- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

Angela Lansbury, whose durable acting career has enhanced the movies, theater and television, created a provocative and amusing first impression with her movie debut.

At the precocious age of 17, she appeared in “Gaslight” as Nancy, the cockney housemaid functioning as the stubbornly perverse onlooker in an ominous setup. Her bad attitude may have pleased only a minority of the mass audience in 1944, but it supplied some witty and still savory resistance to conventional sympathy.

A potential devil’s wanton, Nancy expresses scorn for the sorely deceived and abused heroine, Paula (Ingrid Bergman). This scorn is reinforced by a keen admiration for Paula’s ruthlessly deceitful and fortune-hunting spouse-tormentor, Gregory (Charles Boyer). Indeed, Nancy seems to harbor a frankly carnal partiality for the resident villain.

The suffering Paula won Miss Bergman her first Academy Award as best actress. Probably only the towering reputation of Ethel Barrymore, nominated as best supporting actress in “None but the Lonely Heart,” prevented Miss Lansbury from making it a “Gaslight” sweep among the actresses. She could have scored an Oscar triumph right off the bat.

Or soon after. She was in contention again the next year, nominated for a brief but stirring portrayal of a deceived and abused young woman, Sybil Vane, in the movie version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” That was the role that had brought Miss Lansbury to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in the first place, while she held down a day job as a cosmetics clerk in a department store on Wilshire Boulevard.

The “Gaslight” opportunity had been sheer coincidence while Miss Lansbury was at MGM to test for Sybil. Signed to a long-term contract by the most prestigious of Hollywood studios, she became the principal breadwinner for an exiled British family that included her widowed mother, Moyna Macgill, a popular English actress of the 1920s, and younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar.

According to her authorized biography, Martin Gottfried’s “Balancing Act,” published last year, Miss Lansbury was genuinely surprised that she did not win as best supporting actress for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The actress who did win, Anne Revere, had played Miss Lansbury’s mother, not to mention Elizabeth Taylor’s mother while endearing herself to Oscar voters in “National Velvet.”

Two decades later, the membership reversed gears on Miss Lansbury at a time when she was specializing in maternal roles. Her sensationally conspiratorial mother in “The Manchurian Candidate” was outpolled by Patty Duke as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Evidently, this 1962 preference startled Miss Lansbury even more than the 1945 tally.

In the early 1960s, it was something of a running gag to encounter Miss Lansbury as a chronologically preposterous mother. In “Blue Hawaii,” she was mom to Elvis Presley, who was only six years her junior. In “The Manchurian Candidate,” the son was Laurence Harvey, three years younger than Miss Lansbury. “All Fall Down” almost trifled with stark reality, because Warren Beatty (whose work habits Miss Lansbury detested) was a whopping 11 years younger.

While still a newcomer, Miss Lansbury, now 75, tended to play older and seemingly experienced women, often the romantic rivals to leading ladies.

Her first musical at MGM, “The Harvey Girls,” envisioned her as a demure Judy Garland’s wised-up rival for John Hodiak. Miss Lansbury was a threat to Deborah Kerr in “If Winter Comes” and to Katharine Hepburn in “The State of the Union.”

The latter is fascinating to watch in tandem with “The Manchurian Candidate” because Miss Lansbury suggests a terminal corruption of the Washington sophisticate and opportunist who tempts Spencer Tracy. The older film was released in 1948, when she was a mock temptress of 22.

The case could be made that Hollywood never quite knew what to make of a resource as unexpected and distinctive as Miss Lansbury.

Playing dumb or innocent never suited her, even at a relatively tender age. Her looks were never fashionable — and defied her being confused with anyone else.

There wasn’t an Angela Lansbury category. She began to see the writing on the wall when she pleaded for the role of Milady in the 1948 MGM production of “The Three Musketeers.” Although obviously right down her alley, it remained reserved for Lana Turner.

