Angela Lansbury Retrospective: Why She's So Much More than 'Murder She Wrote'

Dame Angela Lansbury, she of the gentle consonants and quintuple Tony Awards, has landed in San Francisco! The beloved, 89-year-old star of stage, screen and television is starring in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit at the Golden Gate Theater, reprising her award-winning turn as madcap spiritual medium Madam Arcati. For anyone who only knows the monumentally talented Dame (literally and figuratively: in 2014, Queen Elizabeth appointed Lansbury a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) from her 12 seasons as sleuth Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, here's a necessary tutorial on the star's greatest moments throughout the years that should send you right to the box office for a chance to breathe the same air as the Hollywood and Broadway legend.

Young Lansbury

Angela Brigid Lansbury was born to English politician Edgar Lansbury and Irish stage star Moyna Macgil in the Regent's Park area of London in 1925. When Lansbury was nine, her father died. While still a school girl, she fell in love with her mother's life onstage and those fleeting images of actors in the new talking movies. In 1940, teenage Lansbury escaped the London Blitz with her mother and siblings to study acting in New York. By the time she was 16, the Lansbury family had made it from the East Coast to Hollywood, where she landed a contract with MGM Studios.

Early Hollywood

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Here's where you should start paying close attention: At 16, Lansbury landed the role of scheming maid Nancy in George Cukor's suspenseful Gaslight. The film is about a man (Charles Boyer) who psychologically manipulates and tortures his wife (Ingrid Bergman) to the point where she nearly goes mad. It was such a popular film that we now have the term "to gaslight" in the lexicon, meaning "to cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation."

Lansbury's nasty little domestic is such a far cry from her current image as Earth's favorite grandmother that you have to see it, if only to watch her inflict torment on the gorgeous Bergman, a far more experienced actress than the teenage ingénue. Lansbury got her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the role and immediately followed it up with another nomination for her turn as music hall singer Sybill in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sadly, Hollywood didn't quite know how to use the versatile young performer. Although she worked steadily through the '40s and '50s, she was always the supporting player. But what support: The sexy young blonde (I know! She was a dish!) played good girls, bad girls, frumps, social climbers and everything in between, usually cast years older than her actual age.

For highlights from these years, be sure to check her out as old West saloon hussy Em (who lives to insult Judy Garland's good girl Susan) in The Harvey Girls (1946), as Elizabeth Taylor's older sister in National Velvet (1944), singing a dirty ditty (on a swing!) in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and as a hard-boiled news publisher opposite Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn in State of the Union (1948). Extra credit if you watch her scantily-clad role in Cecil B. DeMille's Sampson and Delilah (1949), where she meets her spectacular end via a spear to the gut in the falling temple.

Wives, Mothers and General Harpies

By the 1950s, Hollywood's old studio system was collapsing and dependable contract players like Lansbury were let go and either fled to television or looked for movie roles as free agents. Lansbury did both and frequently found herself cast as wives, mothers and general harpies, until breaking through as the worst mother of all time in John Frankenheimer's Cold War assassination masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate in 1962.

Seriously, if you think Faye Dunaway's Mommie Dearest or Mo'Nique's Mary in Precious were bad parents, Lansbury's Mrs. Shaw will leave you reaching for the Xanax quicker than you can say "Medea made me do it." Mrs. Shaw not only taunts her son with gems like "Raymond, why do you always look as though your head was about to come to a point?" (delivered so casually you feel like a casualty), she also brainwashes him into becoming a sleeper Commie assassin with a vague connection to North Korea! How contemporary is that? Lansbury received another Oscar nomination for the role. When better roles didn't follow, she decamped for the musical theater and old Broadway.

Light the candles!

If you have a gay uncle of a certain age obsessed with Lansbury, I'm about to explain why and it'll all make sense. Dependable movie character Lansbury rocketed to theater stardom in 1966 in the title role of the musical Mame, where she played the lovable, free-spirited Auntie Mame, who inherits an orphaned nephew and sets out to teach him to "Live! Live! Live!" As Mame, she cakewalked, shimmied, belted and razzle dazzled her way to her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, followed in 1969 by her second as the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World. While doing Mame, Lansbury became close friends with co-star Beatrice Arthur (Yes! That Bea Arthur!) and the duo's duet "Bosom Buddies" became a showstopper.

In 1974, Lansbury won a third Tony for her portrayal of Mama Rose (another bad mother, but with singing) in Gypsy, where she reinvented the stage mother from hell, originated by Ethel Merman.

But Lansbury was just getting started on the stage. In 1979, she created the role of human pie chef Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and won her fourth Tony for her dangerous, wicked portrayal of the maker of the "worst pies in London." Thankfully for fans, unlike her three other Tony Award winning roles in musicals, this one exists in its entirety on film.

Bedknobs, the Nile, Unicorns and Wolves

Don't think during her most fruitful years in the theater that Lansbury was neglecting the world of film. Highlights of these years include her appearance in Death on the Nile as the fabulously named Salome Autobahn (opposite Bette Davis and Maggie Smith, which is a lot of grand white lady in one film) in 1978, her beloved Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks (as a witch who fights off a Nazi invasion while singing) in 1970, as the voice of another witch in The Last Unicorn in 1982 and as a fierce fairy tale grandmother in the adaptation of Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves in 1984. We can safely say that Lansbury conquered both stage and screen by this point, but that wasn't enough.

"I do believe our guest was...murdered!"

In 1984, Lansbury soared to her greatest pop culture heights when she started her 12 year stint as mystery writer/amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher on the television series Murder, She Wrote. While the show brings up problematic questions now (how many people had to be murdered in Fletcher's town of Cabot Cove before someone declared a state of emergency? Why did anyone ever invite her to dinner when they knew it meant there would likely be a murder before dessert?), it was a mega-hit and continues to run forever in syndication. With her sensible sweaters, accuracy on a typewriter and great detective skills, Jessica Fletcher won a place in the pop pantheon to the point where whenever I hear the clattering of typewriter keys (not often), I think of Dame Angela.

Tale as old as time

If you still need a reason to appreciate all that is Lansbury, I offer my trump card. In addition to all that's come before, Lansbury is also your favorite talking teapot. Yes, children of the '90s, I'm talking about Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast. I'm still disappointed when my French press doesn't offer me sage advice in motherly tones because of this performance, and, whenever I hear her rendition of the title song, I want to waltz with a hairy man in a CGI ballroom.

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Now, run, don't walk, to the stage door of the Golden Gate to pull Dame Angela's carriage through the streets! Blithe Spirit runs through February 1, 2015.

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