b. October 16, 1925, London, England.

“When I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.”
– Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

Like most people, my first encounter with Angela Lansbury was as the twee Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (Universal Television and Corymore Productions, 1984-1996). It came as a revelation to me, then, when I saw her stunning turn as the viper’s tooth mother to Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) in The Manchurian Candidate. I was studying revenge and the systematic underestimation of women at the time, so I embroidered her threat on my heart. However, when I told my friends I was writing about her for Senses of Cinema, their reaction was one of incredulity. How could I contemplate wasting my time in this way? I was counselled not to take the job too seriously. I am a fan of Angela Lansbury (many are),1 and I was not deterred. But this reaction did lead me to consider the sources of the resistance to taking Lansbury seriously. Lansbury, like Eleanor Iselin, has been chronically underestimated. This is seen in her missing out on awards for which she was nominated: three Academy Awards and 18 Emmys. However, she has won 5 Tonys. There is something in this uneven distribution of awards, of prestige, that warrants investigation. Why so often nominated? Why so seldom awarded? Why so underestimated?

Murder, She Wrote


The Manchurian Candidate

Lansbury has always wanted to be a movie star, but this goal has always eluded her. In a section entitled “Regrets” in Martin Gottfried’s biography, she says, “I’ve never gotten the opportunity to play a really great woman’s role in the movies. Someday, I want to play just one great movie role.”2 This seems to be disregarding her astonishing work in The Manchurian Candidate, which was a great movie role, but it does suggest that she wants something else, something more: stardom. As Gottfried says, “There was a part of her that bought into the Hollywood fantasy – that movies were about being a star.”3 Lansbury’s uneven success record in the awards suggests that the barrier is not intrinsic to her but something to do with the industries in which she has worked – the material conditions that produce stardom. Specifically, Lansbury’s underestimation has been caused by underlying tensions in stardom, which can be defined, as Paul McDonald does, both by prestige and profit.4 Often, these are at odds. Those who achieve in the profitable mass entertainment arena are, by association, excluded from the ‘prestige’ category that is acknowledged by awards. To a degree, Lansbury contributed to her own underestimation by her career manoeuvres, which have often led her away from the roles that would win her prestige, including, for example, Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), an Elvis vehicle. However, as she says, she did not always have the luxury of choice. “I played a number of roles where I look back and say, ‘My God, how could you do that?’ Simple. We needed the money.”5 As she says herself, “I won’t lift a finger unless I get paid for it.”6 This hard-nosed attitude conflicts with the mythology of the endogenously motivated artist. However, as Barry King and McDonald point out, the star is not only the magical creature who attracts all eyes by dint of ineffable charisma but is also materially produced by the industrial conditions in which they work. In Lansbury’s case, she has worked since 1944 in three industries at the height of their powers:

She was a movie actress for two decades in the glory days of the Hollywood studio system. She was a Broadway leading lady in the last decade of glamorous musical comedy. She was a television star in the final era of network dominance, when an audience of many millions could still be held in thrall in a nationwide living room.7

In each case her career reveals the material conditions by which stardom is produced and how it is defined – first in the studios, subsequently in musical theatre, and lastly in television. Stardom in terms of the esteem measures of Hollywood eluded her, but she did later win it in terms of prestige on the musical comedy stage, and in material terms on television. She has enjoyed increasing independence, autonomy, and financial success as she has migrated through these media. Her production company, the Corymore Corporation, can now support her family after her death.8 Lansbury is now, in McDonald’s formulation, a star as performed brand.9 But material need has not always been the only consideration in Lansbury’s career choices. As she gained greater financial independence and control over her own fate, she became more selective and specifically privileged “likeability” or “lovability.”10 This has led her away from roles in which she could have given some of her most powerful performances. For example, she turned down the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), a role that won Louise Fletcher an Academy Award. As Lansbury said, “It’s very hard to decide to do something that you know is going to turn eighty percent of your audience off you.”11 Instead, Lansbury went on to voice Mrs. Potts from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991), for which she won a Tony, but which falls at the twee end of the spectrum. In terms of prestige and profit, stardom is something performers can work to produce or mar through their personal choices. Lansbury has contributed to her own underestimation by taking roles principally for money and needing to be loved.


