Angela Lansbury, who died on October 11, 2022, is most remembered for Murder, She Wrote. But the 96-year-old actress was also a film icon: one of the last living stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Her chilling turns in both Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate will be remembered forever.
Angela Lansbury was born in London in 1925 to well-off family: her mother was an Irish actress and her father, a British politician. But amid the Blitz of 1940, Lansbury left her homeland for New York City. She studied acting there for two years before heading off to Hollywood.
Quickly, Lansbury signed with MGM and was cast in her first movie: Gaslight. George Cukor’s classic film, which has taken a colloquial meaning in recent years, follows the story of a woman, Paula, (Ingrid Bergman) whose husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) convinces her that she’s going crazy. As one of his many tactics, Gregory flickers the gaslights in their home — and tells Paula it’s all in her head.
To make matters worse, Gregory hires a sexy maid: the teenaged Angela Lansbury. Playing this coquettish servant, Lansbury is a scene-stealer from the start. At once slimy and sultry, she openly flirts with her male boss as she shimmies throughout the house. With her blatant disrespect, Nancy reinforces the spousal abuse that’s driving Paula nearly mad. Though relatively small, Lansbury’s presence is significant to the film’s nefarious air. And critics noticed. Lansbury’s debut was not only strong, but historic, earning the young actress her first Oscar nod in 1945.
And the streak continued. The following year, Lansbury appeared in The Picture of Dorian Gray and, again, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. Though she didn’t win, she did snag a Golden Globe the part. Then, after dwindling for a few years, Lansbury’s career was revitalized in 1962 with The Manchurian Candidate.
‘The Manchurian Candidate’
Like Gaslight, the title of The Manchurian Candidate has come to represent a larger social idea. Tracing its roots back to John Frankenheimer’s 1962 movie, the term “Manchurian candidate” is still used to describe a puppet politician who is controlled by a rival power.
In the classic film, it’s Angela Lansbury’s character who sits at the political helm.
The Manchurian Candidate follows the saga of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who is awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Korean war. But in reality, Shaw saved no one. Overseas, he and his platoon were brainwashed with false memories by Chinese communists. Shaw was also hypnotized into acting as a sleeper agent assassin for the enemy, activated at the sight of the Queen of Diamonds playing card.
Working in tandem with the Chinese to control Shaw is his own mother, Eleanor Iselin: the senator’s wife with a secret agenda. Her main aim is boosting her husband’s bid for vice president. By enacting Shaw to commit terrorism, both the Iselins plot to drum up anti-communist hysteria that results in a right-wing takeover. The senator, though, is a mostly useless drunk. It’s Eleanor who holds all the cards — literally — and Lansbury played the calculating character with a unique, matronly touch.
The result is unsettling and timeless. Even after 60 years, The Manchurian Candidate remains required viewing for film and politics students alike. It also earned Lansbury her a third Oscar nomination for the Best Supporting Actress.
The big performance was enough to seal Lansbury’s fate as one of cinema’s most dynamic female villains. But as we all know, she went on to have a long and varied career.
Celebrating Angela Lansbury
In 1966, Angela Lansbury starred in the Broadway musical Mame. With the role, she won a Tony award as well as a new audience — the eccentric character launched Lansbury’s into camp status as a true gay icon.
Then, in 1984, Lansbury another metamorphosis, beginning her stretch as TV actress with Murder, She Wrote: the CBS drama which saw an older Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer-turned-amateur detective. Murder, She Wrote ran for 12 seasons and remains a syndication staple.
Lucky for us, we have 78 years (!) of Angela Lansbury content to come back to, again and again. Rest in peace to a true legend of the screen.