Angela Lansbury on Her Career and The Manchurian Candidate at TCMFF

June 14, 2016

Angela Lansbury reminds me of two very different people: my boss and my maternal grandmother. 

 

My boss, because of their closeness in age (yes, you read that right, and my boss is actually older) and their longevity, persistence and enormous work ethic. And my grandmother, well, because I always thought she looked a bit like Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher when I knew her growing up. 

 

I was first introduced to Lansbury via TV and Murder She Wrote reruns in the 90s, as probably at least a few others of my generation were. This was at least five years before I fell for the classics and eventually became familiar with her early career, including films like Gaslight (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and If Winter Comes (1947). 

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) doing what she does best on Murder She Wrote

Thus, for most of my life I've largely associated Lansbury with rather sweet-natured roles. However, more recently one character of hers that I've become quite familiar with – due to the sheer number of times I’ve seen the movie - is Phyllis in Dear Heart (1964), a small role that is undoubtedly way more innocent and way less dark and psychologically disturbing/dangerous than Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but still nowhere near likable. 

 

The screening of The Manchurian Candidate at TCMFF this year marked my first time watching the film. As one of the last handful of attendees admitted into the TCL Chinese IMAX theater, I found the only seats available were, weirdly, at the very front. I thought more people would snag a spot up close to catch a glimpse of Lansbury, but I quickly realized that if you wanted to actually watch the movie too, sitting farther back was the better option. Let me tell you, that 2nd row, so close to the newly installed IMAX screen, is certainly not the most conducive to a comfortable experience. However, everything turned out fine, and of course the seating was prime real estate for Lansbury's Q&A with Alec Baldwin. 

Angela Lansbury and Alec Baldwin during the Q&A. Not a bad angle! (Picture by Kim Luperi) 

Before I had the 2nd row to worry about, I was more concerned with the timing of the presentation; after a long day of movie-going, I possess an incredible ability to nod off during a late night picture - read: anything starting after 8pm, and this was 10. (Well, actually I can fall asleep while watching a movie any time of day, if I'm tired.) Though I read accounts of others in the audience who were lulled into momentary slumber, I was astonished that I remained awake -and in fact very alert - for the entire film. I'm not usually one for thrillers, because I scare really really easily, but the tension and finesse of the acting and directing made this picture very do-able for me, though I did notice my heart beating super fast during the climax!  

This is a pretty great poster, if you ask me.

Side note: For some reason, I was rather surprised that Lansbury easily breezed out to the stage when Baldwin introduced her. Despite the fact that she is 90, I have seen her in person recently, and I know she's still quite agile. In fact, I had the pleasure of watching Lansbury perform in Blythe Spirit at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown LA in late 2014, which was rather a remarkable experience. I can't memorize lines or act, so when I see an 89 year old still performing live, on tour, night after night, it makes it all the more spectacular to me. I also saw Lansbury a week after TCMFF 2016 ended at the Academy with 20 or so other cast and crew members of Beauty and the Beast (1991) for a 25th anniversary screening and panel. Each time I've been in her presence, I've been struck at how incredibly spirited and sharp she still is. It seems like staying active and doing what she loves keeps her going!

#90yearoldgoals. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner)

And with that aside, below are some highlights from Angela Lansbury's discussion with Alec Baldwin before The Manchurian Candidate began:

 

On reading Richard Condon's 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate before being cast

During one of the final days shooting All Fall Down (1962) with director John Frankenheimer, Frankenheimer put Condon's book in front of Lansbury, proclaiming: "There's your next movie!" Lansbury took the work home, read it, and was blown away. She recalled being struck by the story's originality, and the character was unlike anything else she had ever read.

I'd say Lansbury fit the character quite well. (This photo is slightly terrifying.)