Early in Lansbury’s career, she was a contract player for MGM from 1944 to 1952. When she was 17 years old, the $500 a week she earned transformed her family’s life, but acting choices were made for her by the studio. She was cast in supporting roles but, despite her youth, not as an ingenue. Rather, she was deployed as a character actor.12 As Lansbury has said, “I was the only seventeen-year-old character actress in the business.”13 Her look contributed to this. As Barry King says, the body determines the actor’s fate in typecasting, which “ties the actor as it were to biological and social destiny” and which “has a persistent tendency towards self-fulfilment.”14  Lansbury was “a tall girl with the start of a woman’s body, but a child’s round and pouty face.”15 “The ideal ingenue,” by contrast, should have an “exceptionally beautiful and interesting face.”16 With enormous blue eyes, a small mouth, and a narrow chin, Lansbury’s is, rather, a face that is easily caricatured (as it is later in Nanny McPhee [Kirk Jones, 2005]). In Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944), Lansbury played Nancy, the cockney housemaid (a role not far from her London roots, although far from her upper-middle-class origins). With her idiosyncratic look, Lansbury is not as classically beautiful as the luminous star: Ingrid Bergman. As McDonald says, “star” is a relative term. Some people are stars because others aren’t, and the whole fabric of the film is constructed in such a way as to foreground the star. In this case, Lansbury was cast as the supporting player. Nancy is tart, pert and sexy, or as Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg characterise her as “sulky [and] sluttish.”17 In Nancy, Lansbury plays a character older than her years, not for the last time. Gottfried says of her casting that Lansbury had to be believable as a sexual lure for the untrustworthy husband Gregory (Charles Boyer), precisely so he can demonstrate he is untrustworthy and old enough to compete with the cowed wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), “and she had to be sure enough of herself to be intimidating.”18 To make her more physically imposing, Lansbury was supplied with body padding and high heels.19 Edelman and Kupferberg point out that Lansbury’s performance could have descended into caricature.20 To be sure, her accent is broad, but there are moments, like when Nancy prevents Paula from leaving the house alone by intimating that Gregory will not be pleased, that Lansbury plays with a subtly sinister inflection. Then there is the scene in the parlour when Gregory has Paula summon Nancy, despite Paula’s clear reluctance, to perform a menial task. Lansbury as Nancy undermines Paula’s confidence thoroughly, without apparently ever setting a foot out of place. In her coquettish music hall turn for the master of the house, and in her delivery of the lines about knowing how to look after herself around men when she wants to, she is shrewdly suggestive. Lansbury attracted an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in her movie debut. She was only defeated by Ethel Barrymore, surely an honourable defeat. Surely this, then, cannot be the source of the underestimation of Lansbury.21

Publicity still for Gaslight

Publicity still for The Picture of Dorian Gray

Lansbury’s next role was in The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945).22 She was again typecast as a cockney, but this time she is the woebegone Sybil Vane, a hitherto virtuous London music hall girl seduced and abandoned by Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). Lansbury plays Sybil with touching vulnerability. In the scene in which Gray propositions her, emotions of fear, disappointment, resignation, and acquiescence wash over her face. Her enormous eyes melt with tears. James Agee says of this turn, “Some people are liable to laugh at her and think of her as insipid, but I think she is touching and exact in her defenseless romanticism in a special kind of short-lipped English beauty, appropriate to the period and to Sibyl’s class.”23 She was again nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and again passed over – this time more ignominiously in favour of Anne Revere, her co-star in the National Velvet, an Elizabeth Taylor vehicle.24 And at this point, Lansbury’s life imitated her art. She married, and was abruptly abandoned by, a gay man – Roy Radbaugh (stage name Richard Cromwell). In retrospect, Lansbury made sense of this in terms of her casting in the film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novella: “I know that he himself was carried away with this glorious idea that he was marrying Sybil Vane; that I would straighten him out. It made him ill. He couldn’t do it.”25 They divorced in 1946, the same year she entered a romantic relationship with her second husband, Peter Shaw, who was to become her business partner.


