Angela Lansbury and James Gregory in “The Manchurian Candidate.”
James Gregory and Angela Lansbury from the Manchurian Candidate

Angela Lansbury, the star of “Murder, She Wrote,” died on Thursday, her family announced. “The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 AM today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday,” her family said in a statement to news outlets.

Dame Lansbury’s family and beginnings

“Besides her three children, Anthony, Deirdre, and David, three grandchildren, Peter, Katherine and Ian, plus five great grandchildren and her brother, producer and family biographer Edgar Lansbury survive her,” their statement said. “She was proceeded in death by her husband of 53 years, Peter Shaw. They will hold a private family ceremony at a date to be determined.”

While Lansbury starred in many TV shows, movies, and stage productions. She was true theatrical star performing in comedies, musicals, and dramas, but it is Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote,” that most remember running 256 episodes before ending in 1996. She had a gala career and is truly one of the Hollywood Greats.

The Chart of a Goat?

This is her official chart and gives her like the late Queen of England a Capricorn ascendant, though the degrees are different. Like the Queen she was born to a prominent political family the year before Her Highness in 1925e Regent’s Park neighborhood of London. Her mother was Scots-Irish film actress Moyna Macgill (Charlotte McIldowie) (1895-1975), who hailed from an equally well-heeled family from Belfast, Northern Ireland’s posh Eglantine Avenue thanks to her father’s successful solicitor’s business.

From acting to soliciting, the McIldowie influence

It was William McIldowie, the top Belfast solicitor, that set his daughter’s fortune in a theatrical direction, for in his early days while practicing for the bar, she performed in amateur acting performance and recitals. He was a member of the Belfast Operatic Society and gave his daughter lessons. Charlotte’s first marriage was to Reginald Denham who held a commission in the British Army during the first World War but was interested in the performing arts, which was very alluring to Charlotte. Their daughter Isolde later married UNICEF representative Sir Peter Ustinov.

Charlotte’s second marriage was to Angela’s father, socialist politician Edgar Isaac Lansbury (1887-1935), the son of East End Labour politician George Lansbury. came about as she and Denham’s marriage fell out over politics. Charlotte lost interest in acting and became more interested in the suffrage movement and Emmeline Pankhurst, while Denham was more drawn to his writing and furthering his talents for the stage and film.

With that change in their interests, Charlotte now an organizer for the Women’s Party she met Edgar Lansbury, a member of Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Labour Party. Mr. Lansbury served as Honorary Treasurer of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (term 1915), and Mayor of Poplar (term 1924-1925). He was the second Communist mayor in British history, the first being Joe Vaughan (1878-1938). Ms. Angela Lansbury followed in her footsteps and was a staunch Democrat supporting Progressive politics.

In 1935, Edgar Lansbury died from stomach cancer just like his father did several years later This upset Angela greatly and she retreated into “playing characters” creating a shield between her and her mother’s remarriage to Colonel Leckie Forbes. When Britain entered the Great War, Angela’s family fled London in 1940 to America, landing in Greenwich Village, New York City.

Her most notable acts

Charles Boyer and his maid, Angela Lansbury in Gaslight

In her screen debut, Lansbury needed only a few scenes to earn an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, which speaks to the suggestive potency of her performance as a young maid of dubious intent. As Charles Boyer drives his bride (Ingrid Bergman) to madness to secure some lost jewels, Lansbury serves as an accomplice of sorts by flirting with him and stoking her paranoia. She adds to the air of hostility that keeps the heroine penned inside the house, increasingly convinced that she’s losing a grip on her sanity. As the term “gaslighting” has taken off in the culture, the film has gained newfound relevance as a psychological thriller about the withering, long-term impact of lies and manipulation.

1944 National Velvet

As Edwina, the eldest of the Brown sisters, Lansbury’s major contribution is teaching er 12-year-old sickly sister, Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor), about goals. For Edwina, her’s is a local Sussex boy she met and hopes to marry. For Velvet, it’s “The Pie,” a wild gelding that she and young drifter (Mickey Rooney) train into a prizewinning racehorse for the Grand National Steeplechase held at Aintree National Racecourse..

1945 ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

Lansbury’s rendition of “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a poignant and haunting signal of things to come.
Lansbury’s rendition of “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a poignant and haunting signal of things to come.Credit…MGM

Lansbury collected her second Oscar nomination in two years for a luminous supporting performance as a humble tavern singer who catches the eye of Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), a vain aristocrat who’s slumming in the London underground. Under the caressing light of the Oscar-winning cinematographer Harry Stradling, Lansbury’s rendition of “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” is a poignant and haunting signal of things to come, as Dorian’s interest in her fades and leads to a tragic outcome. As for the rest of the film, Oscar Wilde’s Faustian story of a portrait that ages while its subject does not. Angela became fast friends with Hurd, that lasted until his death.

