She is an entertainment icon who has created some of cinema’s most memorable characters, inspiring generations of actors.
The Hoodlum Saint
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami
If Winter Comes
Tenth Avenue Angel
The Red Danube
Remains to Be Seen
The Purple Mask
A Lawless Street
The Long, Hot Summer
The Reluctant Debutante
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
A Breath of Scandal
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
All Fall Down
In the Cool of the Day
The World of Henry Orient
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders
Something for Everyone
Death on the Nile
The Lady Vanishes
The Mirror Crack’d
The Last Unicorn
The Pirates of Penzance
The Company of Wolves
Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas
Broadway: The Golden Age
The Wonder of Christmas
Heidi 4 Paws
Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Driving Miss Daisy
Mary Poppins Returns
In 2014, Angela Lansbury received an honorary Academy Award because she is an entertainment icon who has created some of cinema’s most memorable characters, inspiring generations of actors.
Angela Lansbury was born in Regent’s Park, Central London in 1925. When Lansbury was nine, her father died from stomach cancer; she retreated into playing characters as a coping mechanism. In 1940, Angela’s mother moved them to America where she was financially sponsored by a Wall Street businessman, Charles T. Smith, moving in with his family at their home at Mahopac, New York. Angela gained a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing allowing her to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio, where she appeared in performances of William Congreve’s The Way of the World and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. She graduated in March 1942, by which time the family had moved to a flat in Morton Street, Greenwich Village.
Her mother secured work in a Canadian touring production of Tonight at 8:30, and was joined in Canada by Angela who gained her first theatrical job as a nightclub act at the Samovar Club, Montreal. Having gained the job by claiming to be 19 when she was 16, her act consisted of her singing songs by Noël Coward, and earned her $60 a week. She returned to New York City in August 1942, but her mother had moved to Hollywood in order to resurrect her cinematic career; Lansbury and her brothers followed.
At a party hosted by her mother, Lansbury met John van Druten, who had recently co-authored a script for Gaslight (1944), a mystery-thriller based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light. Set in Victorian London, the film was being directed by George Cukor, and starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role of Paula Alquist, a woman being psychologically tormented by her husband. Van Druten suggested that Lansbury would be perfect for the role of Nancy Oliver, a conniving cockney maid; she was accepted for the part, although, since she was only 17, a social worker had to accompany her on the set. Obtaining an agent, Earl Kramer, she was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM, earning $500 a week. Upon release, Gaslight received mixed critical reviews, although Lansbury’s role was widely praised; the film earned six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actress for Lansbury.
Her next film appearance was as Edwina Brown, the older sister of Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944); the film proved to be a major commercial hit, with Lansbury developing a lifelong friendship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. Lansbury next starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), a cinematic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel of the same name, which was again set in Victorian London. Directed by Albert Lewin, Lansbury was cast as Sibyl Vane, a working class music hall singer who falls in love with the protagonist, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). Although the film was not a financial success, Lansbury’s performance once more drew praise, earning her a Golden Globe Award, and she was again nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, losing to Anne Revere, her co-star in National Velvet.
Following the success of Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM cast Lansbury in eleven films until her contract with the company ended in 1952. Keeping her among their B-list stars, MGM used her less than their similar-aged actresses; Cukor believed Lansbury had been “consistently miscast” by MGM. She was repeatedly made to portray older women, often villainous, and as a result became increasingly dissatisfied with working for MGM.
1946 saw Lansbury play her first American character as “Em”, a tough honky-tonk saloon singer who slaps Judy Garland’s character in the Oscar-winning Wild West musical The Harvey Girls. She appeared in The Hoodlum Saint (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1947), If Winter Comes (1947), Tenth Avenue Angel (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948), State of the Union (1948) and The Red Danube (1949). She was loaned by MGM first to United Artists for The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), and then to Paramount for Samson and Delilah (1949). She appeared as a villainous maidservant in Kind Lady (1951) and a French adventuress in Mutiny (1952). Turning to radio, in 1948 she appeared in an audio adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage for NBC University Theatre and the following year she starred in their adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Moving into television, she appeared in a 1950 episode of Robert Montgomery Presents adapted from A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel.
