Although best-known to many as Jessica Fletcher in the long-running mystery drama Murder, She Wrote, Angela Lansbury has had an extraordinary film, television and stage career that has spanned almost seven decades.
From her 1944 film debut as Ingrid Bergman’s mischievous maid in Gaslight (in one of my favourite performances by a character actress ever) to her Tony Award-winning turn as Madame Arcati in the Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit last year, she has reaped respect and admiration in every genre and artistic medium she has worked on.
She was nominated for an Academy Award for her two first film roles in Gaslight and in The Portrait of Dorian Gray in 1944 and 1945, which helped her build her reputation as a solid character actress. She received a third Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 1963 for her chilling performance as Laurence Harvey’s Hitchcockian mother in the cult classic The Manchurian Candidate. In my opinion, Lansbury’s turn ranks not only among the most memorable female screen performances of all time but also as one of the few things anybody has ever done better than Meryl Streep in a motion picture (Streep recreated the role in the 2004 remake). She should have won the Oscar that year but voters favoured 16-year-old Patty Duke for her more sympathetic role as the blind, deaf and mute Hellen Keller in The Miracle Worker.
In a recent interview Lansbury commented that, although terribly disappointed at the time, she was later glad she didn’t get the Oscar, since a win might have been detrimental to her stage career, which took off just after her third loss at the Academy Awards. In Broadway she enjoyed success and public and critical acclaim in musicals like Mame, Gypsy or Sweeny Todd, and she holds a record of five Tony wins.
While enjoying the crest of her stage success in Broadway, she would continue her film and television career, most notably in Agatha Christie mystery dramas, which paved the way for her universally popular role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.
She is, undoubtedly, the Meryl Streep of the Emmys, an award for which she has been nominated 18 times (including a consecutive 12-time streak for Murder, She Wrote), but unlike Streep’s early Oscar success, she has never won an Emmy.
Moreover, she has been recognised six times at the Golden Globes, twice at the National Board of Review and has received a Screen Actors Guild Award and many other long-life achievement kudos. In Imitation of Life I have been actively campaigning for a much overdue Honorary Oscar.
Last year, at 83, she tied with Julie Harris as the most recognised actor at the Tonys with her fifth award for the revival of Blithe Spirit.
Tonight, in a couple of hours (around 2:00 AM over here in Europe), she could become the first person ever to win six Tony Awards if she is recognised as best featured actress in a musical for the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. It’s going to be a sleepless night at Imitation of Life’s headquarters at Tsar Simeon Street in Sofia, so I’ll keep you posted about developments at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, where the ceremony will be held.
Whatever happens tonight, however, my admiration for Mrs. Lansbury will remain intact. Over her 70-year-long career she has become a household name and a television, film and theater personality, a versatile, hard-working professional and, above all, an incomparable actor.
I post here two clips with Angela Lansbury. First, as the mostrous Mrs. Iselin in 1962 The Manchurian Candidate and then receiving the Signature’s Stepehen Sondheim’s Award a couple of months ago.