Oct 15, 2009

Powerful Angela Lansbury

As Angela Lansbury is turning 84 tomorrow, I thought it a good time to give her a little attention--because while she seems to be universally adored, there hardly ever seems to be much discussion about her accomplished movie career.

I usually like to pick a handful of titles when I pay tribute to an actor, but I found that impossible to do with Lansbury. For one, I feel that all her performances have something to distinguish them--no matter what the quality of the movie (I call this the “James Cagney Syndrome”). Even among her very early films, there are so many great performances to admire: her youthful haughtiness in Gaslight and National Velvet (both 1944), her charming freshness in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), the lush romance of her queen in The Three Musketeers (1948), her saucy showgirl/hostess in The Harvey Girls (1946)--and check out her flirty specialty number in Til the Clouds Roll By (1946):

I’m going to sidle away from her Academy Award-nominated roles, including her iconic steely mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and focus on two widely different characters she tackled within a year of each other:

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)
It is heartbreaking to see Lansbury’s charming single mother fall prey to eternal cad George Sanders in this dark period drama. Quite often, the good girls can lose audience interest to more vibrant and less apologetic villains. This is not the case with Lansbury. Though she is all decency and kindness, her warmth is entrancing; the whole drama is infused with her spirit. As the only pure adult in a landscape of bitterness, she lifts the movie from total blackness. She also makes you want to give Sanders a strong kick to the rear.

State of the Union (1948)
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are as sharply attuned to each other as ever in this political drama, but even playing against such mighty leads, Lansbury has a strong presence, whether or not she is onscreen. Her portrayal of a woman desperate to elevate her lover, and herself, into the White House is almost entirely uncompromising in its coldness. In those moments when she is onscreen, she is riveting. Impeccably dressed and coiffed, often still and observant—she is always ready to pounce. Even when her back is to the camera, she radiates power—you can sense the tension within her. However, in her first scene, she rescues her character from one-note villainy with a show of emotion that efficiently explains her ruthless behavior. That powerful moment changes the meaning of all that follows.

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