by B.D. McClay
She was motherly comfort itself in Beauty and the Beast, terrifying and ruthless in The Manchurian Candidate, cunningly pathetic in Sweeney Todd, unflappable as the detective novelist Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, flirtatious and ridiculous in The Court Jester. As Eglantine Price, the correspondence-school witch of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she exuded a domestic coziness but also a slight air of adult glamor, as she rolls up in her first scene on a sulfurous motorbike and wearing lavender beret. “I assume that my parcel has arrived,” she said briskly, and I was immediately taken with the possibilities she represented.
How to sum up Angela Lansbury? In 1972, during a promotional interview for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Dick Cavett tried to introduce her—more than seventy motion pictures, three Oscar nominations, a Tony—which marked, really, only the first stages of her career. By the time she began her role in Murder, She Wrote, she was almost sixty, in an industry notorious for discarding women at the first sign of age. She would play Jessica Fletcher for twelve years.
In the wake of her death I’ve found myself picking up, then putting down, different bits of Lansburyania, partly to make myself feel I have mastery of an un-masterable subject. I watch clips on Youtube, the beginnings of movies. I start reading The Magic of Believing, a memoir by her brother Edgar, and discover that for a time she and her mother (and sometimes her two brothers) lived in a studio apartment on Morton Street in Manhattan’s West Village, where I coincidentally also used to live. They had fled England at the outbreak of World War II at the last possible minute—not because of the war, really, but because Lansbury’s mother had become entangled with a very abusive, very wealthy man, and it was the only way to get away from him.
But Morton Street: It’s nice to imagine us crossing the same streets and standing on corners, albeit several decades apart. One thing the book makes clear is that, if through some supernatural means, I had been able to see into the past, I certainly would have recognized her. Even as a very young child, she always had the same face: soft, rounded, with deep-set eyes. A part of me wonders if this long-wearing face has something to do with her equally long career. Angela Lansbury was beautiful, but not Hollywood beautiful. You didn’t look at her and think that she was going to bloom for ten years and then retire or self-destruct. Her face was soft, yes, but resilient.
Her ability to summon up an air of femininity and menace—or, in its more benign manifestations, authority—was all there in her first film role, a treacherous lady’s maid in Gaslight. But feminine in a different way from Ingrid Bergman, who tentatively greets Lansbury as she comes down the stairs, nervy and tragic. Lansbury’s maid is grounded, practical. Hard to imagine her overwhelmed or tricked into thinking she’d gone mad. Lansbury was somehow everything at once—down-to-earth and glamorous, soft and steel—but a victim of circumstance.
Still, Eglantine is my favorite of her movie roles. Thrust into a part that involves managing three difficult children, Angela Lansbury ensured Bedknobs and Broomsticks never became the Mary Poppins clone it was no doubt meant to be. There was no soothing charm on offer. When somebody, child or no, gets fresh with her, she just turns them into a rabbit. (It wears off, eventually.) She isn’t there to fix things for the children—indeed, she can’t, since their trouble is not, as in Mary Poppins, that their parents have lost sight of them, but rather that London is being bombed by Nazi Germany and they’ve been evacuated to a little town where they are lonely and bored. In fact, nobody gets “fixed” over the course of Bedknobs and Broomsticks—not the kids, not Eglantine, not the con man Emelius Browne who has inadvertently taught Eglantine real magic through his scam correspondence course. No lessons are learned, except magic spells. They have adventures and, at the end of the movie, beat up some Nazis by re-animating suits of armor. A perfect movie.
Looking back, I feel that this was what Angela Lansbury offered me as a child—the possibility that life would continue to be interesting and varied, as long as you yourself were open to it, and that it would continue to be like that well into middle and then old age. So many children’s stories posit growing up as a tragedy, even a living death, one from which adults need rescue. (The original Mary Poppins books take this a step further: babies are born knowing the secrets of the universe and are able to converse with all living things, but they lose this ability as they age.) But it wasn’t just that Eglantine Price, the fictional character, wasn’t such a zombie, but that Angela Lansbury plainly wasn’t. If she was meant to have an expiration date, she simply never noticed.
Of course, this is almost all just the movies and television—I never got to see Angela Lansbury on stage, and now, I never will. (As Auntie Mame, she probably embodied the attractive adult more than Eglantine—but Mame was not part of my childhood, and Eglantine was.) I find myself thinking about the roles that she could have played, if they existed; how she would have thrived in, for instance, a Barbara Pym adaptation. But mostly, I like to watch her. There she is, singing a little number about awards snubs at the Oscars in 1959. There she is, singing “Bosom Buddies” with Bea Arthur, dressed in a fabulous black-and-white gown. There she is in Death on the Nile, playing the romance novelist Salome Otterbourne, dragging a reluctant David Niven into a tango “with,” she proclaims, “a sensuous erotic dash.” She throws her arms into the air. She is having the time of her life.
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