Angela Lansbury: An Appreciation

OK, to be totally honest, I didn’t know I appreciated Angela Lansbury until she died yesterday, at the age of 96.

Like so many of her generation, my parents’ generation, she was just always … there. There would be plenty of time to catch her. She would always be in another TV show or movie. Just like our parents would be home when we decided to visit. They were always there. Until they weren’t. 

Sometimes you miss them more, remembering them years after they pass, than you did right at the beginning. Maybe immediately afterward, the loss is too new to process, or they were in pain or kidnapped by dementia and it was a relief, or maybe the relationship was so complicated you don’t know how to feel for a long time.

That’s with close-by loved ones, anyway. With entertainers, if we liked them, there may be nothing but great memories. We’re sad to lose them, but really, when they’re approaching 100 … maybe it’s more the passing of the era they represented that we feel sad about. 

And she was around longer than many others, in a career that lasted seven decades. She is not one of those I’ve researched because she was actually too young to be part of the world in the stories (I swear there will be a second one, at least) I want to tell. Born in 1925, she was only about 10 at the time of Stardusted.

When I think of Lansbury I first think of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast – no one sang “Tale as Old As Time” better. I get teary every time I hear her slightly cracked, world-weary but beautiful voice singing it.

In NPR’s story , she hints why: “ ‘I’m not really a singer,’ she admitted. ‘I have a serviceable voice, but how I use it — it’s the emotion under the note that sells the song.’

And boy, could she sell it. I never saw her in Mame, but I can only imagine she sold all those songs, too. 

I hadn’t remembered she was in Gaslight, as a maid, until I saw it recently. (Pretty heady stuff, being directed by George Cukor in your very first role! She earned an Oscar nomination for it, too.) And I can still hear her saying, “Chadwick, give mama some sugar” as Elvis Presley’s Southern belle mom in Blue Hawaii.

Like a relative you like when you see them once in a while at a family gathering but don’t really think of the rest of the time, she always added value to the occasion. Always welcome, always charming–she was even evilly charming as the mother in The Manchurian Candidate.

But one role I never saw her in, not once, was that of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Which is funny, I guess. If you’re trying to write mysteries, you might think you would want to watch shows about people who write them–even if they are far more prolific and successful than you are–for inspiration. 

But I have not seen even one episode of Murder, She Wrote. When I’m trying to write my own stuff–with life getting in the way in a new way every single damn day–the last thing I want is to watch someone gaily, effortlessly doing the thing that I can’t seem to get done. 

Nor do I want to unconsciously pick up and copy a scene, a plot twist, or dialogue from a show without realizing it. 

But now that I think about other times I’ve been happy to see Lansbury, maybe–after I’ve gotten a first draft done and have put it away for the recommended few weeks before starting to edit–I’ll finally pay her a visit in Cabot Cove.