Angela Lansbury’s Love for and Stability in Life

Angela Lansbury has died. Her death brings up one of those strange feelings: When someone lives to 96 years old and has managed to have such a wonderfully productive life, on the one hand there is a tremendous sense of awe in recognizing the  gift it was and is. Yet, there is also sadness because with Lansbury (and many other famous people of her age who have recently died), we witness not only the end of a particular life but also of a living tie to something now wholly unattainable. 

Although she was most recognized today for portraying the lovable sleuth, Jessica Fletcher, in the television series, “Murder, She Wrote,” Lansbury’s career spanned some 80 years in film, theater, and television. It’s impossible to think about Lansbury without thinking about Jessica Fletcher: a kind woman, a widow, who lives in a quiet town called Cabot Cove, who, in order to battle her loneliness, begins writing mystery novels, which make her instantly famous. Jessica Fletcher isn’t just a nice lady who makes excellent apple pies and is a good writer, however. She’s also a detective herself, and one who always outsmarts the murderer. She has a great sense of humor and common sense, and although she is perfectly kind, she is not naïve and doesn’t suffer fools. 

In many ways, Angela Lansbury was a lot like Jessica Fletcher (minus the murder investigations, of course). One gets the sense she was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, was not afraid to say it, was possessed of a great sense of humor, and had no time for affectation of any kind. In other words, a real person who has no problem being private but not fake. Angela Lansbury was certainly not some walking persona.

She made her silver screen debut in George Cukor’s 1944 “Gaslight,” in which she plays a scheming maid, Nancy, who aids Charles Boyer’s gaslighting of Ingrid Bergman. Lansbury’s talent was already visible in this small role of a young opportunistic woman. 

In one particular scene, the film’s villain, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) flirts with Nancy in front of his wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman). He has no shame. In fact, this whole event becomes a game for him about how to make Paula even more paranoid. Lansbury’s Nancy moves from low to upper class, flirty, and submissive in a matter of minutes. She’s just another monster in Paula’s life.

Lansbury’s performance as the cold, calculating, and incestous mother, Eleanor Iselin in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate,” is another example of her superb talent. As we watch this predator on screen, an embodied pretense of care and love, we feel a sense of unease and disgust. Lawrence Harvey who plays her son, and who was only three years younger than Lansbury in reality, is lost in his mother’s clutches, the very person who was supposed to protect him.

There are many such striking performances, not only in film but also in theater. Lansbury had a prolific career, and she wasn’t prone to overly emotional outbursts, like many actors and actresses tend to be. She was steady in her personality and this is seen in many of the interviews that she has given over the decades. She always seemed to exude a no nonsense attitude, yet there was also clearly a sense that personal boundaries were important to her (much like the character of Jessica Fletcher).

Lansbury was aware of this and has said that “she is eternally grateful for the Irish side of me. That’s where I get my sense of comedy and whimsy. As for the English half, that’s my reserved side . . . but put me onstage, and the Irish comes out.” There is a sense of stability in Lansbury even when we watch her in very unflattering roles. That stability of personhood is something we seek as human beings, and perhaps this is exactly why “Murder, She Wrote” was so immensely popular.

The audiences related to Jessica Fletcher in a myriad of ways. She was an everywoman who was able to talk to people from every walk of life. She enjoyed life and accepted the realities of life as well, all with humility and a sense of humor. “Jessica Fletcher is never very far away from me,” Lansbury said in an interview

Perhaps because Jessica Fletcher contained so many aspects of Angela Lansbury, audiences felt they could be both entertained and depend on some stability in her steady application of justice in each episode. But not just that: audiences felt that she could be their friend. (Watching the old episodes these days, which I have been doing as I am a huge fan of the show, has been a welcome respite from the emotional chaos of the world.)

This stability, however, comes from something far bigger than Lansbury herself. She spoke of her faith, however imperfect it may have been, many times. “I pray all the time,” she said. “I believe in God, in a Christian way. I’m not a great church-goer, but I do put my faith in God. I’m very thankful to Him.” 

As audiences, we are thankful for Angela Lansbury: her incredibly palpable gift of acting and reaching out to so many people. On one of these occasions, Lansbury said: “I believe that God is within all of us, that we are perfect, precious beings, and that we have to put our faith and trust in that.” May she rest in peace.

About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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