Born to a leading Irish actress and enrolled in schools for drama at a young age, Angela Lansbury (b.1925) was singing in nightclubs at sixteen and had received two Academy Award nominations by twenty—as Ingrid Bergman’s shrewdly scheming housemaid in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) and in Albert Lewin’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) playing delicate songstress Sybil Vane. This auspicious inception led not to starring leads, but an MGM contract which conscripted her to, as she put it, “the harpies and the heavies.” With lovely, yet less standard features and a mature demeanor, she was frequently cast in supporting roles as the adulteress, the maid or the mother—and often as women several years older. By the time of her third Oscar nomination for her chilling performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), she was playing the mother of Laurence Harvey while only three years his senior. Nevertheless, she resisted typecasting and always brought luminous depth to her character-actor roles. Receiving continual critical notice, Lansbury eventually languished from Hollywood’s neglect and finally turned to the theater in the Sixties. Her daring and ingenious character creations and reinventions in productions like Mame, Gypsy, The King & I and Sweeney Todd won her the awards and praise her career in Hollywood always just sidestepped. Unpredictably, her third act would entail a long stay on television as the Miss Marple-esque Jessica Fletcher in the popular series Murder, She Wrote, centered around the intelligence and adventurousness of an older, unassuming woman—an achievement still remarkable by the standards of today’s television landscape. Lansbury finally received the Oscar she long deserved in 2013 for Lifetime Achievement and was bestowed the title of Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in honor of her seventy-year career as well as her humanitarian work.
The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to welcome Angela Lansbury to discuss her uniquely challenging, ultimately successful journey through stage and screen—which she continues to vibrantly pursue to this day. – Brittany Gravely
Special thanks: Steven Brown; Daniel Bish—George Eastman House
Directed by John Frankenheimer. With Eva Marie Saint, Warren Beatty, Karl Malden
US 1962, 35mm, b/w, 111 min
Lansbury’s multidimensional performance in All Fall Down guaranteed her fate in John Frankenheimer’s following picture, The Manchurian Candidate—in which she also played a mother with an unnatural fixation on her son. William Inge adapted James Leo Herlihy’s novel into the space of a somewhat claustrophobic screen—with a strikingly naturalistic excursion to a seedy Key West—in which a small family and a string of lonely women idolize the unusually named Berry-Berry, Warren Beatty’s inscrutable manifestation of lost, violent, rebellious youth. Berry-Berry’s younger brother endearingly struggles to emerge from his own wholesome innocence while watched over by Karl Malden’s well-intentioned, left-leaning, alcoholic father and Angela Lansbury’s manically fluctuating, overbearing mother. When the conservatively eccentric clan falls in love with the unique light of visitor Echo Obrien—played with heartbreaking clarity by Eva Marie Saint—everyone attempts to behave. Not entirely unsympathetic, Lansbury remarkably manages to sustain a simultaneous coldness and warmth toward her troubled, unpredictable family, all of whom fall in and out of the apparent roles Fifties’ society—and its cinema—has prepared for them.
Directed by Albert Lewin. With George Sanders, Angela Lansbury,
US 1947, 35mm, b/w and color, 112 min
Quickly reuniting Lansbury with her Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) cohorts Albert Lewin and George Sanders, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is based on Guy de Maupassant’s second novel. Sanders plays the ironically-nicknamed scoundrel of the title who becomes bewitched by his own charming powers over women, including Lansbury’s youthful widow Clotilde. Aided by a witty, intelligent script, both Lansbury and Sanders evince subtle fluctuations of emotion throughout every shift in their ambiguously unofficial relationship. Although often convincingly sincere, the affections of the manipulative Bel Ami grow increasingly suspect while Clotilde maintains a wry demeanor neither coquettish nor overmodest; she presents a believable independence, devotion and playfulness with the gentle complexity Lansbury would bring to numerous future roles. Print from the collection of George Eastman House