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Gifted actress Angela Lansbury dies aged 96

British-born actress Angela Lansbury died on Tuesday, just days before her 97th birthday. Lansbury began performing professionally in a cabaret act aged 16 in 1942 and earned an Oscar nomination for his first film appearance, in George Cukor. gas lampreleased in 1944. Her acting career spanned more than three quarters of a century.

Angela Lansbury in Dorian Gray’s photo (1945)

One of the most enduring presences of her generation, she will be remembered for the consistent liveliness, precision and depth of her acting in film, television and theatre. For a wider audience, Lansbury is best known for The Manchu Candidate (1962) and her years as writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the popular television series The Murder She Wrote (1984-96).

Lansbury’s background and beginnings are intriguing. The New York Times coyly writes in her obituary that the actress’ father was “Edgar Lansbury, a businessman”. The truth is a bit more complex and suggestive than that.

Lansbury’s mother was Irish actress Charlotte Lillian McIldowie (stage name Moyna Macgill), who had success on the London stage in the 1920s. Her father Edgar was the son of George Lansbury, eventually Labor leader of 1932 to 1935. Pacifist and left-wing reformist, George Lansbury helped establish the daily herald in 1912 and supported the Russian Revolution in 1917.

In The magic of believing, Angela Lansbury’s brother, also Edgar, wrote of their grandfather: “England had not yet emerged from the era of Charles Dickens. … [George] Lansbury and his family became confirmed socialists and early supporters of the Bolshevik experiment that was developing in Russia. One of her daughters, Violet, was a Socialist-Communist, who eventually went to Russia. Her sister, Daisy, a committed suffragist, helped Sylvia Pankhurst escape the police by covering her face with a black veil and turning herself in to the constables who, ignoring the switch, thought she was Pankhurst.

In 1921 George and Edgar Lansbury participated in what became known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, a tax protest on behalf of the poor. The two men and Edgar’s first wife, Minnie, were sent to prison. The latter, 32, “died in prison of pneumonia contracted while incarcerated”. Edgar himself joined the Communist Party when it was founded in 1920 and, like his father, served as mayor of Poplar, a poor area in London’s East End, only the second Communist in Britain to hold the post. of mayor. He was a Labor local councilor in Poplar from 1912 to 1925, elected for the last five years as a Communist/Labour candidate. Edgar Lansbury was also a successful businessman, who died of stomach cancer in 1935. Angela Lansbury once described herself as a “proud socialist”.

Lansbury’s mother and her four children (including one by a former husband) emigrated to the United States at the start of World War II.

Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury in Gaslight (1944)

In 1943, Angela more or less accidentally stumbled upon a screen test at MGM for a memorable role in the Victorian melodrama, gas lamp, about a husband (Charles Boyer) who manipulates his wife (Ingrid Bergman) into thinking she’s lost her mind. The filmmakers needed a girl talented enough to play the couple’s young Cockney maid.

Still according to the memoirs of his brother Edgar, “After the [screen] test, nothing was heard from the studio for weeks, and Angela had no idea if she had landed the part or not. According to Cukor, who wanted her in the role, the front office wondered if she was sexy enough. Sympathetic to the strain the wait must have put on the young actress, he phoned her one day and said, “Miss Lansbury, I don’t know if you’re going to get the job, but you’re a very talented actress. “

Cukor later recalled, “On the first day of filming, even though she was only seventeen and had no film experience, she was immediately professional. Suddenly I was watching a real movie playing. She was becoming this rather unpleasant little maid, even her face seemed to change, it was becoming a little unhinged, mean and sassy. I was delighted with her from the start.

After a game in national velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944), as Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister, Lansbury was even more memorable and moving as tavern singer Sibyl Vane (she had a wonderful singing voice and performed extensively in musicals) in the 1945 film version of Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray’s photo (Albert Levin). The dandy socialite Gray teases and plays with the young girl, eventually humiliating and rejecting Sibyl, driving her to suicide.

Angela Lansbury in A lawless street (1955)

Lansbury starred in a number of relatively undistinguished films in the late 1940s and early 1950s – Lewin’s The private affairs of Bel Ami (1947), Frank Capra state of the union (1948), Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and John Sturges nice lady (1951). Although she made more and more television appearances, Lansbury appeared in a number of valuable films in the 1950s, A life at stake (Paul Guilfoyle, 1955), the modest and intriguing Randolph Scott Western A lawless street (directed by the talented Joseph H. Lewis of mad gun and The big combo fame, also 1955) and Peter Godfrey Please kill me! (with the equally adept Raymond Burr as his on-screen partner, 1956).

Lansbury’s appearance in John Frankenheimer The Manchu Candidate was fascinating and horrifying. The film, scripted by George Axelrod, follows a Korean War veteran, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who is brainwashed by Soviet and Chinese doctors into becoming a cold-blooded “sleeping” assassin. Anti-communism was relatively predictable and stereotypical, but the film’s attack on 1950s anti-communist hysteria is its most striking feature, brilliantly embodied by James Gregory’s McCarthy Senator John Iselin. Lansbury plays Iselin’s monstrous wife and Raymond Shaw’s “hopelessly controlling mother”. As we noted in a 2002 Frankenheimer obituary, the film “manages to convey something of the paranoia and delirium of the Cold War years.”

Angela Lansbury in The Manchu Candidate (1962)

Many of Lansbury’s later film and television projects were unworthy of her. On Broadway, she won the Tony Awards for Mom (1966), Dear world (1969), Gypsy (1975), Sweeney Todd (1979) and joyful spirit (2009), plus a Lifetime Achievement Award. Her last Broadway performance was in 2012 in Gore Vidal’s The best man. Lansbury has also received six Golden Globe Awards, an honorary Academy Award, 18 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, and one Grammy Award nomination.

Lansbury has always been an intelligent and indelible performer, never giving anything less than everything. She couldn’t.