Equal parts awe and comfort. That’s how I’d describe the feeling of being in Dame Angela Lansbury’s magical presence.
Think Sarah Bernhardt plus the scent of freshly baked cookies. Or a Fairy Godmother who can, at will, turn herself into the Wicked Witch of the West—and back—for your amusement.
With 6 Golden Globes, 5 Tony Awards, and an honorary Oscar to her credit, 90-year-old Lansbury says she doesn’t ever plan on retiring. She’s living proof that you don’t have to act like a badass to be one.
At the TCM Classic Film Festival, Alec Baldwin interviewed Lansbury before a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) at the TCL Chinese Theater. The queue for the event snaked all around the movie palace and down Hollywood Boulevard. I got number 520 in line and count myself lucky to have made it in—because it was an event I’ll never forget.
The stage and screen star made her entrance blowing kisses in response to a rapturous standing ovation from a packed house. As the applause settled down, one fan called from the audience, “We love you, Angela!”
“I love you too!” Lansbury replied. Watching her exude warmth and gratitude towards her fans, I found it all the more impressive that she had transformed herself into the chilling Mrs. Iselin.
Baldwin began by questioning Lansbury about Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959.
“The book was presented to me by the director, John Frankenheimer, on the last day of the shoot of a movie we were making called All Fall Down,” Lansbury recalled. “He slammed the book down and said, ‘There’s your next movie.’”
She remembered being “blown away” as she read. “It was wonderfully well-constructed and so original, so extraordinary, and the character that I assumed he wanted me to play was like nothing else I had ever read for myself as an actress.”
“They didn’t put everything in the movie that’s in the book?” Baldwin asked. “Well, they couldn’t, quite frankly,” Lansbury said, referring to the more explicitly Oedipal mother-son relationship in the novel.
Although Lansbury was Frankenheimer’s first choice for Mrs. Iselin, Frank Sinatra initially had other ideas. “He wanted Lucille Ball,” Lansbury recalled. “I mean, that could’ve been fascinating. You wouldn’t have believed that she could be this devil incarnate.”
Fortunately, Frankenheimer prevailed, and Lansbury savored the chance to deliver such a marvelously wicked performance. “It’s a lot of fun to play a villain, a well-written villain, you know, not just a villain-villain, but a brilliant, interesting one, a villain of parts, you might say. So you weren’t quite sure about her.”
Lansbury clearly relished the moment when Mrs. Iselin’s mask drops as she invites her son to “pass the time by playing a little solitaire.” It was a joy to hear her repeat this line, in her naturally friendly tone of voice, and appreciate by contrast just how much creepiness she’d infused into those words for the film. “Only in that moment do you realize that she’s in charge,” she noted.
Lansbury was only 36 when she made The Manchurian Candidate, just 3 years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son! Yet she projects the matronly authority of a senator’s wife—and the commanding fierceness of a high-level communist agent—with frightening conviction.
Baldwin wondered how Lansbury managed to carry herself like a woman in her forties or fifties. Did she observe and mimic the movements of women much older than herself—like Julie Andrews studied the way men move to play in Victor Victoria?
Lansbury explained that she took a text-centered approach to creating Mrs. Iselin. “I’ve never really described how I arrived at the character. I don’t do the kind of spadework that you just described. I sort of take on attitudes that are, in this instance, the absolute antithesis of the woman that I am. Because, as far as I’m concerned, what the writer has for me to say is immediately a clue for me, the actress, as to how my attitudes, or my looks, or everything else that’s packed into this character that will emerge.”
Unlike Method actors, Lansbury said that her craft doesn’t involve mining her own memories and feelings: “I always say, ‘Leave yourself at home. Don’t bring yourself. Be that woman. And, you know, get on with it.’ And that seems to work.”
Frankenheimer gave his actors the chance to build their characters and add nuance to their interactions. As Lansbury reported, “We rehearsed a lot. They don’t take the time or the money to rehearse these days, but in those days certainly John demanded that we did. So we went into scenes really knowing them backwards.”