1946 ‘The Harvey Girls’

Judy Garland with the guns, Angela in the black bodice and lace.

A product of Arthur Freed and the MGM studio machine, this musical Western has exactly one show-stopping number, the Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and virtually everyone in the cast but Lansbury is featured in it. Yet Lansbury (who, curiously, has her singing voice overdubbed) shows off a brazen sexuality as a dance hall vixen in the 1890s Arizona who feels threatened by the “Harvey Girls,” a bevy of clean-living waitresses who arrive to staff the new Harvey House restaurant in town. (Harvey House was actual chain of restaurants and hotels along passenger train routes, so the film doubled as an advertisement.) The film is mainly a vehicle for Judy Garland, a Harvey Girl who becomes Lansbury’s unwitting bête noire.

1958 ‘The Long, Hot Summer,’

Inserting a character inspired by Big Daddy Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” into a scenario patched together from three William Faulkner works, Orson Welles so thoroughly dominates “The Long, Hot Summer” as Will Varner, the bilious magnate of Mississippi small town, that the other actors struggle to make themselves known.

With a thick Southern drawl and a lot of attitude, Lansbury does her best to push back on Welles as his ornery mistress, though most of the drama comes from his complex relationship with Paul Newman’s charismatic Ben Quick, who arrives with a big ambition and a criminal past. Quick’s interest in Welles’s daughter, played by Joanne Woodward, carried over into one of Hollywood’s great offscreen love stories.

1962 ‘All Fall Down’

Lansbury made two films with director John Frankenheimer in 1962. “All Fall Down” the first of the duet is less fondly remembered than “The Manchurian Candidate” because while both roles have a powerful Freudian kick to them Warren Beatty is so devastatingly handsome in “All Fall Down” it ends up swaying the whole story in his favor despite the horrible story the movie portray and like his younger brother, Clinton ( Brandon de Wilde, and if there was a parallel of life mimicking art this movie is it) we just end up with feelings of pity and not outrage.

Beatty, seated above with the teacup, plays a drifter who’s constantly in and out of jail for beating the women he seduces, but everyone’s always willing to give him a second chance, including his mother (Lansbury), whose devotion is unwavering long after it should be.

1962 ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

In the best film role of her career, Lansbury is the most chilling of the many terrors in “The Manchurian Candidate,” playing the wife of a Joe McCarthy-like U.S. Senator (James Gregory) and the mother of a Korean War hero (Laurence Harvey) who returns as a brainwashed assassin. She’s the master manipulator behind two passive men of power, couching a radical agenda under the banner of patriotism and military service. As insidious as the foreign agents who manipulate her son, Lansbury’s character is a homegrown threat to democracy as she sees how a strong man can make an unwitting populace cry for a dictator. The Manchurian Candidate” remains the call to treason from both sides of the aisle.

1964 ‘The World of Henry Orient’

George Roy Hill’s exceedingly peculiar comedy about two 14-year-old schoolgirls having adventures in New York City. Peter Sellers is a concert pianist who finds himself in the middle of several awkward misunderstandings when the duo develops a crush on him . He thinks they’re spies sent to uncover his affair with a married woman, but one of the girl’s mothers, Lansbury, becomes concerned he’s preying on them. The story drifts from comedy to psychodrama too often, despite its portrayal of an idealized 1960s New York and Sellers’s genius at playing the put-upon hero, but its darker aspects feed into Lansbury’s robust performance as a moralizing hypocrite who indulges in the behavior she haughtily abhors.

1971‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’

In “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” Lansbury temporarily adopts three children who have been evacuated from London during the Blitz.

Seven years after “Mary Poppins,” Disney tried to recreate the magic with this inferior facsimile, which casts Lansbury in the Julie Andrews role of a magical caregiver and dabbles in the same mix of live-action, animation, and cheerful musical numbers. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is no more than passable family entertainment, but Lansbury acquits herself as an amateur witch who’s learning her craft via correspondence school. When she temporarily adopts three children who have been evacuated from London during the Blitz, they hop on a traveling bed and search for a supernatural defense to help their besieged country. Of the songs, the alliterative underwater animated number “The Beautiful Briny,” a duet between Lansbury and “Mary Poppins” star David Tomlinson, is the standout.

