As the news began to circulate around social media of the passing of entertainment legend Angela Lansbury, the problem became: how best to remember her? Some opted for reminiscing about her role in the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote, others posted videos of Mrs. Potts (voiced by Angela) in Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast. A few posted bold headshots and studio promotion photographs from the ‘40s and ‘50s, while others shared videos of Angela as Mama Rose in the 1974 Broadway revival of Gypsy.
Watching these tributes scroll past, I was struck by the variety and range of the roles chosen, of course, but also by the consistency. Angela Lansbury not only produced some of the finest acting to be seen (or heard) on stage or screen, but she did so unfailingly for seventy-seven years!
FF2 Guest Post by Nicole Ballance
In preparing to write this article, I consulted one of the leading authorities: Wikipedia. I was thinking I might take their brief biography and whittle it down even more. Instead, the few sentences that sketched out her early life fired my imagination: born to an Irish actress mother and an English politician father (who passed away when she was nine), the future star was raised in a largely middle-class household. She found escape in the movies and considered herself largely “self-taught” – a middle-school education augmented with a brief stint studying at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatics. But it was 1940, and in order to escape the Blitz, her mother relocated the family to America via Canada.
Once in the USA, Angela’s mother continued her own acting career, leaving Angela to either look after her younger brothers, or join her mother on the road. One can imagine what it must have been like for a 15-year-old English girl to suddenly find herself completely uprooted and, apparently, relied upon heavily to help keep the family afloat.
Angela won a scholarship to the Feagin School of Dramatic Art which allowed her to finish her dramatic studies, and she joined her mother in Hollywood in 1942. Truly, the first few years of her life read as a story of initiative, luck, and sheer audacity, right up until she appeared in her first feature-length film at seventeen. That film was Gaslight, in which she plays Nancy (the manipulative Cockney maid). Angela was nominated for an Oscar for the role, although she is quoted as saying she is glad she didn’t win.
To quote Peter Pan: From there it was “second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.”
Angela Lansbury’s credits are a time-machine of twentieth century film and theater history. For brevity’s sake, let us note the seven (seven!) times she was nominated for a Tony award – in 1966, 1969, 1975, 1979, 2007, 2009, and 2010 – before being awarded a Lifetime Achievement award in 2022. The five Tonys she received were given to her for a roster of shows that read like an actress’ list of dream roles: Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd – with 2009’s revival of Blithe Spirit being thrown in for good measure. (If you, dear reader, haven’t heard of Dear World, fear not: while the show closed after “only” 132 performances, there have been some very good reimaginings/revivals since.)
It is difficult to prevent any appreciation from growing into a mere list of Angela’s credits and roles. She went from one credit to another, taking at most a year or two off here or there, embodying the idea of “the working actor.” It only seems natural that Angela – much like Queen Elizabeth – continued working well into her nineties. She may never have enjoyed the runaway success of some of her peers, but then again, she never faced the tumble into obscurity either. She leaves no retrospective documentary that ends with vintage footage. There is no talk of a “comeback” or a “renaissance” when speaking of her career; Angela continued to scout new avenues, exploring first the film world, then the theater, then television, then – every actor’s dream – choosing roles based purely on interest rather than need.
There is also, noticeably, no mention of off-stage drama, only praise for a hardworking actress who was progressive in a quiet, steadfast way. A brief marriage to Richard Cromwell (who was gay) ended in 1946, yet they remained friends until his death in 1960. During the hectic period that was the 1960s, the family relocated to Ireland where Angela took a hiatus from acting to help her son recover from a serious drug addiction (and to separate her daughter from becoming involved with the Manson Family).
Through it all Angela supported charities that worked to support domestic violence survivors, and later joined the fight against HIV/AIDS. During the run of Murder, She Wrote she quietly refused to let her character – indominable Jessica Fletcher – get partnered off, insisting that she was just fine as a strong single woman.
It has been a delight to discover that in her personal life she was a sincerely lovely person.
It has been a delight to discover that in her personal life she was a sincerely lovely person. For those of us who are old millennials there is something familiar and comforting about Angela Lansbury: she was the voice of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (an “adult” show that we could watch with our parents), and then of course, for a subset of theater kids, we were happily shocked to discover her star turn as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Again, and again, Angela would appear on our screens, either as a featured actress on Turner Classic Movies, or as an unexpected extra in Law & Order. And if Wikipedia, that eternal font of wisdom, is to be believed, we are in for one more treat when the movie Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is released on Netflix in November 2022.
To the end, Angela Lansbury has been that rarest of gems, a genuine talent consistent over seven decades. For myself, I chose to remember her best as the determined witch Eglantine Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Eglantine is a woman who knows her own worth and never doubts she can fulfill her potential. And so, the title of this post is a nod to a song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks which contains these lyrics:
“Eglantine, Eglantine, oh how you shine….”
© Nicole Ballance (10/14/22) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Here is the link to Angela Lansbury’s adoring Wikipedia page.
Enjoy this truly lovely Fresh Air interview with Angela Lansbury originally broadcast in 2000: “In June, Lansbury will receive the Tony Award for lifetime achievement…”
Click here to read Nicole’s review of the screen adaptation of Sweeny Todd directed by Tim Burton in 2007.
And, last but not least, watch the “Eglantine, Eglantine, oh how you shine….” scene in Bedknobs and Broomsticks on YouTube.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Angela Lansbury poses for a photograph before a news conference at the Gielgud Theatre. (London 1/23/14) REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth with permission of Alamy Stock Photo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY ALAMY!
Bottom Photo: Curtain Call for Driving Miss Daisy at Theatre Royal in Sydney (Australia) in 2013. Attribution: “Driving Miss Daisy” by Eva Rinaldi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kudos to FF2 Photo Editor Sue Hwang for finding these gems for us! Yay, Sue 🙂