Not long ago, I saw Dame Angela Lansbury cavort around L.A.’s Ahmanson stage as a phony psychic in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. So adorably wacky and spry was she that it was hard to accept that she’d just turned 89. One thing that British showbiz types obviously do well is longevity. Though American actresses (with the singular exception of Betty White) fret about losing roles as they approach 40, their English counterparts still get plum parts when they’re octogenarians.
This past January, Joan Collins of Dynasty fame was named by Queen Elizabeth a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her philanthropic work. Now going on 82, she’s also still performing, and still manages to look like a sex symbol. Others among Britain’s great dames are perhaps less sexy now, but they’re noted for the complexity and variety of their dramatic roles. Take Vanessa Redgrave, newly 78 and known as much for her activism as for her peerless acting chops. When she started out, she was famous for fiery political pronouncements and also for playing boldly sexual characters in everything from Blow-Up to Isadora. Today she seems rather more subdued, but her old woman roles, like that of the severe Jean du Pont in Foxcatcher, still command attention.
Maggie Smith, at 80, remains busy too, racking up awards for her imperious Duchess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. And Judi Dench, who starred along with Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, also wears her 80 years well. Back in 1968, I remember her being described as “toothsome” when she played a seductive Titania in a filmed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More recently she had a mature but hardly old-ladyish action role in the James Bond flick Skyfall, was extremely moving as a grieving mother in Philomena, and got to find screen romance (and zip around Jaipur on the back of a motorbike) in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Old age doesn’t get much better than that.
Then of course there’s the ageless Lansbury. Although English-born, she got her start in American movies when barely twenty, earning Oscar nominations for her debut films, Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray. She excelled at offbeat and sinister roles, most memorably as Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate. For most of her film career, she was a true L.A. person. Early on, she made ends meet by clerking at the famous Bullocks Wilshire Department Store. After fame found her, she continued to live in SoCal for many years, and I’d spot her doing her shopping at Santa Monica’s best fish store.
Since she was known as a movie actress, it was a surprise to watch her metamorphose in the late Sixties into a Broadway musical theatre star, first in Mame and then Gypsy. I saw her playing the role of Mama Rose in the latter, and will never forget the power she packed. In 1979, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince cast her as the thoroughly mad Mrs. Lovett, she of the infamous pie shop, in Sweeney Todd: for this role she earned her fourth Tony Award. Alas, Oscar eluded her, until she earned an honorary statuette in 2013.
Many remember Lansbury for TV’s Murder She Wrote (1984-96). One who’ll never forget her is actor Robert Forster, who told me that for this series, “She made it a habit of hiring actors who needed the work. Wow! She had a reputation for being a salvation for actors of a certain era who had slipped under the radar. So she hired me twice. She’s a real good girl.”