By M.V. Moorhead
Our dog Othello was a fan of Angela Lansbury. My mother-in-law would often dogsit him, and she, like many people of her generation, was a devoted viewer of Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury’s series that ran from 1984 to 1996 on CBS, and for decades thereafter in syndication.
So she and Othello would sit happily on the couch together and enjoy the adventures of mystery novelist and small-town sleuth Jessica Fletcher.
This is how many people will remember Lansbury. But her remarkable career is far from defined by the hugely successful Murder, She Wrote.
Sometimes the death of a famous person who has attained great age can be oddly more startling than that of a younger celebrity.
This was the case, for me, with Lansbury, who passed on Oct. 11 at 96. She was around so long, and so vitally, that she had become almost a symbol of geriatric health, agency and relevancy. She was on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in 2005, and was still acting as recently as Mary Poppins Retuns in 2018; reportedly she has a cameo as herself in the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. It seemed like she might outlive us all.
A native of London, Lansbury came to the U.S. in her teens when her family fled the Blitz. She studied at the American Theatre Wing, then made her movie debut, at the age of 17, in support of Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in 1944’s Gaslight. Her role as a shifty maid in that film got her the first of three Oscar nominations.
The second came a year later, when she played Sybil Vane inThe Picture of Dorian Gray.
Many other film and television roles followed, but in the ’60s and ’70s Lansbury ascended to legendary stardom on the Broadway stage, with leads in productions of Mame, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and others.
She won a total of six Tony Awards, from eight nominations. In the ’90s, she provided the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, probably the role by which younger audiences know her the best, and sweetly sang the title song.
It’s a great, impressive career by any standard. But none of the above achievements are what I think of first when I think of Angela Lansbury. No, for me her most memorable role is the one that brought her a third Oscar nomination, in one of my top all-time favorite movies: that of Eleanor Iselin, mother of poor Laurence Harvey’s hapless brainwashed Raymond Shaw in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
Lansbury’s Eleanor is the true power behind the title character, buffonish McCarthy-esque Red-baiting Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), and she’s more than willing to conspire with Communists and to sacrifice her son Raymond’s mind and heart to steer Johnny to the White House. Her performance is hard-edged and scary and despicable, but also strong, intelligent and witty, with a touch of lechery toward her husband and an unsavory Oedipal undercurrent toward her son.
It’s strange to think that the same Angela Lansbury who played Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Potts could also have created one of the best villains in American movies.
But watch The Manchurian Candidate and you’ll see the iron behind the sweetness.
M.V. Moorhead, a onetime New Times film columnist, writes regularly for Wrangler News