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Best Of British Biographies – Angela Lansbury

Last night I heard the sad news of the passing of Angela Lansbury. As is my habit, I posted something along the lines of “Aww…Angela Lansbury has died” to my FaceBook page. Usually that just means a few people add a “Sad” react emoji and that’s about it. This time, though, there were comments along the lines of “Oh no!!”, “I’m in tears”, “She is my favourite and has been since I was a child”. Clearly, Angela Lansbury touched a lot of people during her long career. 

She was born into quite posh circumstances. Her parents were described as “upper middle class”  which is about as posh as it gets before the hereditary titles start kicking in. She was born in the Regents Park area of London in October 1925. Her mother was Irish actress Moyna Macgill and her father was Edgar Lansbury, a timber merchant and politician. Her mother did have several film appearances mainly in small, uncredited roles in quite big films; her last two roles were in The Unsinkable Molly Brown and My Fair Lady. 

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Early Days

Her father was a member of the Communist party. Due to there not being mass hysteria in Britain about socialist tendencies he actually achieved positions of some distinction in local politics; he was Mayor of Poplar in the mid-1920’s. Unfortunately, he contracted stomach cancer and died when Angela was just nine years old. To help cope with the loss of her father at such a young age she retreated into playing characters which, doubtless, sowed the seeds of her future career.

1944 – Gaslight

Her teenage years saw Angela becoming obsessed with the cinema; she became a self-professed “complete movie maniac”. She would watch films and imagine herself playing various roles. She was also quite musical and a keen pianist. After her time at South Hampstead High School she briefly studied music at the Ritman School of Dancing. In 1940 she enrolled in the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art where she studied acting. Her debut was as a lady-in-waiting in the school’s production of Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland.

Go West!

Shortly after that her grandfather died and the Blitz started; the two aren’t connected. Her mother decided that it would be safer for the family to emigrate to the USA. It wasn’t the whole family though. Angela had a half sister, Isolde, from her first marriage to writer and director Reginald Denham. Isolde chose to stay in London with her then husband, actor Peter Ustinov. Ms Macgill secured passage on the Duchess of Atholl by taking a job supervising sixty children being evacuated to Canada.

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1944 – National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor and Juanita Quigley

From there it was a train ride down to New York City where Angela got a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. While there she took part in performances of Congreve’s The Way Of The World and Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. Meanwhile mother Moyna had secured work in a touring production of Tonight At 8:30. Angela managed to get work as a nightclub act singing Noël Coward songs but only after she’d lied about her age! She’d claimed to be nineteen when she was only sixteen. This trait would come back to haunt her!

Go Wester!

After a while Angela returned to New York but her mother had decided to try and resurrect her own career and had moved to Hollywood. Angela and her twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar, moved across the country and they all lived in a Laurel Canyon cottage. During one of her mother’s parties Angela met writer and director John van Druten. van Druten had just co-authored a script for Gaslight and thought that Angela would be perfect as the scheming cockney maid. He mentioned this to director George Cukor and Angela got the part.

1945 – The Picture Of Dorian Gray

As she was only seventeen years old at the time, there had to be a social worker accompanying her on set. Still, that didn’t stop her making quite the impression. In an article headed From Gaslight To Spotlight, Variety magazine said that Angela had gone from being an unknown to a movie star in four days. She found herself an agent and signed a seven year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. On top of all that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Not bad for a film debut!

Early Successes

Her next film proved to be a commercial hit as well as getting her a lifelong friend in Elizabeth Taylor. Angela played Edwina Brown, the elder sister of Taylor’s Velvet Brown in National Velvet. Her next film was The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Financially, this was a bit of a flop but her performance was far from a let down. She garnered another Oscar nomination in the supporting actress category. Ironically, she lost out to Anne Revere who had been nominated for…National Velvet!

1949 – Samson And Delilah with Victor Mature

Her private life was one of ups and downs. Her first marriage, in September 1945, was to artist and decorator Richard Cromwell. This lasted less than a year as Cromwell was a homosexual and had married Lansbury in an attempt at conversion therapy. I don’t know how much of this Angela knew before the event. Unsurprisingly, Angela filed for divorce a fortnight before their first anniversary. Despite this Angela and Richard remained good friends until his death in 1960.

Love And Marriage

The following year she met “the one”. In December 1946 she was at a party and was introduced to a fellow ex-pat Peter Shaw. Shaw was an aspiring actor also contacted to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. They soon became an item and married in a ceremony in Knightsbridge, London in 1949. It was a Church of Scotland ceremony because they both wanted to get married back home but the usually placid CofE refused to marry two divorced people. 

1962 – The Manchurian Candidate with Laurence Harvey

Still, despite the church thinking they were an unfit couple, they went on to remain happily married until Peter died in 2003. After a honeymoon in France they went back to Los Angeles and settled near Santa Monica. In 1951 they both became naturalised US citizens  but maintained their British citizenship as dual-nationals. 

Always The Bridesmaid

About this time Angela was starting to get disillusioned with the way her acting career was going. She had the seven year contract which resulted in eleven further films after Gaslight and The Picture Of Dorian Gray. However, despite being Oscar nominated twice, Metro Goldwyn Mayer seemed to view her as a B-list star. I have to admit that my impression of Angela has always been that she is an older woman; an aunt or grandma.

