Angela Lansbury (Star of the Month) - Wednesdays in January
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925 to Irish actress Moyna MacGill and Edgar Lansbury, a member of the House of Commons and the son of George Lansbury, a member of Parliament who went on to be leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s. As she said of her childhood, "I wanted to be an actress from the word go". While living in London, she studied at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art as well as being taught by her mother, who had come from a family of actors going back several generations. After her father's death and the outbreak of World War II, Angela Lansbury emigrated to the United States with her mother and brothers, escaping on one of the last boats out of Britain. The family first settled in New York where Lansbury attended the Feagin School of Drama and Radio, on a scholarship at the American Theater Wing. Her first break came when she got a job doing cabaret in Montreal, Canada at the age of sixteen (although tall for her age she appeared older) while her mother toured Canada in a variety show for the Canadian Air Force. When Moyna's agent contacted her about a role in a Hollywood movie, she went out there, only to find the role taken. However, she decided that Hollywood was where she and her daughter would have the best chance at having careers so she sent for Angela, who made the cross-country trip by train.
Their luck did not change in 1941 Hollywood and both women ended up working as salesgirls at Bullock's Wilshire in Beverly Hills while they continued to audition. Angela's agent told her that MGM was going to make a film based on Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and got her an audition. Nothing came of it and she went back to Bullock's. Another audition was more successful. Director George Cukor was making, Gaslight (1944) starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer and was casting for the seductive maid. She got the part and a contract with MGM, where she would remain until the 1950s. Gaslight was Lansbury's first film, and at the age of seventeen, she found herself playing a character older than her real age, which would happen so often that audiences constantly thought of her as an older woman. Her age caused a problem at the studio. Due to the presence of a social worker on the set, a scene in which her character lights a cigarette had to be postponed until her eighteenth birthday, which co-star Ingrid Bergman and the cast and crew celebrated with a party. Angela Lansbury earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her first film.
MGM put her in a strange assortment of roles. "When I was a kid in Hollywood the producers didn't know what to do with me. That was the period of the ladies. I was very young and looked, shall we say, mature? I was chubby because I ate all the time: Fig Newtons, chocolate bars, fudge...Someone decided I should be the youngest character actress in the business. I never had the chocolate-box looks they wanted for romantic leads in those days. So when I was in my twenties, I was in make-up to play beastly women in their forties and fifties". Happily, she was given the rare chance to play a girl roughly her own age when she finally got the role of Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, which earned her another Best Supporting Actress nomination). And it was through her Dorian Gray co-star, Hurd Hatfield, that Lansbury met her second husband, Peter Shaw, who she married in 1949. They had two children and remained married until his death in 2003.
Her roles at MGM became routine: bitchy older women or downright villainesses. In If Winter Comes (1947) she played Walter Pidgeons' thirty-seven year old wife when she was twenty-two, and in her next film, State of the Union (1948) her character was forty-five! New York Times columnist Phil Koury wrote in 1949, "Fans who have been caught up by Miss Lansbury's special brand of radiation may be more than mildly surprised to learn that she is only twenty-three, an age that doesn't fit in at all with the glacial composure, the delicate and ruthless reality that has managed to get into certain of her characterizations. Hollywood's love of repetition being what it is, Angela will have to put up with the spate of older, adderish portrayals until some astute producer discovers what most observers already concede: that here indeed is a versatile and exciting screen personality." Unfortunately, those producers never saw her true potential and by the 1950s, when her MGM contract was up, she left.
Along with sporadic forays in films, Lansbury spent much of the 1950s raising her growing family and performing on the new medium of television. Between 1950 and 1959, she appeared in over twenty-one broadcasts, including The Screen Director's Playhouse, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio 57, G.E. Theater, and even starred in a game show called Pantomime Quiz where she and other celebrities acted out charades, which had been a popular party game in Hollywood for decades. In 1957 she appeared on the Broadway stage starring in Hotel Paradiso with the legendary Bert Lahr. Since Hollywood rarely offered her good roles, she preferred the theater which she found more satisfying, while taking occasional films for the money.
In her personal life, Lansbury devoted herself to her family while trying to maintain a career, which made her role in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) highly ironic. Her Mrs. Iselin may be the single most evil mother ever portrayed on screen. "That role [Mrs. Iselin] has resonated throughout my entire career as the part. I think she was the absolute essence of evil. I was petrified of her when I finally saw the completed film. It was a great indulgence to portray that kind of shocking attitude that she had, her sense of total cruelty, that she'd do anything to achieve her ends."
Once again, she was playing a much older woman - in this case, she was only three years older than her screen "son", Laurence Harvey. "When I was thirty-five I started dressing as though I was fifty-five. Suddenly I became very settled - broad in the beam. When I did Manchurian Candidate I was very fat, and quite middle-aged looking. I think I was probably willing myself to be middle-aged." Audiences were shocked by the sexual undertones in her relationship with Harvey in the film, particularly one scene where she gives him a long, decidedly un-motherly kiss. "The whole audience just gasped at that scene when they realize who this woman really is. The whole idea of incest caused such a hoo-ha back then". When her eleven-year-old son Anthony was asked what his favorite part of the film was, he said, "The part where you get shot right between the eyes." The Manchurian Candidate earned Lansbury another Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Although her film performances have been relatively few, her career has kept her very busy in other areas in the past forty years. Her Broadway appearances have won her four Tony awards (Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd); between 1946 and 1995 she won six Golden Globes for her film and television work; she's been nominated for an unbelievable fifteen Emmy Awards; been made an honorary CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth ("honorary" because Lansbury became a naturalized American citizen in 1951); had Kennedy Center Honors, and a National Medal of Arts to name but a few! And at an age where other actresses were retiring due to a lack of good roles, Angela Lansbury had her own television show, Murder, She Wrote, which made her a television star.
Now past eighty, Lansbury recently starred in Emma Thompson's film, Nanny McPhee (2005) and at the time of this writing, is preparing to move to New York in hopes of returning to the theater. "It will be interesting to see what transpires from this move back to New York. With my grandchildren grown now, and my family all involved in their own lives and their own business, I no longer feel I need to be right there. I need to be back in New York theatrical society...I've got to have a piece of New York in my life again."
by Lorraine LoBianco
Margaret Wander Bonanno, "Angela Lansbury: A Biography"
The Internet Movie Database
"Angela Lansbury in Comedy 'Nanny McPhee', "Associate Press interview, May 8, 2006
"Lansbury thinks 'Nanny' has the look of a classic", Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 2006
* Titles in Bold will air on TCM in January