Angela Lansbury: 3 Career-Defining Performances

Throughout her life (1925-2022), Angela Lansbury participated in several projects that grew to be critically acclaimed and loved the world over. She is one of the only actresses who has made an indelible mark on the small and big screens and theatres alike. During the span of her eight-decade career, she amassed nominations for all of the legendary EGOT categories (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). In total, she had 3 Academy Award (Oscar) nominations, 5 Tony wins, 6 Golden Globe wins, 18 Primetime Emmy nominations and 1 Grammy nomination. As this article will attest to, she is “the living definition of range”.

Born into an Irish-British family, Lansbury grew up around actors: her mother was Moyna McGill (born in Belfast), a regular in West End shows and sometimes film. She later stated that cinema, television and books were her way of ‘self-education’. This ‘education’ led to her becoming besotted with cinema, eventually landing her first stage role in a school production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland”.

Her film career began three years after she graduated from the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. In Gaslight (George Cukor’s 1944 film based upon the Patrick Hamilton 1938 play), she amassed high praise for her performance, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Several instances of her early film work gained her accolades such as this, highlighting her flair for dramatic roles as much as comedic ones.

Angela Lansbury kept us glued to the screen and always invested in the trajectory of her character, regardless of whether she took a supporting or leading role in a project. From her highly nuanced performances of individualist upper-class dames such as “Mame” (for which she originated the role on Broadway in 1966) and quick-witted sleuthing detective Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, her evident acting flair always led us to become engrossed in her performances on stage and on the screen.

The performances mentioned below only skim the surface of her extensive filmography, which houses multiple gems and intergenerational classics. While there is much of Angela Lansbury’s work to discover and enjoy, these are Angela Lansbury’s 3 Career-Defining Performances.

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Angela Lansbury’s contribution to Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” marks the first of her turns at the heart of many book-turned-film pieces. She plays tavern singer Sibyl Vane who falls for – and is briefly engaged to – the titular protagonist Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). The movie itself is shot in black-and-white, with an interesting use of Technicolour to indicate the handsome, or degenerate, portrait of Dorian. It gained 6 nominations in total, most notably a Golden Globe win for Angela Lansbury (detailed below), and an Oscars Best Cinematography win for Harry Stradling. Interestingly, both Wilde (who penned the novel) and Lewin (the film’s director) posthumously won the 1996 Hugo Award, a literary award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Despite being just eighteen years old, Angela Lansbury holds her own amongst her co-stars. In one particular instance, she watches Dorian playing Chopin’s “Prelude No. 24” at his piano. She enters the room wordlessly and has minimal dialogue with Dorian after he has finished playing. Her posture and intense but deeply thoughtful gaze immediately convey the chemistry she has with him, indicating a slew of unspoken thoughts. Another moment of note is when she sings “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” – Lansbury’s classical vocal training and sweet vocal tone shine through here. This musical moment encapsulates her enigmatic performance.

It is easy to see how Angela Lansbury earned the 1945 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her turn in this film. She also got nominated for the 1945 Oscar for the same category but lost to Anne Revere (National Velvet). Her mature and assured command of the screen in this role led the pathway to her highly acclaimed career.

2. The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

The Reluctant Debutante was directed by Vicente Minnelli and the screenplay was written by William Douglas-Home (who also wrote the 1955 play). It was not nominated for any awards, but it came in at number 12 on the British Box Office’s Most Popular Film for 1959. Angela plays Mabel Claremont, Sheila Broadbent’s (Kay Kendall’s) chatty friend. The cast also includes Rex Harrison as Jimmy Broadbent and Sandra Dee as Jane Broadbent. The film was remade in 2003 under the title What a Girl Wants, with Amanda Bynes as Daphne Reynolds (the updated version of Sandra Dee’s character) and Colin Firth as Henry Dashwood (a modern version of Rex Harrison’s character).

In The Reluctant Debutante, the role of Mabel particularly showcases Lansbury’s impeccable comedic timing. The scenes in which she schemes alongside the Broadbent couple are deliciously funny; her lines are delivered with an utterly charming smoothness that keeps you endlessly curious about how she will end up strong-arming the outcome of her daughter’s fate. A highlight of Lansbury’s performance in this film is one of her earlier scenes when she and her daughter meet Jane Broadbent for the first time. Angela carries an eccentric bravado with this character that leaves you open-mouthed in a state of shocked awe. The way she commands the driver to move her bags so that everyone can ‘squeeze together’ in the same car is so slick that it leaves you out of breath just watching it.

Something significant to note with this entry is that it marks the actor’s move from being typecast as the ingenue to a more motherly and mature figure. Lansbury’s performances within adapted films act as bookmarks to her acting development. Blue Hawaii (1961) serves as another example of this, as it sees her playing mother to the iconic Elvis Presley and donning a southern accent with tremendous comedic beats. Her roles in films of this type showcase her ability for levity alongside her well-shown dramatic acting talents. This goes to show that throughout her life, and subsequently through her performances, Lansbury highlights different nuances within different characters to make them jump off of the page and onto the screen.

3. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast Review

The final film in this Career-Defining Performances list is an all-time animated classic. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, amazingly in their directorial debuts, with songs penned by the legendary Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Beauty and the Beast won multiple awards, including both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Score. It also became the first animated film to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Angela Lansbury plays the iconic wisecracking, heart-on-her-sleeve Mrs Potts. In other words, the perfect maternal character archetype.

Throughout Beauty and the Beast, Lansbury infuses charm and motherly warmth into the character of Mrs Potts through her nuanced vocal delivery. Additionally, her singing elevates this, which in turn has gifted us a beautiful Disney love ballad. To wax lyrical (excuse the pun, à la Lumière!) on the origins of this ballad for a moment, it is widely known that Angela delivered “Tale as Old as Time” in just one take. Unbelievably, she did not think that she was fit to sing a romantic ballad as it was not within her usual vocal repertoire. Thank goodness she was convinced otherwise, as that one-take-wonder is what is seen on screen. Throughout the film, whilst both singing and speaking, with her effortless yet grounded performance, she breathes life into a teapot – a feat that only she could make possible.

The trajectory of Angela Lansbury’s career progressed from ingenue (with Sybil in The Picture of Dorian Gray) to maternal figure (see the description of her work in The Reluctant Debutante) to grandmother-type roles. This final archetype, in many ways, has crystallized the legacy of her standout characters. Lansbury herself remarked that these roles “pulled her out of the abyss” following her husband’s death in 2003. It is easy to see why as, within the context of these films, her characterisations have maintained levity and emotional grounding to audiences in the decades that have followed. Some examples of these are Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna Romanov (Anastasia’s grandmother) in Anastasia (1997) and the withdrawn-but-ultimately-nurturing Eglantine Price in another classic Disney flick, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

It is arguable that this role in Beauty and the Beast cemented her legacy. With her contribution to this picture, she introduced her acting feats to a new generation of film-watchers who had never before been exposed to her work. Due to the mark that this carved on not only her career, but on Disney’s history and the trajectory of the roles she played, Angela Lansbury is and will be forever synonymous with this part which will eternally gain new legions of fans in all stages of their lives.

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During her 96-year life, Angela Lansbury chalked up 122 acting credits to her name. The discussion of the three above performances, as well as the allusion to several more, evidently serves as a summary of her career: the performances are incredibly varied and efficiently delivered by a master of her craft, wherein that delivery subsequently lives on beyond her life. To quote the master herself, “actors are not made, they are born.”

Written by Alannah Purslow

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