“I’m not one of those people who sits in the dark, looking at their work from 70 years earlier,” Angela Lansbury insists. “I’m really not.”
Still, the widely loved stage and screen star is pleased that many of her films are about to be showcased by Turner Classic Movies. The channel has named the “Murder, She Wrote” television icon its Star of the Month for January, with Lansbury festivals running each Wednesday.
The titles range from her screen debut in 1944’s “Gaslight” (Jan. 4) to her chilling portrayal of one of movie history’s most manipulative mothers in 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate” (Jan. 18) — both Oscar-nominated performances.
“When I see it now,” Lansbury tells Zap2it of her “Gaslight” work, “I say, ‘How did you ever have the chutzpah to play that role as you did, at that age?’ I’m enormously interested in how I arrived at that performance, but I also know it was created by the original writer of ‘Angel Street’ (the Patrick Hamilton play that the film was based on) and the screenwriters.”
Lansbury also credits the veteran director of “Gaslight,” George Cukor, “who was responsible for my being allowed to play this loose young woman I had never experienced being. He was able to get across to me what he wanted, and as young as I was, I had enough training at that time to do what he wanted. It was also inherent in the lines, her words and her attitude.”
Flash forward 18 years to “The Manchurian Candidate,” in which Lansbury played mom to good friend Laurence Harvey, though they were just short of three years apart in age. “That was a most unique and extraordinary role,” she reflects. “I was so fascinated by the book (by Richard Condon) and by the people I was working with, and it was all on the page.
“What this woman represented was so evil, I couldn’t fail to be challenged. As it turned out, it worked. I will be forever grateful to ‘the boys,’ [screenwriter] George Axelrod and [director] John Frankenheimer, particularly John. He was a genius at creating the kind of excitement and drama we had in that movie, which never could be replicated. And never should have been tried. If you know the story’s secret, the whole thing is shot.” A 2004 remake placed Meryl Streep in Lansbury’s role.
“National Velvet,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “State of the Union” and “The World of Henry Orient” are among other movies included in TCM’s upcoming Lansbury salute. She’s especially gratified that the last Wednesday of the tribute (Jan. 25) offers, along with her 2006 “Private Screenings” interview with main channel host Robert Osborne, a 1982 recording of her stage hit “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
“I’m very grateful to them for showing that,” Lansbury confirms of the project that earned her one of her five Tony Awards. “This was the role that I found a huge, new, young audience with, and that thrills me to this very day. They saw ‘Sweeney Todd’ and said, ‘Who is this? What is her name? Angela something?’ [Director] Hal Prince created a mood and a look, and it was staggering when you walked into the theater.
“That set was stunning, and the whole atmosphere was so particular, it just got under people’s skin. When we first opened, they either liked it or loathed it. They didn’t know what they were seeing … especially those who were splattered with ‘blood’ in the front row. The circumstances [of the taping] were sad, because that was the last performance of the show we ever did, but everybody was there with us.”
Featured in the new-to-home-video Jim Carrey comedy “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” the London-born Lansbury will be heard in movie theaters again soon, and she didn’t have to do any extra work for it. She’s revered by younger fans as the voice of Mrs. Potts in the animated Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast,” which will follow the lead of “The Lion King” by relaunching in 3D on Friday, Jan. 13.
“Kids particularly enjoy it, because they feel like they’re right in it,” Lansbury notes of the process. “Time passes, but there are always little ones who are coming up, and they will see it for the first time this way. It should be very exciting for them.”
Lansbury also is set to return to Broadway in a spring revival of “The Best Man,” Gore Vidal‘s drama of two candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination. “It’s going to be interesting,” she reasons, “not just because of the theatrical involvement, but also because of the election coming up.”
Additionally, Lansbury will start the new year by moving from Hallmark Channel to TV Land in repeats of “Murder, She Wrote,” effective Sunday (Jan. 1). “I’m delighted,” she says, “because it’s a way of revitalizing my work. I love Jessica (Fletcher, the mystery novelist Lansbury played for 12 seasons on CBS, then in several TV-movie sequels), because I love the fact that people find her so comforting, warm and engrossing to watch.
“I’m amazed at the number of people today who are very dependent on being able to see that show. They find it very calming and entertaining. And that’s what we’re really talking about here, entertainment, but she represents kind of a port in the storm of life that we all go through. I know that many, many people look upon her as that, which is a great compliment.”