Review: I used to know her as a teapot, but this Hollywood icon was everything in full color

Editor’s note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. Katie Couric is the morning editor at Media. He tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. See more reviews on CNN.


His story began as a classic Hollywood tale, but it didn’t end that way. Angela Lansbury, who died Tuesday at age 96, starred in her first film, “Gaslight,” in 1944 at age 19. Signed by MGM Studios just two years ago, he studied acting in New York after his family fell on hard times when they were forced to leave their Blitz-ravaged London home.

Like his co-star Ingrid Bergman, Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Gaslight,” but unlike her luminary co-star, she didn’t win. Losing that night was the first in a career marked by stunning performances that consistently won her critical acclaim, but rarely saw her as a leading actress. He later said “Winning an Academy Award too early is a huge deterrent because you don’t know what to do.”

What Lansbury did over the next seven decades was something unlike any of his golden contemporaries. An unfashionable evolution from Los Angeles to Broadway to television, his legacy was never tied to a particular era or genre. A misfit in the industry, he was often forced to turn the less sexy and less obvious roles offered to him into gems, constantly introducing new generations with a new image. Ultimately, they showed his self-confidence and vast talent, sealing his place as a Hollywood icon.

Like many people my age, my first introduction to Angela Lansbury was as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s 1991 hit Beauty and the Beast. Being as superficial as most pre-pubescents, my main focus was on the protagonists, Belle, and the intriguing horned monster of a beast who later turns into a feeble prince.

However, the part of the movie that stuck in my head for days after watching it was always the song “Beauty and the Beast” performed by Mrs. Potts. Lansbury sang during a takeover, sleep-deprived, just hours after stepping off a plane held up by a bomb scare. He later explained that the feat was the product of an adrenaline rush, saying, “I think it was the thrill of it all, ‘do it now!’ sense”.

Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers in Beauty and the Beast (1991) (Walt Disney Pictures)

No wonder he nailed it, though. After film offers dried up in the mid-1960s, Lansbury, then 40, moved to Broadway. In 1966, her role in “Mame” won her a Tony Award (her first of five, plus lifetime achievement) and established her as the first lady of musical theater.

Cruelly, despite its proven success with audiences, Lansbury was replaced by Lucille Ball in the 1974 film adaptation of “Mame.” Lansbury later described the decision as “high and shameless expectations”. Jerry Herman, who wrote the show’s music and lyrics, blamed the film’s heavy commercial hype on Hollywood’s tendency to cast actors who would be “a big star at the box office” without regard to whether “the person is right for the role.”

As Lansbury himself pointed out, Hollywood was never quite sure how to use it. Even in her 20s, she was often cast as the scheming, evil matriarch. When she was just 35, she played the idiot mother of 26-year-old Elvis Presley in the 1961 film “Blue Hawaii.” In 1962, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the third time for her incredible turn as the mother of a brainwashed son in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Laurence Harvey, who played the son, was only three years his junior. He was so convincing that many fans overestimated his age. “I played 20 years older than I was in those first movies, because now everyone thinks I’m 80!” He explained in a 1984 interview.

As frustrating as it was, when it was his turn to wield the power, Lansbury took the opportunity to include the usually overlooked show business. When the TV series “Murder, She Wrote” made it popular in the 1980s, Lansbury apparently he went out of his way as a leading man to help cast veteran actors struggling to find work, and repeatedly cast a chronically ill actor who was in danger of losing his Screen Actors Guild medical coverage to ensure he met the earnings requirements.

Lansbury also specified that her role as author and accidental detective Jessica Fletcher was not skewed by the sexist stereotypes writers often pushed back on. “I find that male writers generally don’t know how to write women, so you have to put that on yourself,” she explained in 1996. They turned their backs on writing as a real person… He was athletic, he was funny, he wasn’t discreet, he was outgoing, he was private, he was everything.’

In bringing Jessica Fletcher to life, Lansbury overturned the ageism that plagued her early career, and was limited by her lack of romantic, “chocolate box” looks, in her words. His tenacity throughout his working life, setbacks, setbacks, year after year, ensured that new generations found him in roles so diverse that when he was finally presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2013, Geoffrey Rush paid tribute. “vibrant definition of range”.

Now, when fans picture Angela Lansbury, they don’t see a star frozen in black and white, with tight curls and wide eyes. They see a grown woman, essential, in color.