1978 ‘Death on the Nile’

As “Mary Poppins” was to “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” so the 1974 film version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was to 1978’s “Death on the Nile,” a large-scale Christie whodunit with an eye-catching locale and a star-filled gallery of suspects. It’s difficult to stand out in a cast that includes Sir Peter Ustinov (her brother-in-law), Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Dame Maggie Smith (often seen with Peter in UNICEF commercials) . Lansbury has a grand time as a popular romance novelist (shades of Murder she Wrote to be sure) who’s among the many on a Nile cruise with a motive to kill a snooty heiress. Rolling her r’s with impunity, Lansbury makes such a quality sparring partner for Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot it seems only logical that she would do some on-screen sleuthing herself one day.

1980 ‘The Mirror Crack’d’

In “The Mirror Crack’d,” a star-studded Agatha Christie whodunit, Lansbury solves murders. Rock Hudson plays a director, and Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak are rivals.

Lansbury again does Agatha Christie, but this time she’s the one solving murders as Miss Jane Marple. “The Mirror Crack’d” brings a cast of aging screen legends together for a whodunit set on a Hollywood movie production, including Rock Hudson as the director, Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak as rival movie stars, and Tony Curtis, Geraldine Chaplin, and Edward Fox as additional suspects in a poisoning. The storytelling is bland and workmanlike in the face of all that star power, but Lansbury’s Miss Marple has such a winning confidence that she conducts half the investigation laid up at home with a broken foot.

1983 ‘The Pirates of Penzance’

The ’80s were unkind to movies with “Pirates” in the title (see also: “Ice Pirates” and Roman Polanski’s “Pirates”), and this screen version of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, based on the Broadway revival, was no exception. But forgive the theatrical trappings — the ocean and island sets all look like pastel monstrosities imported from the show — and “The Pirates of Penzance” is a rousing adaptation, led by a swashbuckling Kevin Kline as The Pirate King. As Ruth, a nursemaid who has joined Rex Smith’s young hero in a mistaken apprenticeship with pirates, Lansbury is the only major character to not have performed in the Broadway version, but she has no trouble singing and mugging her way through Ruth’s daftness.

1984 ‘The Company of Wolves’

An ingenious riff on “Little Red Riding Hood” and other fairy tales, Neil Jordan’s feminist horror-fantasy layers stories on top of stories, following a young girl (Sarah Patterson) whose dream-life sinks into a vivid lycanthrope nightmare. Because of the sinister matriarchs of Lansbury’s past, her warmth as the girl’s Granny feels deceptive even when she’s telling dark tales about staying away from men with eyebrows that meet. Through this slew of nested fairy tales, “The Company of Wolves” turns familiar myths into a coherent and beautifully rendered fantasy about young women entering the treacherous world of men and learning how to survive in it.

1984-1996

Lansbury wasn’t an obvious choice for the amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher.

Given her limited work on television, Lansbury wasn’t an obvious choice for the amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher — the part was originally developed for Jean Stapleton, who passed on it. But thanks to a highly-rated 12-season run on CBS followed by enduring popularity in syndication and on streaming services, it is arguably Lansbury’s most well-known role. A mystery novelist in a fictional Maine town that is rife with suspicious deaths — the old joke posits Cabot Cove as the murder capital of the world — Jessica used her folksy demeanor and uncommon powers of observation to foil wrongdoers who consistently underestimated her. Thanks to Lansbury’s lively wit and the pleasures of well-crafted TV mystery, the show remains a delight nearly 40 years after it premiered.

Stream it on PeacockRoku or Freevee.

1991

Still the jewel of the Disney Renaissance that began with “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” gets some of its gravitas from Lansbury, whose gentle rendition of the title song all but encases the film in amber. She plays Mrs. Potts, one of the castle servants transformed into household items by a curse that also turns an arrogant prince into the raging Beast. Before Belle can calm the Beast and lift the curse, Mrs. Potts and the other enchanted objects are present for comic relief, first-class hospitality, and the film’s catchiest musical number, “Be Our Guest.”

1997

Given that former Disney animators Don Bluth and Gary Goldman left the company for a competitor in Fox Animation Studios, it seemed like a power move to cast Lansbury, the soul of “Beauty and the Beast,” as the narrator and matriarch in “Anastasia.” As grandmother to Anastasia, the 8-year-old Grand Duchess of the ruling Romanovs in Russia, Lansbury is absent for most of the film once the evil sorcerer Rasputin curses the family and leaves the little girl to an uncertain fate. She resurfaces once the girl is found, however, and plays a role in engineering a happy ending. Though other studios struggled to make headway against the Disney machine, “Anastasia” was a success for good reason, spinning history into an attractive romantic adventure.

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