The demands of the film’s top-billed star also motivated the extensive rehearsals. “Frank Sinatra wouldn’t do two takes. He just refused. So if you didn’t get it the first time you were out of luck. And luckily he gave one of the best performances he’d ever given in The Manchurian Candidate.”
The Manchurian Candidate conveys an ambiance of oppressive paranoia, and it sounds like the shoot was no place for levity. “I can honestly say that John maintained a mood on that set that was all business and had everything to do with the story and the scenes I had. He was a very serious director in his own way. And he really got terribly excited with the drama that was in the scene and we were dragged into that. And we went along with it. We were very sincere in that we wanted to make a great movie. And it really turned out to be.”
Laurence Harvey broke up the gravity with his humorous, laid-back disposition. “He was tremendous fun. He took it like a joke. Typical English actor.” And here Lansbury did a quick impression of her co-star, leaning as far back as she could in her chair then looking up distractedly. “Oh, ready for me yet?”
Lansbury didn’t get the chance to work with Sinatra much. “I was only in one scene with Frank. We were in the cloakroom picking up our coats,” she said. “And that’s the only time we were ever on the set together.”
Prompted by Baldwin, Lansbury also discussed her early career at MGM. Her versatility made it difficult for the studio to reduce her to a type and find strong vehicles for her: “I always felt challenged because the kind of odd thing was that directors, producers, they all saw me in a different way. One producer would see me as a kind of song and dance girl, the next one would see me as a mother or as a rather boring kind of nurse in some movie with Walter Pidgeon.”
She expressed her fondness for Gaslight and especially for her part as Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “I loved that sweet, vulnerable girl. To get to play that was a miracle.” However, she ultimately felt that Hollywood’s Golden Age afforded her few golden opportunities. “I gave them the impression that I could change myself, because I did. I had to. And it bored me to death to play some of those movies, I can tell you that.”
Exasperated with Hollywood, she returned to the theater. “I said, ‘Enough already,’ and I shuffled off to Broadway.” As for the dream factory studios where she worked, “I didn’t miss a darn thing, to be truthful.”
Lansbury waxed poetic over the live theater experience. “I simply love the feeling that you the audience are there, and we’re together in this. And this onstage is something that absolutely propels me forward and gives me the excitement and impetus to go out there and give my absolute best. The curtain goes up, you’re mine, and I’m yours.”
After relatively few feature film roles in the 1950s, Lansbury did some of her best film work in the early 1960s.
“The last great movie that I got to be in was The Manchurian Candidate.” While she said she wouldn’t consider it her greatest film, “It’s certainly the most outstanding and astonishing film I was ever connected with. From an audience standpoint, I think it’s a unique piece of work on the part of everybody who was in it. And John’s conception of it, his work with Axelrod on the script, the minutia that he took the time to do, it paid off so amazingly.”
When she saw the film screened, she found it thrilling. “I had no idea how it would all be cut together. We really don’t because we do little bits and pieces, you know how it is…. I had no idea that it would land with the impact that it did.”
As for recent accomplishments, in 2014 Lansbury received an Honorary Academy Award, presented by none other than Robert Osborne.
“I requested that he should be the person to give it to me, because he always stood by me,” Lansbury said, echoing her audience’s love for the Turner Classic Movies host. “I said, ‘Look, he’s the only man who knows all the movies that I made in that period.’ And, of course, he’s TCM. There was no question in my mind that he was the right person and I’m so glad he did it.”
Alec Baldwin concluded the conversation with a fitting tribute to Dame Angela’s dazzling range: “One thing that is always so thrilling and so powerful is to witness someone whose soul can range from one end to the other. I’ve worked with just a few who can do anything…. They can play the darkest forces in the world and they can play the most beautiful spirits in the world. There aren’t many of them.”
And Angela Lansbury is surely one. She’s not only the queen of her fans’ hearts, but also the Queen of Diamonds.