Film and TV

The Lesser Known Angela Lansbury Roles Worth Checking Out

Angela Lansbury left us tales as old as time in a huge body of work that spanned decades.
Angela Lansbury left us tales as old as time in a huge body of work that spanned decades. Frederick M. Brown/Getty
Some figures in Hollywood history are so iconic that we assume they will live forever. Audiences of all ages received the sad news this week that legendary actress, singer and performer Angela Lansbury died at the age of 96. Lansbury wasn’t just one of the most influential artists of her generation; she reinvented herself for multiple generations. There aren’t a lot of pop culture figures in history who have attracted new fans for more than seven decades.

Lansbury first rose to prominence in the 1940s with her work in classic cinema. She received an Academy Award nomination for her riveting work in Gaslight, a noir film that has recently surged in popularity after it was made available on HBO Max. Despite her incredible work in films such as National Velvet and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lansbury wasn’t recognized for her acting talent until her villainous turn in the 1962 espionage thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Her terrifying performance as the overbearing mother of a U.S. politician is even more chilling today than it was during the Cold War.

Of course, Lansbury’s singing abilities are what opened her up to even more possibilities. With roles in the musicals Mame, The King and I, Sweeney Todd and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she embodied some of the most beloved characters in the history of Broadway. However, Lansbury never forsake her dramatic roots thanks to the crime series Murder, She Wrote. We probably wouldn’t have seen modern mystery shows like Sherlock, Castle, True Detective, Criminal Minds or The Blacklist without the precedent set by Lansbury.

Children of a different generation probably know Lansbury best as the voice of the temperamental teapot Mrs. Potts in Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast, and as the voice of the Grand Duchess in Anastasia. It’s kind of amazing that children who grew up with the animated films could bond with their parents who loved Bedknobs and Broomsticks. However, Lansbury’s career is more than just these notable highlights. If you’re looking to pay tribute to this icon, here are some of her more underrated projects that you should check out.

It’s Good To Be The Queen!

How many adaptations of The Three Musketeers have there been? You’d have to rack your brain, but the 1948 adaptation starring Gene Kelly as D'Artagnan is surely one of the best. You can spot Lansbury in a minor role as Queen Anne opposite Frank Morgan’s King Louie.

A Not So Kind Lady

We all love Lansbury, but that doesn’t mean she can’t terrify us. In 1951, she starred as a murderous maid in the whodunit mystery Kind Lady.

“The Worst Film of All Time”

Lansbury has always had a sense of humor about her own career and its occasional rough spots. After a period of critical decline, Lansbury was forced to take a small role in the 1955 swashbuckling adventure film The Purple Mask. According to Margaret Wander Bonanno’s 1987 biography, Lansbury called it "the worst film of all time."

A Not-So-Blue Hawaii

Elvis Presley is one of the most famous performers of all time, but most of his films are borderline unwatchable. However, Lansbury did manage to inject a little bit of life into one of Elvis’ whackier projects with her performance as his strict mother in Blue Hawaii. We’ll just ignore the fact that Lansbury was less than a decade older than Elvis.

All Fall Down Was Celebrated In Hindsight

The same year that Lansbury gave her iconic performance in The Manchurian Candidate, she teamed up with director John Frankenheimer on another dramatic film. All Fall Down gave Lansbury the chance to play another manipulative, villainous mother. Although the film received mixed reviews at the time, it was appreciated later on as one of the more underrated films of the 1960s.

An Early Sondheim

Lansbury made her stage debut in one of the first works by composer Stephen Sondheim, starring as the ruthless Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in Sondheim’s satirical musical Anyone Can Whistle. Although it’s not often regarded as one of Sondheim’s best, Lansbury returned to narrate segments of the show for a charitable concert at Carnegie Hall for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1995.

Besting The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Amid her period of Broadway acclaim, Lansbury decided to take a guest role in the popular spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. She appeared as Elfie von Donck in the 1965 episode “The Deadly Toys Affair.”

Back To Mystery
It’s the sultry jazz singer Salome Otterbourne who courts the heart of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. While Sophia Okonedo reinvented the character in Kenneth Branagh’s 2022 film, she can’t compete with Lansbury’s stunning work in the 1978 adaptation.

Dealing With Jim Carrey’s Nonsense
When you first read Mr. Popper’s Penguins as a child, did you imagine Jim Carrey in the role of the penguins’ adopted father? The 2011 adaptation may not be great, but Lansbury has a blast chewing the scenery as the idiosyncratic restaurant owner Mrs. Selma Van Gundy.

A Late Stage Return To Theater

Lansbury was still active in the theater scene in the past decade. In 2013, she toured with the Australian cast of the award-winning classic Driving Miss Daisy alongside James Earl Jones. The play tells the sentimental story of a Southern woman who bonds with her Black driver. It takes place between 1948 and 1973.

Who’s The Mayor?

Leave it to Lansbury to reinvent one of the most beloved characters in the history of children’s books. In 2018, she provided the voice of the Mayor of Whoville in the animated version of The Grinch. Mayor McGerkle is certainly a more sensitive leader than Mrs. Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate.

She Got Around To Mary Poppins, Eventually

Lansbury auditioned for the title role in the Disney classic Mary Poppins, losing out to Julie Andrews. However, she eventually got to join the franchise with her charming supporting role in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns. The delightful “Balloon Lady” teaches the essence of kindness and humility to the young Banks children.

An Upcoming Cameo?

Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc established himself as one of modern cinema’s greatest sleuths in Knives Out, but he might need the help of Jessica Fletcher for his next case. Lansbury reportedly filmed a cameo in the upcoming Netflix film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery in her last film performance.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.

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