Obituary – Dame Angela Lansbury – Murder She Wrote star
Although she was born in London, and retained a classic English poise all her life, Angela Lansbury, who has died aged 96, was a Hollywood and Broadway star for more than seven decades, and one who was completely unclassifiable. On her film debut, she played Ingrid Bergman’s cockney maid in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) and was promptly nominated for an Oscar, though she was never to win one. She graduated to play Laurence Harvey’s evil, possibly incestuous, mother – although she was only three years older than Harvey – in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and then a dotty amateur witch in Disney’s follow-up to Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).
This versatility, allied to her natural grace, vitality and chastely appealing features – her eyes were full, blue and unblinking, her face almost perfectly round, her mouth a cupid’s bow from the studio era – propelled her to stage stardom in Jerry Herman’s Mame (1966) and, in London at the Piccadilly theatre in 1973, as the show-stopping Mama Rose in Gypsy, by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents.
- Died: October 11th, 2022
- Details of death: died of natural causes.
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London, on 16 October 1925. Her father Edgar was a former mayor of Poplar and a leading light in the Communist Party of Great Britain, while her paternal grandfather, George, was a radical politician who became Labour Party leader in 1932.
Following the death of her father from cancer in 1935, her mother, the Irish actress Moyna MacGill, moved in with a former army colonel in Hampstead.
Lansbury attended the local school, where she made her very first stage appearance in a production of Mary of Scotland. She became a passionate cinemagoer, and her mother also took her to the theatre. She studied music and dancing before enrolling at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in 1939.
With the onset of the Blitz her mother decided to move the family to New York, where Lansbury won a scholarship to the Feagin School of Dramatic Art.
“Those of us who were 12 or 13 when the war started,” she later said, “were absolutely thrown into the mainstream. We had to grow up instantly, and take care of ourselves.”
When her mother joined a touring theatre company in Canada, Lansbury secured a job at a nightclub as an entertainer after telling the management she was 19 when, in fact, she had only just celebrated her 16th birthday.
In 1942 she joined her mother, who had moved to Hollywood and where, at a party, she was noticed by an MGM executive who cast her as the saucy maid in the 1944 film Gaslight.
Life in America
Nothing much happened at first, so mother and daughter took jobs as sales clerks at Bullocks Wilshire, the art deco department store in Los Angeles, while continuing to audition. Angela was still only 17 when she landed the role in Gaslight, and this set a pattern of playing older than her age. A notable exception was The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), in which she played Sibyl Vane, the chirpy music-hall singer, a role that brought her second Oscar nomination; through her co-star, Hurd Hatfield, she met her future husband, Shaw. She had been married previously, for just nine months, to the actor Richard Cromwell, who was almost twice her age.
By this point a Hollywood fixture, Lansbury played Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet (1944), sang Jerome Kern’s How’d You Like to Spoon With Me? in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), fooled with Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1955), peaked in glory in The Manchurian Candidate, with her third and final Oscar nomination, and joined another great cast list in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), which David Lean took over as director from George Stevens.
Lansbury took American citizenship in 1951, and made her Broadway debut opposite Bert Lahr in Feydeau’s Hotel Paradiso in 1957, following with Helen in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1960 and, most significantly, Cora Hooper Hoover, the corrupt mayor in Sondheim and Laurents’s 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle. The show, which has since become a concert favourite, closed in a week, but Lansbury came out of it with flying colours, commended by critics for her agility and engaging personality; she was even likened to a young Bette Davis.
This led to her Mame acclaim, and her first Tony award. Lansbury played Auntie Mame, a free-spirited woman who picks herself off the floor of the stock market crash to sing Bosom Buddies (Lansbury duetted with Bea Arthur) and who ultimately recoups her fortunes by marrying a southern aristocrat. She won a second Tony in Herman’s next show, Dear World (1969), a musical based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, in which she appeared to be dressed in “a wedding cake made of cobwebs”, according to the critic Walter Kerr.
A belated London debut followed in 1972, when she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych in Edward Albee’s All Over, playing the mistress of a dying man, locked in battle with Peggy Ashcroft as his wife. She took Gypsy back to Broadway in 1974 for a few months, winning her third Tony, then joined the National theatre at the Old Vic in 1975 to play a fairly youthful, glamorous Gertrude to Albert Finney’s thickset, plainspoken and powerful Hamlet, directed by Peter Hall; the production was part of the opening season in the National’s new home on the South Bank in 1976.
Back on Broadway, she hit another great milestone in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd (1979), playing the gleefully cannibalistic, pie-making Nellie Lovett (and winning a fourth Tony) opposite Len Cariou’s demon barber in a dark and scintillating production by Hal Prince that played on Broadway for a year before touring the US for another 11 months.
Her Later Career
She continued to make periodic returns to Hollywood to provide scene-stealing support as the formidable Lady Adelaide Stitch in Nanny McPhee (2005), restaurant owner Selma Van Gundy in Mr Popper’s Penguins (2011), Mayor McGerkle in The Grinch, and the balloon lady in Mary Poppins Returns (both 2018). Her final performance will be seen in the upcoming Knives Out sequel Glass Onion (2022), a pastiche of the kind of murder mystery she’ll remain fondly remembered for.
Lansbury received an honorary Oscar in 2013, but it felt like an admission that, unlike Broadway, Hollywood had failed to do her underestimated talent justice.
Angela is survived by Anthony, David, her daughter, Deirdre, three grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and her brother Edgar.
Date of birth: 16th October 1925
Date of Death: 11th October 2022 (aged 96)
BFI – https://www.bfi.org.uk/news/angela-lansbury-obituary