Production Still from The Harvey Girls

But Lansbury’s contract still had some years to run after Gaslight, even if, as Edelman and Kupferberg say, MGM did not know what to do with her.26 The studio did little to promote her,27 and she was “misused and underused” by the studio, as well as miscast.28 One role that demonstrates this is Em in The Harvey Girls (George Sidney, 1946). Em is a madam in a Wild West saloon,29 “a brassy, hard-hearted honky-tonk singer.”30 She exudes sexiness and glamour, but Gottfried has singled out this “inappropriate” casting as significant in Lansbury’s career for two reasons: it was her first role as an American, which established her versatility, and it “settled her classification as a supporting actress,” this time to contrast the good girl Susan Bradley (Judy Garland).31 Again, as Nancy was to Paula, she is the other woman.32 Further, in a pattern that persisted, she played a “venal bitch.”33 This was to earn her such animosity that a Garland fan later hissed Lansbury.34 Nor was Lansbury allowed to demonstrate her skills in The Harvey Girls: “[Lansbury] goes through the film with a perpetual pout on her face; she is not allowed to bust loose and act, sing or dance,”35 and this in a musical. Even her singing voice was dubbed.36  These inhibitions about Lansbury fulfilling her potential reveal the material conditions by which stardom was produced, or not produced, in the studio system. As a supporting character actor, she was ever subordinate to the film’s star. The systems of signification within each film, and of promotion in the market, supported that hierarchical arrangement. In 1974, Gene Siskel said of Lansbury: “In her early films for MGM, Lansbury’s essential problem was foretold – she was too damn intelligent for the parts being written.”37 While under contract to MGM, she appeared in some frankly “absurd” films.38 Lansbury was not satisfied with the development of her career at the studio, and in 1952 her contract was terminated at her request.

But Lansbury did not, absent the supportive structure of MGM, fare much better for herself. As she said, without the contract, she “couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood.”39 Hard up for money, she appeared in a quiz show based on charades.40 The mid-1950s was a period of “celluloid stagnation.”41 She appeared in such noir shockers as A Life at Stake (Paul Guilfoyle, 1955), which was so obscure it was never reviewed in Variety,42 and Please Murder Me (Peter Godfrey, 1956), which was filmed in a supermarket.43 Lansbury has identified The Purple Mask (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1955) as the low point of her career.44 As Lansbury says, “I was always in makeup to play beastly women in the forties and fifties. My movies usually were stinkers.”45 Both in terms of prestige and profit, this was the nadir of Lansbury’s movie stardom.

Things did improve in the late 1950s to a limited extent. Lansbury herself garnered better parts and good reviews in otherwise bad films,46 to the extent that Pauline Kael dubbed her a “‘picture redeemer.’”47 And the films began to improve, too. Lansbury enjoyed a renaissance in The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Delbert Mann, 1960). In both roles, she plays a mature mistress who has come to be taken for granted by her lover (or would-be lover). In The Long, Hot Summer, Lansbury played opposite A-listers Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles, and Lee Remick, but her screen time is minimal. In both films, but particularly The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, she plays against the “venal bitch” type: her Mavis Pruitt is a decent, understanding woman who, ultimately, respects marriage. Lansbury plays the role with warmth and sensitivity. She has said it “broke my heart with pride.”48 Here, we see the emergence of Lansbury privileging “likeability.”

In The Long, Hot Summer and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Lansbury continued to play women older than her years (she was then in her 30s). As Gottfried says, “Lansbury [experienced] history’s longest and earliest middle age.”49 After that, she was type-cast as the overbearing mother of men barely her junior: Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, Warren Beatty in All Fall Down (John Frankenheimer, 1962), and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Lansbury defends taking on Blue Hawaii in terms that privilege the profit motive and reveal the material conditions for actors in the era that began to see the obsolescence of the studio system:

I was freelance. It was a professional job. I was well paid. … And so I did it. I’m not apologizing for it. I was a journeyman actor. I did what was proffered. It was applicable to my talents and I could bring it off. I would do it. As long as I got the billing and the money. That was the important thing – and that I didn’t disgrace myself.50 

