Rob Edelman: Angela Lansbury

Mar 17, 2014

This seems as good a time as any to pay tribute to an actress who has had quite a career in so many different entertainment industry venues. I am referring to Angela Lansbury.

For one thing, Lansbury has recently-- and deservedly-- been awarded an Honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement.

For another, GYPSY, which back in 1975 earned Lansbury one of her five Tony Awards, is being revived at the Capital Rep in Albany. Lastly, Lansbury, who is 88 years old, is still a trouper. She is set to reprise her 2009 Tony Award-winning performance as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's BLITHE SPIRIT in London. It will be her first appearance on the London stage in nearly four decades.

A number of years ago, my wife, Audrey Kupferberg, and I researched and published an Angela Lansbury biography. When you delve into someone's life, you might expect to come up with some eye-popping and even salacious tidbits. We were not looking for this sort of thing, but you never know what you'll find. But with Lansbury, there was nothing of this sort. Lansbury is quite a lady and, as we explored her life, our respect for her as an artist and as a person only increased.

Regarding her career, there are two points that need to be made here. Ever so briefly, the London-born Lansbury came to the United States during World War II. Before she was out of her teens, she signed a seven-year contract at MGM. Even though she quickly earned two Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, for GASLIGHT and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, she was given one-too-many roles in less-than-stellar films. But perhaps the final indignity was that Lansbury occasionally would find herself cast in MGM musicals, and her singing voice would be dubbed. The first occasion was in the 1946 musical THE HARVEY GIRLS.

"In Hollywood, they thought I had a reedy little voice," Lansbury once noted. At the time, who at MGM would have thought that Lansbury was fated to win four Tony Awards for starring in Broadway musicals?

Secondly, perhaps because she was no glamour girl, Lansbury often played characters who were much older than she was.

Arguably her most memorable screen role is as the evil, scheming mother in 1962's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Her scorching performance earned Lansbury her third Supporting Actress nomination. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is of note as a fictional chronicle of a plot to assassinate an American politician, and it premiered a full twelve months before the murder of John F. Kennedy. Plus, it is far superior to its 2004 remake. But the point here is that Lansbury was just three years older than Laurence Harvey, who was cast in the film as her son.

Another example: In 1948's STATE OF THE UNION, Lansbury plays a newspaper publisher and hardened veteran of the Washington political wars who schmoozes with characters played by middle-aged Spencer Tracy and Adolph Menjou. Her character is supposed to be 45 years old. At one point, she describes herself as a "woman, and still under sixty." Yet Lansbury was just 23 when she made STATE OF THE UNION.

However, what is most impressive about Lansbury is how she responded when her two teenage children were experimenting with drugs during the turbulent late 1960s. What Lansbury did was put her career on hold while she and her husband Peter moved the family to Ireland: as far away from the New York-Hollywood fast lane as could be.

The bottom line is that family came first. Family came before career. And despite her decades-long success, this is the one aspect of Angela Lansbury's life that should be most-admired.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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