I thought I was philosophical last night; it turns out I was in critical mode. My son was watching DVDs of Murder, She Wrote episodes. I was watching Angela Lansbury act, or watching how she portrayed Jessica Fletcher, reflecting on her performance as compared to her performance as a 17-year-old in Gaslight, which I finally saw this past week, of a smart-mouthed, upstart maid.
Angela Lansbury is my favorite actress. She started out her career as more assured than I could imagine someone that young could possibly be. She was great. She was supposed to be self-assured, to contrast with the psychic disintegration of Ingrid Bergman’s character. Lansbury’s character was supposed to intimidate Bergman’s, and she was completely convincing. Of course this is also due to Bergman’s genius. Lansbury is also supposed to suggest, very subtly and delicately, the maid’s loose morals, and she walks a very fine line in doing so. It is an astonishingly powerful performance.
Another amazing performance is in a movie I don’t really like but am very glad I saw, The Manchurian Candidate. Don’t read this if you don’t want to read a spoiler for this movie. Angela Lansbury is completely amazing in this movie. She establishes herself as a normal mother through at least the first half of the movie, but in concert with the rest of the movie, she slowly lets you see that there is something not quite right underneath, that she has something sinister at her core, and when the complete revelation comes, it is powerfully shocking. She is so totally evil that you can’t believe this is Angela—our beloved Angela!—the enemy agent responsible for directing her brainwashed son to be a murderer. You realize with horror she has programmed him to murder his fiancée and prospective father-in-law, and that she is slowly readying him to assassinate political figures for her and her organization’s power over the American people.
It always amazes me that she never seemed to get starring roles in any “A” movies, but now it doesn’t matter. Her performances are available to us on video or DVD and we can enjoy her spoiled princess in Danny Kaye’s hysterical The Court Jester, the pitiful Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in Samson and Delilah, she plays Delilah’s sister, the first love of Samson, whom she betrays and is accidentally killed by. My next favorites are the movies of the 1970s, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, in which she takes a correspondence course in witchcraft and saves England from a Nazi invasion; Death on the Nile, in which she plays the drunken romance novelist who first realizes who the culprit is and gets killed just as she’s about to tell Poirot; and The Mirror Crack’d, in which she plays Miss Marple with just about the characterization she would give a few years later to Jessica Fletcher. I loved her in the film of Rosamond Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, and in Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, based on a book I liked as a young girl.
I got to see Angela Lansbury when she performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in their Christmas concert of 2001. She was everything you expect: charming, gracious, completely professional, extremely talented, and although she was then 76 years old, she took care to ensure that her voice was just right on every number. (I had gone to see Frank Sinatra on his 75th birthday tour, and he was terrible most of the time—drunk, forgetting lyrics, letting his voice crack, rasping—it was painful to watch.)
Kudos to a terrific performer. Angela Lansbury should have gotten that Emmy all twelve times.