In All Fall Down, she plays a hysterical mother, Annabel Willart, who is overly involved, in a Freudian way, with her son Berry (Warren Beatty). She interferes, lethally, in his romance with his pregnant girlfriend Echo (Eva Marie Saint). John Frankenheimer’s reasons for casting her were not flattering. Elia Kazan had said to him, “You want to work with them on their way up or their way down.”51 Frankenheimer perceived that Lansbury was on her way down. “She had never really made it as a young leading lady and was already in her middle thirties, an age when it’s difficult for actresses.”52 Although she again played a less-than-admirable character, Lansbury was proud of All Fall Down, although, like The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, it “only appealed to a small, rather special audience.”53 However, it did land her her next, and greatest, film role: that of Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate.

The Manchurian Candidate is a singularly paranoid film about paranoia. Raymond Shaw and Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) are captured during the Korean War and brainwashed so that Shaw is returned to America as a sleeper assassin. Lansbury plays his mother, who is the wife of the vice-Presidential candidate for the United States, John Iselin (James Gregory). She is a complete harridan. Further, she is a Communist spy, her son’s American Operator. Paranoia about Freudianism, and specifically Philip Wylie’s Momism,54 intersects with paranoia about national security. Greil Marcus says, “in All Fall Down Lansbury’s controlling mother is merely hysterical in her desperate attempt to make sure no one ever does anything wrong; it’s her problem […] Eleanor Iselin, [by contrast] is our problem.”55 (Emphasis added) Mother deploys Raymond in deadly ways that reveal political and Freudian tensions. For example, she sends him on a mission to murder his father-in-law, who is Johnny’s political opponent. Raymond’s beloved new bride becomes collateral damage. Gottfried says that Lansbury’s energy displaces the centre of dramatic tension in the movie from the political plot to the Freudian plot.56 “the mother-son relationship provides an enduring electricity.”57  Lansbury is terrifying throughout the film: she is waspish with her husband and hectors her son until he covers his ears to escape her harangue. She is perversely icy,58 as Lansbury weaponises her perennial classiness and “snarling, manipulative, … vindictive [, and] poisonous.”59 Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate is at once “more sexual, more intelligent, more loving, more cruel,” than she was as Annabel Willart in All Fall Down.60 Her great moment comes when she calmly lays out the plot for a catatonic Raymond, including his mission to assassinate the Presidential candidate and her plan to retaliate toward her Communist allies for interfering with her son. Lansbury is eerily calm and measured, but she is coldly menacing. She is completely furious, but her revenge will be served cold. She seals the moment with a lingering kiss on Raymond’s lips. In a book of poetry devoted to Angela Lansbury, Chrissy Williams describes the impact of such a kiss: 

A kiss from you –Angela – would be catastrophic.
Angela – An extinction level event – Angela – 
like kissing the face of destruction. Do not tempt me –
Angela – we both understand the violence of a kiss.61

For her sins, both familial and political, Raymond assassinates her.

The Manchurian Candidate

Frankenheimer considered Lansbury’s performance “one of the finest screen performances I’ve ever been associated with.”62 She steals the show from the film’s notional star, Frank Sinatra.63 Lansbury was nominated for a third time for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar but again missed out, this time to Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker. Lansbury said of that loss, “It was like your stomach has fallen out of your body. It bothered me desperately.”64 It seems it is easier to give an Oscar to a sympathetic character than a “venal bitch.” 