Unhappy with the roles she was being given by MGM, Lansbury instructed her manager, Harry Friedman of MCA Inc., to terminate her contract in 1952. Returning to cinema as a freelance actress, Lansbury found herself typecast as women older (sometimes far older) than herself in many films in which she appeared during this period. She obtained minor roles in such films as A Life at Stake (1954), A Lawless Street (1955) and The Purple Mask (1955). She played Princess Gwendolyn in the comedy film The Court Jester (1956), before taking on the role of a wife who kills her husband in Please Murder Me (1956). From there she appeared as Minnie Littlejohn in The Long Hot Summer (1958), and as Mabel Claremont in The Reluctant Debutante (1958),
After a well-reviewed appearance in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) and a minor role in A Breath of Scandal (1960), she appeared in 1961’s Blue Hawaii as an overbearing mother, whose son was played by Elvis Presley.
Her rare sympathetic role as Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) drew critical acclaim, as did her performances as sinister characters in All Fall Down (1962), as a manipulative, destructive mother, and the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as the scheming ideologue Mrs. Iselin. In the latter, she was cast for the role by John Frankenheimer based on her performance in All Fall Down. Lansbury was only three years older than actor Laurence Harvey who played her son in the film. She had agreed to appear in the film after reading the original novel, describing it as one of the most exciting political books she ever read. Lansbury received her third Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for the film, unfortunately she did not win.
In the early 1970s, she accepted the role of the Countess von Ornstein, an aging German aristocrat who falls in love with a younger man, in Something for Everyone (1970). That same year she appeared as the middle-aged English witch Eglentine Price in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks; this was her first lead in a screen musical.
She and her family then split their time between New York City (working on Broadway) and Ireland after their home in California was lost in a brush fire.
Working prolifically in cinema, in 1979 Lansbury appeared as Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1938 film. The following year she appeared in The Mirror Crack’d, a film based on an Agatha Christie novel, as Miss Marple, a sleuth in 1950s Kent. Lansbury hoped to get away from the depiction of the role made famous by Margaret Rutherford, instead returning to Christie’s description of the character; in this she created a precursor to her later role of Jessica Fletcher. She was signed to appear in two sequels as Miss Marple, but these were never made. Lansbury’s next film was the animated The Last Unicorn (1982), for which she provided the voice of the witch Mommy Fortuna.
In 1983, Lansbury was offered two main television roles, one in a sitcom and the other in a detective series; unable to do both, her agents advised her to accept the former although Lansbury instead went with the latter.The series, Murder, She Wrote, centered on the character of Jessica Fletcher, a retired school teacher from the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine, who became a successful detective novelist after her husband’s death, also solving murders that she encounters during her travels; Lansbury described the character as an American Miss Marple. The series began in 1984 and ended in 1996.
Throughout the run of Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury had continued making appearances in other television films, miniseries and cinema. Her highest profile cinematic role since The Manchurian Candidate was as the voice of the singing teapot Mrs. Potts in the 1991 Disney animation Beauty and the Beast, an appearance that she considered to be a gift to her three grandchildren and introduced her to a new generation of movie goers.
She starred in the 2005 film Nanny McPhee as Aunt Adelaide, commenting that it was such fun to play a baddie! and later informing an interviewer that working on Nanny McPhee pulled me out of the abyss after the loss of her husband. She then appeared in the 2011 film Mr. Popper’s Penguins, opposite Jim Carrey.
In 2013, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon her an Honorary Academy Award for a lifetime of achievements.
In February 2017, it was revealed that Lansbury has joined the cast of the upcoming movie Mary Poppins Returns. It is a sequel to the Academy Award-winning 1964 film, set 20 years later in Depression-era London. Filming began at Shepperton Studios that month and it is due for release in December 2018.