1971 – Bedknobs And Broomsticks

And that is what was bothering her. She felt that she was being serially miscast and in mediocre films to boot. While she should have been being put forward for the younger, more glamorous roles she felt she was being repeatedly made to portray older, often villainous women. She said “I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr. Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches.” Unsurprisingly, she instructed her manager to terminate rather than renew the contract in 1952.

Family First

She spent the next few years starting her family and appearing in a couple of plays that had left Broadway and gone on tour. When she returned as a freelance actor she found that she was still being typecast in roles for older women. Obviously, whoever had decided on that career trajectory when she was with Metro Goldwyn Mayer had done the damage. If she had not had the successful career she has had then I’m sure that there would be all manner of reasons to complain. 

1978 – Death On The Nile with Peter Ustinov

I mean, she was quite the looker in her twenties so why cast as her as a woman in her forties? In 1950 she was considered for the role of Miss Casswell in All About Eve. She didn’t get the part though. It went to Marilyn Monroe! So, if she was second place to Marilyn Monroe while she was in her twenties then she must have had something going for her! But the fifties saw her getting plenty of work; more than one film a year through out the decade and twice as many TV series appearances. Angela was in demand and this kept on into the sixties.

Another Nomination

Early in the sixties saw her get her third Oscar nomination. This was for The Manchurian Candidate. The spectre of her ill judged age rose again. She was cast as Mrs Iselin, Laurence Harvey’s mother, but she was, actually, only three years older than him. The star of the film, Frank Sinatra, wanted Lucille Ball for the role but director John Frankenheimer, who had worked with Angela in All Fall Down, was insistent on his casting choice.

1984 – The Company Of Wolves

He went so far as to make Old Blue Eyes watch her performance in All Fall Down before a final choice was made. The Oscar nomination proved that Frankenheimer knew what he was talking about. Years later, in 1974, there was a similar tussle over the lead role in Mame. Angela had been wowing the audiences on Broadway and Lucille Ball came up to her and said how wonderful she was and would be bound to get the film role. Angela then noticed Ms Ball in the wings taking notes and knew that she wouldn’t be getting cast. They went with Lucille rather than Angela. Ms Ball was horribly miscast  and Mame flopped! 

No Need To Read

Similar to those domino runs, The Manchurian Candidate had a ripple effect later on in the eighties. When writer and director Neil Jordan was casting for The Company Of Wolves he didn’t bother holding auditions for the part of Granny. Once the project was up and running, he offered it directly to Angela on the basis of her performance in The Manchurian Candidate. Apparently she had an air of sinister charm that was perfect for the role of Granny.

1990 – Murder, She Wrote

Personally speaking my first experience of Angela was in the early seventies and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. I was just into my teens and we’d gone to the cinema to treat my younger brother. It was a Disney live action/animation hybrid musical. It was as enjoyable as these things always are. Just as well as I’ve revisited it with my children and grandchildren many, many times!

TV Appearances

I will have probably seen her before that though. When I was even younger, around primary school age, I was a big fan of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; I never missed an episode, I collected the bubblegum cards, I had the Corgi car, I had a fountain pen that I could pretend was a communicator, I even watched the Guy Ritchie remake but the least said about that the better. One thing I didn’t notice was Elfie van Donck in series two, episode nine played by…guess who!

2005 – Nanny McPhee with Colin Firth

She has been in a number of Agatha Christie adaptations, quite a few Disney features, and more TV series than you can shake a stick at. There is, of course, the record breaking Murder, She Wrote. As though to continue her streak of nominations without success, Angela was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series every year of the run. All twelve of them. And she didn’t win one! She has since won a few honorary awards but I think that is more to hide the blushes of the judging panels over the years.

Missed Opportunities

As with all actors, there are plenty of roles that were passed over or offered to someone else for a variety of reasons. One role which you can easily imagine her taking was that of Mary Poppins. True, Julie Andrews is iconic in the role but it doesn’t mean that you would need a lot of imagination to see Angela in that role. Mind you, Julie Andrews was the first choice to play Eglantine Price in Bedknobs And Broomsticks so there is a fair degree of give and take.

2011 – Mr Popper’s Penguins with Jim Carrey

A harder change to imagine was the role of June Buckridge in The Killing Of Sister George which went to Beryl Reed. Perhaps an even harder one to picture is replacing Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Perhaps the biggest stretch, though, is what would have happened if the audition for The Graduate hadn’t gone Anne Bancroft’s way…Dame Angela, you’re trying to seduce me! Aren’t you?

Working To The End

In 2012, it was announced that Angela was set to appear in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unfortunately  however, she had to back out of the project due to a prior scheduling conflict with the Australian production of Driving Miss Daisy, in which she co-starred alongside James Earl Jones. If you’re wondering which part she was down to play it was that of Madame D., the wealthy dowager and secret owner of the hotel. That role eventually went to Tilda Swinton under a skip load of prosthetics.

2018 – Mary Poppins Returns

So Dame Angela Lansbury DBE has been in work fairly consistently. As The Guardian titled her obituary, she was “the scene-stealing grande dame of stage and screen for 75 years”. As age took charge she tended to pop up in cameos rather than have full parts. She was in Mary Poppins Returns and her last appearance is, as far as I’m aware, in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. As far as I can tell, that will be hitting Netflix in time for Christmas 2022. I was looking forward to seeing this anyway. I think that there might be a tear in my eye that is nothing to do with onions, glass or otherwise.

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