Greil Marcus asserts that, as a movie actress, Lansbury never matched that role,65 but she did at least have a career. As Lansbury said, “Mine was a career that might have petered out if it had not been for The Manchurian Candidate.66 Marcus also observes that the remainder of Lansbury’s working life, which saw her playing Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, might be a way of making amends for Eleanor Iselin’s crimes.67 While she did not entirely escape the typecasting playing Eleanor Iselin involved (Something for Everyone [Harold Prince, 1970]) smacks of the same family dynamic68), it was after The Manchurian Candidate that Lansbury began to privilege “likability” in her career choices. In terms of her filmography, this turn to “likability” emerges in her work for Disney in animated and partially animated features: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Robert Stevenson, 1971), Beauty and the Beast, and Mrs Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall, 2018). While she always plays likable or lovable characters, these roles are uneven. Hers is a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns, and in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Gottfried opines that she is “detached and absent.”69 Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast is, however, her highest-profile film role after The Manchurian Candidate.70. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 254.] But Lansbury is probably not at her best when playing within the confines of Disney cuteness.70 Ever the character actor, and one who found it “very trying to play restrained roles,”71 Lansbury has also given us the terrifying and eccentric Aunt Adelaide in Nanny McPhee and the deliciously camp lush Rosalie Otterbourne in Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978). Her over the top tango with Colonel Race (David Niven) is a delight to behold. This enjoyment of the less retrained role may underly her success in musical theatre.

Nanny McPhee


Musical theatre

The turn to likeability coincided with her turn to the musical comedy stage. In terms of prestige and material reward, Lansbury finally became a leading actor and a star, 73. Gottfried observes, 

[Lansbury] was not only disgusted with all the years of playing bitches; she was convinced that the reason she’d finally gotten to be a leading lady was that Mame Dennis, besides being a great role, was a lovable woman. That had made Lansbury lovable, and she concluded that audiences make stars of actors they like, and like to see – again and again and again.72

Rex Reed describes the contrast between her turn in Broadway’s Mame (Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, 1966) and her preceding Hollywood career: 

Something to scream about. Angela Lansbury blowing a trumpet in backless canary yellow spangles on top of a grand piano. Angela Lansbury doing a slow Theda Bara burn across a speakeasy floor in silk lame and monkey fur. Angela Lansbury leading an imaginary parade into theatrical history with a peppermint stick. A happy caterpillar turning, after years of being nose-thumbed by Hollywood in endless roles as baggy-faced frumps, into a gilt edge butterfly.73 

Lansbury attributes something special to the role of theatre itself that overcomes some of Hollywood’s inhibitions about casting her as a lead and star: “I was never considered a beauty. But theatrically I can project an illusion of great glamour.”74 She attributes her following in the gay community precisely to this glamour.75 Judy Garland, to whom she had played the supporting role and other woman in The Harvey Girls, found their roles as stars reversed when she desperately wanted to succeed Lansbury as Mame but was passed over.76 Garland’s star waned as Lansbury’s waxed. Theatre, then, gave Lansbury the opportunity for stardom, and to be loved, that had eluded her in Hollywood. And recognition in the form of prestige awards followed: she won a Tony. Despite three snubs, Lansbury did not turn her back on the Oscars. She appeared to do a special number, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” at the 1968 Academy Awards show.77 This also underlined the contrast between her film and her theatrical careers:

For once, Angela was playing to an audience of her peers. But she was no longer Angela Lansbury, supporting actress struggling to win roles; she was now Angela Lansbury, glamorous Broadway star… Angela was loving the opportunity to return to Hollywood under such enviable circumstances.78 

Lansbury’s career had decidedly taken a turn for the better. She became a bankable musical theatre star. This was mainly because of the change in medium and industry and partially because she chose more lovable roles. However, her theatrical roles were entirely divorced from her cinematic ones. In Gypsy (Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Arthur Laurents, 1973), she returned to London to play Mama Rose, “overbearing, ambitious, and finally horrific stage mother.”79 Lansbury followed Ethel Merman, who had played Mama Rose as “a one-dimensional monster, abrasive, frenetic, ruthless, and, were it not for the emotion expressed in her songs, totally unsympathetic.”80 Lansbury, by contrast, made the character “a woman of many contradictions, fearful but childish, insensitive and yet vulnerable and guileless,”81 so that she became tragic rather than monstrous. And again, theatrical audiences, and critics, gave her the affirmation and the prestige she had long sought. “London took me to its heart, but not in the way it happens in New York. You’re not the celebrity, you’re the actress, and I was given the critical greeting I had hoped for.”82 Another Tony followed. 

