AUSTRALIA has a dubious track record when it comes to visiting Divas. We hounded Judy Garland out of Melbourne in 1964, saw Marlene Dietrich off a decade later, and more recently had many an unkind word for Whitney Houston.
With Angela Lansbury touring here in Driving Miss Daisy, Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize winning play about a Southern Jewess and her African-American chauffeur, we might just be breaking our trend, because the reviews are great and, when I caught the show last week, the cast is enjoying standing ovations.
And Lansbury is making history. As a working actress performing eight shows a week, she is entering her 70th career year.
Neither the great English tragedienne Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), France’s ‘divine’ Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) or the once unsurpassable Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) had longer careers on stage or screen.
The difference with Angela Lansbury is that she seems to have crept into this history-making position on the quiet.
An escapee from London during the early years of WWII, this cockney-born daughter of Irish actress Moyna MacGill reached the United States, and, by the age of just 19, received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in her film debut, alongside Ingrid Bergman, in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944).
She spent the rest of the decade in the supporting actress league, and by the 1950s graduated to what she described in her own words as a series of “Battleaxes”. It was interesting work, but the roles were very much on the sidelines.
All that changed in 1962 when Lansbury took on a role that no other actress in Hollywood seemed to want – Mrs. Iselin in John Frankeheimer’s Cold War polemic The Manchurian Candidate.
The nature of this role is hard to explore without giving away the entire plot – suffice to say Lansbury was an inspired choice. The Battleaxe had found her true edge of steel, you could say.
Despite critical acclaim, and award attention for Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate was not popular with audiences in 1963, and quickly disappeared.
In a later interview Lansbury revealed that as a supporting actress, she’d whiled-away her spare time on the studio backlot bearing witness to the production of the great musicals of the 1940s and 50s. The experience fostered her own desire to take to the musical stage, a chance which did not manifest until the mid 1960s when she appeared in the brief run of Stephen Sondheim’s doomed musical Anyone Can Whistle, which played only nine performances on Broadway in 1964.
It’s probably that musical’s failure to launch that saw Lansbury having to audition multiple times for her next musical turn – the role of Auntie Mame in Jerry Herman’s smash hit of 1966, Mame.
While the producers deliberated over bigger names, eventually she put her foot down and said they’d had their chance to make up their minds – Angela Lansbury would audition for them no more.
In that moment, a star was well and truly born, because it was Mame that gave her a tilt at playing a lead.
But she had to change her approach to inhabiting a role. Reminiscing on the period, Lansbury cited seeing her name above the show’s title on the marquee (and the realisation that hundreds of peoples’ incomes depended on her carrying the show) as the wake up call she needed.
Based on Patrick Dennis’ 1955 book Auntie Mame, this is the story of another edgy woman who spends her life pushing the moral code in an outward direction, taking those close to her (including her young nephew) across the borderline.
What might have been a kind of museum piece, harking back to those musicals Lansbury watched from the backlot, became a hit at a time when social conventions were breaking down in the late 1960s.
And the production ended a long period in which Lansbury seemed unable to catch a break. For the title role in Mame, she won her first of five Tony awards, and completed her reinvention as a musical star.
Original footage of Lansbury’s Mame is extremely rare. Instead of a Battleaxe, Lansbury gives a stunning turn as a sexy, wide-eyed-but-knowing ingenue. Three years of performing musical theatre shaped her into a leggy bombshell.
She might have felt like burning her bridges in movies after missing out on the role of Mame in the Hollywood movie version to the tone-deaf Lucille Ball, but her delightful portrayal of an apprentice witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and her knockout performance as romantic authoress Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile (1978) introduced her to my generation.
Then came the tour de force. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was one of those incredibly courageous musicals which brought the unthinkable to the stage in a way so experimental that you’re left wondering how it ever became a hit. Perhaps it had something to do with composer Stephen Sondheim having the sense to call Lansbury first?
The great musical role of Nellie Lovett allowed Lansbury the chance to take her cockney roots between her teeth and dive into the world of the sweet, amoral baker who carves her way into the heart of Sweeney Todd, and generations of musical lovers ever since.
Her blade was as sharp as Sweeney’s, and, as many forget, it was Nellie Lovett who came up with the rather unique filling for the pies that got them both in such brilliant trouble.
The role carried Lansbury until she was pushing sixty, but a brief stint in an unsuccessful revival of Mame in 1983 must have told her that it was time for another reinvention.
This time, Lansbury jumped genres again, and she took the upper hand when it came to casting. Rejecting initial offers of playing third fiddle, she put the hard word on her agent and anyone presenting television scripts – this lady was not going to be supporting anyone this time around.
Of the few female-oriented detective shows piloted in Hollywood in the early 1980s, Murder, She Wrote had all the hallmarks of a short-lived series.
The central character was an amateur sleuth who writes detective novels, always turns up where she’s least expected, and sticks her nose, politely, into other peoples’ business. Jessica Fletcher was a very old-styled sleuth, totally unflappable and the kind of lady you’d love to sit next to on a plane, but she was no Cagney and Lacey, and this was a time when actresses of Lansbury’s vintage were expected to stick to The Golden Girls and not Moonlighting.
But Murder, She Wrote became the longest-running detective show in television history, with a tele-movie life beyond the series that saw Lansbury through to her seventies.
At the 1987 New York Film Festival, The Manchurian Candidate was exhibited. Its popularity at that event saw its international theatrical release the following year. This time, the biggest name on the poster was not Frank Sinatra or Janet Leigh, but the actress who had become a household name – Angela Lansbury.
The role of Daisy Werthan in the current revival of Driving Miss Daisy has been in the hands of Vanessa Redgrave in the northern hemisphere. Apparently Lansbury jumped at the chance to step into the shoes of this rarest of lead roles for an older actress when Redgrave became unavailable.
In this play, she ran the risk of simply exhibiting a relic of herself, slave to the constant reminder of her own theatrical heritage. But after the round of applause both leads simultaneously received on their entrance, Lansbury sank her teeth in and got on with the job of inhabiting the harsh, almost steely southern Battleaxe, only this time, she’s right at the centre of the story.
But Miss Daisy’s journey is not just about her car trips, of course, and Lansbury beautifully negotiates the difficult choices Dairy Werthan is driven to, right to their stark end. It’s a beautifully written character arc and Lansbury gives it her own twist.
Seeing her side-lit in the cold reality of the character’s final destination, as opposed to the well-lit aura of Lansbury’s years at the peak of Hollywood’s golden age, I couldn’t help but be reminded what a journey this life-enlarging actor has taken.
And she revealed in an interview that she’s still looking for that signature movie role, the one which will cement her into cinema history.
If anyone can find that in her nineties, Angela Lansbury can.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.