Friday, October 14, 2022

Fishing for Memories of Angela Lansbury

 Most people today seem to remember the late Angela Lansbury for small-town sleuthing in TV’s Murder, She Wrote,or for playing the voice of a teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Wonderful credits, to be sure. But there was so much more to a career that began with a 1944 thriller, Gaslight, when she was a mere 19 years old. As a housemaid named Nancy, who may possibly be up to no good, she earned her first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

 I didn’t see Gaslight until years after it came out. My first memory of Lansbury on screen comes from a 1955 Danny Kaye comedy classic, The Court Jester, in which she played a pouty princess opposite Kaye’s inept rebel masquerading as a performer at the royal court. Glynis Johns was featured too, as Kaye’s girl-of-the-people love interest. I remember how as a small child I was confused: the princess (blonde) was much less appealing to me than the peasant (Johns), but I labored under the assumption that blondes like Lansbury were usually considered more beautiful than their brunette rivals. (I had spent considerable time at my local bakery, eyeing all the blonde bride cake-toppers, standing next to their dark-haired grooms, so I was hyper-sensitive about my own dark coloring.) The fact remained that Lansbury was never, not even as a very young woman, considered a Hollywood beauty. There was something strong and tough about her—something not particularly youthful—that marked even her earliest appearances and helped her to blossom as an older performer.

 Curiously, she played matronly roles (like that of Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii) when she was only 36. One year later, she took on one of her most iconic portrayals, that of Laurence Harvey’s menacing mom in the 1962 political thriller, The Manchuria Candidate. This film led to her third supporting actress Oscar nomination: she never won, but received an honorary Oscar in 2014, in tribute to her long and distinguished career.  

 And she could sing too, as she revealed while nabbing 4 Tony awards (starting in 1966) for her star turns in Broadway musicals. The first was for Mame, in which she played to perfection a wealthy and flamboyant bohemian. But I saw her on the stage, for the first time, as Gypsy Rose Lee’s self-obsessed Tiger Mom in Gypsy, a performance that haunts me to this day. (It was during the intermission for Gypsy that I briefly met Groucho Marx, but that’s a story for another time.) In 1979, Lansbury possibly topped herself by creating the role of the jovial, blood-thirsty Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s masterful Sweeney Todd. Never has a thoroughly gruesome story been more fun. I can still see her Grand Guignol makeup, and hear her cajoling her partner in gastronomic crime to try a little priest. (This was surely a portrayal to relish!)

 After these towering roles, the shrewd but amiable Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote  and the sweetly sentimental Mrs. Potts of Beauty and the Beast must have seemed downright relaxing. But they allowed her to move into old age comfortably, while still continuing to work. (Her last film appearance was released this very year. She had a small role as herself in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery at the age of 96.)  From all appearances, she was a Hollywood treasure, but also a human being. One day some years back, at Santa Monica’s best fish emporium, I saw her shopping for dinner. (But I don’t remember the counterman urging her to try a little plaice . . . or a nice monkfish filet.)  



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