Angela Lansbury obituary: British-born star with a 78-year Hollywood career

The star of TV’s Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury’s long list of film credits includes The Manchurian Candidate, Death on the Nile and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

12 October 2022

By David Parkinson

Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile (1978)

The granddaughter of a Labour leader who became acting royalty, Angela Lansbury has died five days short of her 97th birthday. Her career spanned eight decades and brought 45 major award nominations. Yet she never found the niche in cinema that she achieved on stage and television, and the fault was entirely Hollywood’s.

Born in London in October 1925, Lansbury was keen to follow her Belfast-born mother, Moyna Macgill, on to the stage and trained at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art. When Macgill fled the Blitz, the 16 year-old Lansbury lied about her age to sing Noël Coward songs in a Montreal cabaret. Shortly afterwards, she met writer John Van Druten at a party thrown by her mother and he recommended her to director George Cukor to play Cockney maid Nancy Oliver opposite Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944).

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

MGM offered Lansbury a seven-year contract and cast her as Elizabeth Taylor’s sister in National Velvet (1944). Her performance as a heartbroken music-hall singer in Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) earned her a second Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. She remains the youngest dual nominee and forms part of an exclusive club with James Dean and Julie Andrews for having been nominated for two of their first three pictures. 

Despite this matchless start, Lansbury wasn’t deemed star material and the studio struggled to find worthwhile projects. Audiences took against her for being cruel to Judy Garland as the saloon chanteuse in The Harvey Girls (1946) and MGM took this as a cue to cast her as ‘venal bitches’ like the newspaper proprietor seeking to distract presidential candidate Spencer Tracy in Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948).

Even opposite Gene Kelly, as the more sympathetic Anne of Austria, in The Three Musketeers (1948), Lansbury was required to play older than her years. Eventually thankless roles like Hedy Lamarr’s sister (who gets impaled on a door with a spear) in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) prompted her to take a break to raise her children with actor-turned-agent, Peter Shaw.

On her return as a freelancer, Lansbury enjoyed greater variety, playing a princess opposite Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, a husband killer in Please Murder Me (both 1956), Orson Welles’s mistress in Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer, a society hostess in Vincente Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante (both 1958), and a widowed beautician in Delbert Mann’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960). No wonder Pauline Kael called her a “picture redeemer”. But mothers became her stock-in-trade, even though she was only a few years older than co-stars Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (1961), Warren Beatty in All Fall Down, and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (both directed by John Frankenheimer in 1962). 

Her display as the ruthlessly ambitious Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate remains chillingly sinister and earned a third Oscar nomination. But cinema would become decreasingly central – she turned down such choice roles as June Buckridge in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) and Nurse Ratched in Miloš Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – as Lansbury reinvented herself as a glamorous Broadway icon. 

Despite coming to the stage comparatively late, Lansbury won Tony Awards for the musicals Mame (1966), Dear World (1969), Gypsy (1975) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979). Between nominations for Deuce (2007) and A Little Night Music (2009), she won a fifth Tony as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit (2009). 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Such stage success prompted Disney to offer Lansbury the part of amateur witch Eglantine Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and she would return to the studio two decades later to voice Mrs Potts and sing the title tune in Beauty and the Beast (1991), which became the first animation to be nominated for best picture.

By this time, however, Lansbury was best known for playing author-sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (1984 to 1996). The part seemed tailor-made after her Agatha Christie outings as crime writer Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile (1978) and Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d (1980). She received 12 consecutive Emmy nominations over her 264-episode stint.

Son Anthony Pullen Shaw oversaw several cases and also directed his mother in a 1992 tele-adaptation of Paul Gallico’s Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris. During the 1960s, Lansbury had relocated to rural Ireland because of Anthony’s drug addiction and sister Deidre’s association with Charles Manson. However, she retained dual UK-US citizenship from 1951 and made occasional returns home to play the grandmother in Neil Jordan’s take on Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves (1984) and Aunt March in a BBC serialisation of Little Women (2017). 

She also continued to make periodic returns to Hollywood to provide scene-stealing support as the formidable Lady Adelaide Stitch in Nanny McPhee (2005), restaurant owner Selma Van Gundy in Mr Popper’s Penguins (2011), Mayor McGerkle in The Grinch, and the balloon lady in Mary Poppins Returns (both 2018). Her final performance will be seen in the upcoming Knives Out sequel Glass Onion (2022), a pastiche of the kind of murder mystery she’ll remain fondly remembered for. 

Lansbury received an honorary Oscar in 2013, but it felt like an admission that, unlike Broadway, Hollywood had failed to do her underestimated talent justice.

BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free