In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, 1979), Lansbury leaned again on what Jim Carr described as her “ability to keep you interested in a very unsavory character.”83 She played Nellie Lovett, the baker who helps Todd get rid of murdered bodies by making them into pies. Initially, Lansbury was reluctant to take the role because it was not the titular role.84 She had reached the stage in her career where she could be choosy, and choose to be a star. However, after Stephen Sondheim agreed to magnify her comic part – essential to her billing and likability – she agreed.85 As Gottfried says, playing Nellie Lovett involved “mindless, almost good-natured evildoing.”86 Nellie Lovett, as portrayed by Lansbury, was “a kewpie doll conspirator in murder, a figure so giddy and childish she was practically lovable.”87 Even playing a cannibal accessory to murder, Lansbury privileged lovability. And the reward was that people told her it was the best thing she had ever done.88 And, as now seemed to be inevitable, there came a Tony. Lansbury, whom Hollywood had chronically underestimated, was richly rewarded in musical comedy theatre in terms both of profit and prestige. She became on stage the star she had never been on film. But as it became more challenging to get Broadway shows off the ground and for them to turn a profit,89 Lansbury turned to television.  

The Manchurian Candidate


Her cinematic role as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d (Guy Hamilton, 1980) prepared the way for Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Still, she had to overcome the “cold fish” stereotyping of The Manchurian Candidate to get the part.90 Producer Peter Fischer attests to underestimating her: “It was unbelievable. Meeting her for the first time, I thought, ‘Oh my God, why haven’t they recognised this in this woman?’ We all fell in love with her. Well, how can you not?”91 Likability was vital. Television was perceived as a “people medium.”92 The show’s success depended on the likability of the personality in the role (and not, as Lansbury was to discover, so much on the ability to play a character93).

Lansbury’s reasons for wanting the role were simple: money, enormous audience reach, and the chance to play a likable character.94 Peter Fischer says that Murder, She Wrote was “consciously aiming for heartland American values,”95 all be they, as Gottfried concedes, Reaganite.96 “In the case of Murder, She Wrote, television communicated the decency, the civility, and the maturity of Angela Lansbury through the wisdom and warmth of Jessica Fletcher.”97 Lansbury as Fletcher scored 100% on the “lovability index.”98 The critics agreed on this. John O’Connor said, “Miss Fletcher’s zest occasionally becomes overly cute, but Miss Lansbury keeps the character on a remarkably attractive course.”99 Tom Shales said, “she’s an aggressively adorable little Miss Fixit […] Instead of making her feisty and brassy…the producers have made her cute and cuddly. She’s a granny Mary Poppins.”100 Murder, She Wrote became an American institution.101 It became the number one show in CBS’s entertainment division.102 It out-rated Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.103 Peter Fischer said this was “due to [Lansbury]. She’s an absolute delight. Who would have thought that an audience this size would stay week after week to watch a middle-aged lady in sensible shoes?”104

The producers of Murder, She Wrote had something of a feminist agenda.105 Jessica Fletcher was to be an icon, providing a positive representation of both her sex and her age.106 Gottfried contrasts Police Woman’s Angie Dickinson, the “little woman the males always bailed out”107 with Jessica Fletcher, “an intelligent woman who solves things in her own right.”108 However, the producers were also wary of making Fletcher too threatening to men. “She’s a very strong person but she doesn’t intimidate. You still like her, and the male audience isn’t intimidated […]. She’s a tough act. There’s a real tensile strength there.”109 Lansbury herself made efforts to get women hired onto the team as writers but had only limited success.110 For these reasons, one of the few blots on Lansbury’s goody goody image stands out starkly. In 2017, the same year she appeared as the formidable but lovable Aunt March in BBC television’s Little Women (Vanessa Caswill, 2017), she commented on the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Lansbury opined that women had to take responsibility for rape if they set out to make themselves attractive.111 This victim-blaming was immediately called out, and she has qualified her comments by saying that they were taken out of context. Still, it reveals that she is, after all, a woman born in 1925 and who may have internalised attitudes from her first exposure to Hollywood’s profoundly sexist culture. It should not be forgotten that her first movie role was as the sexual competitor with Paula for Gregory’s attention in Gaslight, and she went on to compete with Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls. Nor can her history of playing “venal bitches” and smothering mothers who damage their sons be overlooked. Lansbury has profited from misogynist archetypes to play some of her most exciting roles, even if they are some of her most politically unsound.