Miss Lansbury might have been better suited to the 1930s, when round features and crisp, salty, “smart” articulation stood a better chance of winning prompt favor. A mass audience could not figure her out, either, until deciding to embrace her wholeheartedly as a mature, reassuring presence: the sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the TV mystery series “Murder, She Wrote.”

A network fixture from 1984 to 1996, the show remains semiactive. A pair of new made-for-TV movie installments have been shot since the series was completed.

Miss Lansbury’s vow to retire as a movie menace after “The Manchurian Candidate” may have cost her a “cinch” Academy Award: She could have had the role of Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but turned it down.

Miss Lansbury did want to re-create her Broadway triumph in “Mame.” The role in the 1974 film version, however, went to Lucille Ball. The comic actress had been absent from the big screen for many years and never dared another comeback after “Mame” fizzled.

A certain feeling of missed opportunity haunts Miss Lansbury’s Hollywood career. That is reflected in the only “regret” acknowledged in her biography: “I’ve never gotten the opportunity to play a really great woman’s role in the movies.”

Miss Lansbury’s auspicious start at MGM didn’t survive changes in management or in the film industry near the end of the 1940s.

Her marriage to Peter Shaw produced two children in rapid succession, in 1952 and 1953. (A marriage to actor Richard Cromwell in 1945 ended in divorce.)

The actress bounced back as a movie attraction in the Danny Kaye farce “The Court Jester” in 1956. She played a sweet-natured romantic rival to Glynis Johns, who had been a schoolmate of hers in London in the 1930s.

A year later, Miss Lansbury enjoyed her first Broadway success in a revival of Georges Feydeau’s “Hotel Paradiso” opposite Bert Lahr. Vintage Washington theatergoers will remember that the production had one of its tryouts here.

A song interlude in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the ensembles in “The Harvey Girls” and a cameo in “Till the Clouds Roll By” gave Miss Lansbury a taste of MGM musical resources at their peak.

“That was when I decided I loved the musical side of acting,” she told Mr. Gottfried. “Since I worried about my ability to become a big star in Hollywood, I decided that I was going to make my name as a musical star on Broadway.”

The first attempt at this transformation, the 1964 Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents show “Anyone Can Whistle,” did not succeed. Jerry Herman’s musical “Mame” did the trick two years later.

Miss Lansbury also became the right expressive instrument for Mr. Laurents and Mr. Sondheim in a 1974 revival of “Gypsy.” Although she had sworn off scary ladies on the screen, Miss Lansbury was ready for Mr. Sondheim in a macabre vein in “Sweeney Todd” in 1979.

(Miss Lansbury has won four Tony Awards. They were for “Mame,” “Dear World,” the “Gypsy” revival and “Sweeney Todd.” Additional honors include Commander of the British Empire, induction into the Theater and Television halls of fame, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild and a National Medal of the Arts.)

While still short of that great, or at least Oscar-clinching movie role, Miss Lansbury enjoyed a privileged musical opportunity while dubbing the serenely maternal character of Mrs. Potts in the Disney animated version of “Beauty and the Beast”: She got to originate the sublime title song.

“I came with the voice and accent tucked in my pocket,” the Los Angeles resident said. “For performers who have worked in the musical theater, having a big orchestra under you when you’re singing is really one of the great thrills. At the recording session, the atmosphere was one of great excitement, knowing that you were recording something special for posterity. The sense of first-night nerves and jitters was all there. I was so nervous that I rattled the music stand as I turned the pages.”

One doesn’t think of Miss Lansbury as a performer who is rattled easily. Perhaps her disciplined consistency also was something of an obstacle to Hollywood solicitude at a time when nervous wrecks and permanent analysands were becoming fashionable touchstones of feeling and spontaneity, always in need of tender-loving supervision.

Miss Lansbury says you either have a spark of talent or you don’t. The obligation is to make the most of the gift.

“Actors are not made, they are born,” she told Mr. Gottfried. “You’ve got to recognize that you have [a gift] in the first place, and you don’t mess around with it. You don’t waste it, you don’t put it to the wrong tests. You have to understand what you can handle, what you can do. But you build on it, once you know it’s there.”

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