist” and came from a political family. Her grandfather, George Lansbury, was leader of the Labour Party, who led the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921, a protest against unequal taxation in one of the poorest areas of London.”

    There’s much more to Angela for sure. I always will remember Mrs ‘arris. The idea of seeing a poor woman go after a dream of wearing a beautiful dress was so attractive to me. I ate that tv movie up. But my favorite roll of hers was as the kooky bohemian passenger on Death on the Nile. I don’t think many would consider it a great performance, but it’s the one that always stuck in my head, and made me smile. Did she ever do anything remotely like that again in her career?

    And it’s that voice. The instantly recognizable voice that filled up her teapot in Beauty and the Beast. There are many actors whose voices became synonymous with Disney and that take up a small slot in our brains. Hers is one of those.

    Just before I read your post, my husband said “look” as he always does when we are in bed. That word is then quickly followed by his phone being placed a little too close to my face. Usually I just humor him, but this time it was a posting of the teapot character. I can’t say I was a fan of that film, though Angela’s part was so wonderful. But I was surprised at how much love and warmth the awkwardly drawn teapot brought to me in that second. And I now am ready to sleep with such a nice feeling.

    • sheila says:

      Her appeal was so massive! Multiple generations have their own “way in” with her – whether it’s the teapot, or Auntie Mame, or Jessica Fletcher – it’s really quite extraordinary!

  4. Bill Wolfe says:

    Another favorite performance of hers was in The World of Henry Orient. I love that movie for several reasons, first and second being the friendship between the two girls, which we almost never get to see in movies, and the glimpse of what New York City looked like five minutes before the Beatles arrived. But I also love the performances, chief among them Tom Bosley’s warm, slowly-coming-back-to-life father and Angela Lansbury’s withholding, self-centered mother. Lansbury allows us to see the panic in the face of aging that drives her character’s behavior, without ever pleading for audience sympathy or excusing that character for the hurt she causes her daughter. Not as epic as her character in The Manchurian Candidate, because the stakes aren’t as high. But these two would definitely recognize each other.

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