Lansbury’s “overly cute” and “aggressively adorable” performance as Jessica Fletcher is equivocal, then, in terms of redeeming her feminist credentials. And it has not garnered her prestige. She has missed out on 18 Emmys. However, it has materially enriched her. In what Gottfried calls the “Deal of Deals,” which Lansbury and her husband Peter Shaw struck with the television networks through their company Corymore Corporation, Lansbury created permanent financial security. Corymore Corporation now provides for Lansbury’s family after her death.112 This lends her what MacDonald describes as “legendary” star status:  

legendary permanence ensures that despite death, the legend can still be a revenue source. …Legendary stardom … feeds posthumous stardom. With posthumous stars, the cultural historical value of legendary status finds an “after-life,” or more appropriately an “after-market,” as the dead star becomes the subject, or correctly the object, of enduring merchandising lines and other commercial opportunities.113

Angela Lansbury may not be the most awarded star around, but she is one of the richest. If star power is a matter not only of prestige but also of profit, she has earned hers. This should surely lead to a reappraisal of her underestimation. Her career reveals insights into the production of stardom, both in terms of artistic recognition and of material conditions, in Hollywood, Broadway, and television as industries. As her career evolved, she moved through these industries and towards greater financial autonomy. She also moved in the direction of choosing roles for which she would be loved, which would in turn make her a star. Of the Manichaean roles she has played over the course of her career, Lansbury has said:

There’s nothing like a good villainess […]. You can go down and chew on great chunks of scenery. But some of the most successful things that I’ve done have been playing the simplest possible women. The character of Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was a tiny part and yet remembered to this day by everybody who ever saw that movie. […] My sense is that Jessica Fletcher embodies many of the qualities which are quintessentially American. She’s very open, resilient, and brave, a woman of very strong moral character. But she’s not a bore.114 

The willingness to go where the money was and the desire to be liked contributed to Lansbury’s underestimation as an actor. But the way she has navigated her career suggests she is very canny indeed, and she has undeniably been successful. As Peter Fischer says of Jessica Fletcher: “even though she is more intelligent than the people she is dealing with, she avoids letting them know that. In fact, one reason she’s as successful as she is is because those about her underestimate her.”115 

Essential Filmography

  • Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945)
  • The Harvey Girls (George Sidney, 1946)
  • The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Delbert Mann, 1960) 
  • All Fall Down (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
  • Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978)
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Terry Hughes, 1982)
  • Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991)
  • Nanny McPhee (Kirk Jones, 2005)


