Angela Lansbury: stage, screen, TV icon

The Manchurian Candidate

When I was crashing at my parents’ house in Charlotte, NC, in the spring of 1977, I went to the downtown library to watch the 1944 version of the movie Gaslight. It starred Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten. In her film debut, 19-year-old Angela Lansbury, as the young maid Nancy, received a best-supporting actress Oscar nomination. (Some folks did not know the meaning of gaslighting in 2013.)

In 2018, my family went to the cinema to see Mary Poppins Returns. In her antepenultimate film, she had a cameo at the end as the Balloon Lady. Her final film appearance was Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, in which she played Angela Lansbury.

Her greatest film role was as the mother of a would-be assassin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Casey Seiler of the Albany Times Union newspaper says she was “absolutely perfect” in “one of the few paranoid political thrillers that haven’t been outstripped by reality.” Here are just three minutes.

One of my favorite parts, though, is her voicing Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991). Here’s Tale As Old As Time.

She received an honorary Oscar in 2013 for her career as “an entertainment icon who has created some of cinema’s most memorable characters, inspiring generations of actors.”

Cabot Cove, Maine

Of course, the performer was best known as Jessica Fletcher, novelist and an amateur sleuth in Murder, She Wrote. She appeared for a dozen seasons (1984-1996) plus four TV movies between 1997 and 2003. She received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a drama series for every season, yet never won.

As The Hollywood Reporter noted, the program was “a huge ratings hit on Sunday nights following 60 Minutes. Both CBS shows appealed to intelligent, older viewers, and Lansbury was the rare woman in the history of television to carry her own series… ‘Nobody in this town watches Murder, She Wrote,’ Lansbury, referring to the TV industry, said in 1991. ‘Only the public watches.’

“The show was ranked in the top 13 in the Nielsen ratings (and as high as No. 4) on Sundays in its first 11 seasons but plummeted to No. 58 when CBS moved it to Thursdays in 1995-96 against NBC’s then-powerful lineup. The series finale, quite appropriately, was titled ‘Death by Demographics.'”

LA Times quotes her: “What appealed to me about Jessica Fletcher is that I could do what I do best and [play someone I have had] little chance to play — a sincere, down-to-earth woman. Mostly, I’ve played very spectacular bitches. Jessica has extreme sincerity, compassion, extraordinary intuition. I’m not like her. My imagination runs riot. I’m not a pragmatist. Jessica is.”

I freely admit to watching the program regularly. Maybe, as one critic noted, it was an opportunity to try to solve the crime with, or maybe before, the author.


As the Los Angeles Times noted, “It was her deep roots in the theater, and the many Tony Awards that followed that won the hearts of theatergoers and critics, who were often rhapsodic in their praise…

“Critic Rex Reed declared that she brought ‘the Broadway stage about as close to an MGM musical as the Broadway stage is likely to get,’ according to the 1996 biography ‘Angela Lansbury.’

“Her charismatic performance as the eccentric title character in a 1966 production of Mame vaulted her to Broadway superstardom and resulted in the first of her four Tonys for best actress in a musical.

“At 83, she tied the record for most Tony Awards won for acting when she received a fifth for portraying a medium in the 2009 revival of ‘Blithe Spirit. (Audra McDonald set a new record in 2014 when she won her sixth.)”

I saw the TV movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1982, which was quite compelling. Her Broadway performances were undoubtedly even greater.

Here are Hollywood notables paying tribute to Angela Lansbury, plus A Critic’s Appreciation by David Rooney.

Movie review: Mary Poppins Returns

Nothing stuck out on first listen such as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Mary Poppins ReturnsIt’s likely that one’s feelings about Mary Poppins Returns (2018) depend on how one thinks about the 1964 original. I didn’t see the earlier film until the end of 2011, so I don’t have any childhood memories. I did like it, quite a lot.

So how does one make a reboot? It has to have elements of the original – the now-adult Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and (Emily Mortimer) plus the widowed Michael’s three kids, Pixie Davies as Anabel, Nathanael Saleh as John, and Joel Dawson as little Georgie who was often getting into trouble.

Of course, we need the title character (Emily Blunt), who’s a bit blunter than Julie Andrews’ take. I liked that, though some reviewers assuredly did not. She’s not quite in Andrews’ league in the genre, but she’s a quite decent singer and engaging actor.

Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack, the lamplighter—or “leerie”, the functional equivalent of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the chimney sweep. Both men are charming, talented singers, but neither was great with the accent.

The dance of the leeries was too reminiscent of the chimney sweeps’ hoofing for my taste.

Is the music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, such as (Underneath the) Lovely London Sky and A Conversation less memorable than the work done by the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert?

Nothing stuck out on first listen such as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but I’ve been hearing that soundtrack for over half a century. Interestingly, it was the use of incidental Sherman music that helped hold the new film together.

There’s a point, maybe about halfway through, where a song so grabbed me, in context, that I just surrendered to the film. I felt the wistfulness, fear, and hope of the characters.

Here’s a piece of trivia: “At the age of 93 at the time of the movie’s release, Angela Lansbury is the oldest female actor ever to appear in a Disney film. She is just two months older than the oldest male actor in a Disney film, Dick Van Dyke.” They both added to the film in their small roles, as did Meryl Streep in a more prominent bit.

All in all, Mary Poppins Returns is inessential, I suppose. It may rub up against your memories of the original, or it might add to them, as it did for me. My wife and my daughter also enjoyed it when we saw it at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany on Christmas Day.

A couple related links:
The secret dark side to the classic ‘Mary Poppins’, which weren’t all that secret to me

My review of Saving Mr. Banks (2013), about the making of the 1964 film, with Emma Thompson as author P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney

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