On the atmosphere on set when the tone of the material was so dark

"I can honestly say that John maintained a mood on that set that was really all business and had everything to do with the story and the scenes at hand," Lansbury said. He was a very serious director who got "terribly excited with the drama that was inherent in a scene, and we all kind of were dragged into that and we all went along with it." Of course, everyone involved with the film wanted to make a great movie, and she thinks they did a pretty splendid job achieving that: "You really sat up in your seat when you saw it." Indeed, when she mentioned again how original the story was, the audience applauded. "Thank you. I think it deserves that!" she beamed.

 

On getting into character 

Lansbury was 36 when she co-starred in The Manchurian Candidate, only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played her son. While she couldn't exactly express how she arrived at her portrayal, she explained: "I sort of take on attitudes that are in most instances the absolute antithesis of the woman that I am, because as far as I'm concerned, what the writer gives the character to say is immediately a clue, for me, the actress, as to how my attitudes or my looks or everything else that's packed into this character I'm playing that will emerge - it's that person, not me." When playing a role, Lansbury reminds herself (and other actors) to "leave yourself at home; don't bring yourself to that set. Be that woman, and you know, get on with it! And that seems to work on various levels in various roles." She also credited gifted writers, saying if they're "any good, you have a pretty good idea of the character they're asking me to be - not play - but be." 

Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin. 

On being under contract to MGM during her early years in the business

Lansbury looked back fondly on some of her very first movies in the states, including Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray ("to get to play that was a miracle," she added). After receiving two back to back Oscar nominations for two of her first three film roles in Hollywood (for the two pictures listed right above), Baldwin asked if she was on top of the world, since those accolades were bestowed so early in her career. "No, I always felt challenged, because the odd thing was that the directors, producers all saw me a different way!" she replied. Lansbury admitted that Louis B. Mayer put her in a bunch of "dreadful parts" after those first few roles, and "it bored me to death to play some of those movies." When she finally left Hollywood, Lansbury didn't miss the studio system at all and in fact was happy to cut loose and head to the stage. "The last great movie that I got to be in was The Manchurian Candidate," she recalled. 

 

On playing villains

"They're the best. No…but it is a lot of fun: a well written villain, you know." As for the mother in The Manchurian Candidate, who certainly falls into that category, Lansbury said the iconic character teeters on the verge of evil, right up until she delivers that iconic line: "Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?" "That's the moment you realize she's in charge," she affirmed.  

Yup, she's evil.

On working with the cast, including Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra

Lansbury said she walked in cold, not having known or worked with any of the cast members before. She remembered rehearsing a lot and extensively discussing scenes. According to her, Larry (Harvey) was "tremendous fun; he was awfully good," though she recalled it being rather tricky for him to play an American as a Lithuanian born British actor.

 

As for Frank Sinatra, while Lansbury only appeared in one brief sequence with him, she did reveal that Sinatra wouldn't play a scene twice; if the director couldn't get the take the first time around, the company was out of luck! "Luckily, he gave one of the best performances he's ever done," Lansbury said.

Lansbury and Laurence Harvey.

On TCM's Robert Osborne presenting her with her Honorary Oscar in late 2013

Lansbury choked up a bit talking about Osborne. She actually requested that he be the one to present her with the award "because he always stood by me... he was the only man who knows all the movies I made up until that period...there was no question in my mind that he was the right person, and I'm so glad he did."

What an adorable moment: Robert Osborne presenting Lansbury with her Honorary Oscar.

On retiring...or not

"No, I don't think so." Cue: raucous applause.

 

On what she loves about performing 

"I simply love the feeling that you, the audience, are there and we are together in this," she started. Being on stage "absolutely propels me forward and gives me the excitement and interest to go out there and give my absolute best every time...the curtain goes up, and you're mine and I'm yours." 

 

 

Well, she certainly was all ours that evening, and we were all hers! For those who attended the event, feel free to share your thoughts below.

I'd guess there were well over 1500 people in line waiting to see his legend. I count myself among the lucky to have made it in! (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner)

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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