  1. There is a market in such fan items as notebooks asking “What would Angela Lansbury do?” and there is an illustrated book of poetry devoted to those who have fallen into her thrall. Chrissy Williams, Angela, illustrated by Howard Hardiman (No Place: Sidekick Books, 2013).
  2. Martin Gottfried, Balancing Act: The Authorized Biography of Angela Lansbury (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1999), p. 425.
  3. Gottfried, p. 122
  4. Paul McDonald, Hollywood Stardom (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), N. Pag.
  5. Gottfried, N. Pag.’
  6. Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg, Angela Lansbury: A Life on Stage and Screen (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1996), p. 23.
  7. Gottfried, p. 12.
  8. Gottfried, p. 390.
  9. McDonald, N. Pag.
  10. Gottfried, p. 304, p. 423.
  11. Gottfried, p. 304.
  12. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 27.
  13. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 71.
  14. Barry King, “Articulating Stardom,” in Stardom: Industry of Desire, Christine Gledhill, ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 175.
  15. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 22.
  16. King, p. 178.
  17. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 36.
  18. Gottfried, p. 84.
  19. Gottfried, p. 89
  20. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 39.
  21. Gottfried, p. 92.
  22. Picture of Dorian Gray entered production before Gaslight, but it came out later.
  23. Edelman and Kupferberg, pp. 46-47.
  24. Gottfried, p. 117.
  25. Gottfried 119-120)
  26. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 42.
  27. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 44.
  28. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 57.
  29. Lansbury in Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 60.
  30. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 59.
  31. Gottfried, p. 104.
  32. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 59, p. 66.
  33. Lansbury in Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 66.
  34. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 60.
  35. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 60.
  36. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 61.
  37. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 71.
  38. Gottfried, p. 121.
  39. Gottfried, p. 142.
  40. Gottfried, p. 146.
  41. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 97.
  42. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 83.
  43. Gottfried, p. 146.
  44. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 93.
  45. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 92.
  46. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 149.
  47. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 106.
  48. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 112.
  49. Gottfried, p. 157.
  50. Gottfried, p. 174.
  51. Gottfried, p. 175.
  52. Gottfried, p. 175.
  53. Lansbury in Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 112.
  54. Eric Schaefer, “1962: Movies and Deterioration,” in American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2013), p. 72.
  55. Greil Marcus, The Manchurian Candidate (London: BFI, 2002), p. 40.
  56. Gottfried, pp. 179-180.
  57. Gottfried, p. 180.
  58. Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González, What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 49.
  59. Jacobson and Gonzalez, p. 22.
  60. Marcus, p. 40
  61. Williams and Hardiman, N. Pag.
  62. Gottfried, p. 181.
  63. Gottfried, p. 178.
  64. Gottfried, p. 181.
  65. Marcus, pp. 40-41.
  66. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 153.
  67. Marcus, pp. 40-41.
  68. Gottfried, p. 268.
  69. Gottfried, p. 269.
  70. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 203.
  71. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 193.
  72. Gottfried, p. 304.
  73. Gottfried, p. 249.
  74. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 258.
  75. Gottfried 208-209; Stephen Rutledge,  #Born This Day: Gay Icon, Angela Lansbury,” 16 October 2018. See also “I am Angela Lansbury” at the Museum of Camp blog by Delores Delargo.
  76. Gottfried, p. 254.
  77. This performance is available on YouTube. “Millie.”
  78. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 138.
  79. Gottfried, p. 299.
  80. Gottfried, p. 299.
  81. Gottfried, p. 300.
  82. Gottfried, p. 302.
  83. Gottfried, p. 211.
  84. Gottfried, p. 313.
  85. Gottfried, p. 319.
  86. Gottfried, p. 323.
  87. Gottfried, p. 326.
  88. Gottfried, p. 331. The stage show was televised and is available as an iTunes download for those who want to capture her magic. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Terry Hughes, 1982).
  89. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 234.
  90. Gottfried, p. 348.
  91. Gottfried, p. 349.
  92. Gottfried, p. 351.
  93. Gottfried, p. 357.
  94. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 216.
  95. Gottfried, p. 353.
  96. Gottfried, p. 382.
  97. Gottfried, p. 361.
  98. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 261.
  99. John J. O’Connor, “TV Weekend; a Sprightly Whodunit in ‘Murder, She Wrote,’” New York Times, 28 September 1984.
  100. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 221.
  101. Gottfried, p. 372; Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 225, p. 245.
  102. Gottfried, p. 389.
  103. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 224.
  104. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 230.
  105. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 235.
  106. Edelman and Kupferberg, p. 235, p. 219.
  107. Gottfried, p. 345.
  108. Gottfried, p. 346.
  109. Gottfried, p. 365.
  110. Gottfried, pp. 367-68, pp. 392-93.
  111. Anita Singh, “Angela Lansbury: Attractive Women ‘Must Sometimes Take the Blame’ for Sexual Harassment,The Telegraph, 28 November 2017.
  112. Gottfried, pp. 390-391.
  113. McDonald, N. Pag.
  114. Edelman and Kupferberg, pp. 235-236. From Stephen Farber, “Angela Lansbury Seeks Series,” New York Times, 30 April 1984.
  115. Gottfried, p. 380.

About The Author

Joy McEntee SFHEA is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide. Her work focuses on American film, especially Stanley Kubrick, and literature-to-film adaptation. It has appeared in The Bloomsbury Companion to Stanley Kubrick, Camera Obscura, Screening the Past, Senses of Cinema, Adaptation, Literature/Film Quarterly and the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance.

Related Posts