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Angela Lansbury's spirit and star power burn as bright as ever

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Angela Lansbury's L.A. turn in 'Blithe Spirit' is the latest in a storied career of theater, movies and TV

As gracious and unpretentious as her Brentwood home, Angela Lansbury radiated hospitality as she ushered me into her living room, where her honorary Oscar sits as casually as a figurine placed on a table while a kettle was whistling.

Flowers sent from around the world to mark her 89th birthday spilled out of vases, some browning, a few wilting, though the majority still paying bright homage to one of the most beloved stars in the business.

"Just a few dead flowers to make you feel better," she vamped in a cockney accent not unlike her Mrs. Lovett character from "Sweeney Todd." "Poor little things left over from the birthday." The words "so lovely" float by on a sigh.

The doors overlooking the property were kept open to admit a breeze during our afternoon conversation about her sterling career and plans to reprise her performance in Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit" at the Ahmanson Theatre (beginning previews Tuesday). This prompted a warning that our interview might be interrupted by scampering "little critters." Apparently, Lansbury has a rat problem in her backyard, though there would be no standing on furniture or cries of "Eek!" from the consummately self-possessed British-born actress.

Her attitude isn't one of blithe unconcern but uncomplicated directness. There's a bracing practicality to her manner. When her personal assistant came into the room carrying my coffee, she hovered uncertainly. Lansbury, seeing that she was trying to figure out where to serve the refreshment, moved a heavy table closer to where I was sitting before I even knew what she was doing.

This display of physical strength and agility shouldn't have surprised me. While other near-nonagenarians may be content with Sudoku and naps in front of the TV, she's about to kick off the North American tour of a knockabout British comedy, having already conquered New York and London with the play.

Lansbury really doesn't need to be doing this. Her beauty may be ageless, but eight shows a week is a tough haul for someone half her age.

Money can't be motivating her. Her long-running television show "Murder, She Wrote" has taken care of that. As for prestige, she already won a Tony (her fifth!) for playing the role of Madame Arcati, the eccentric medium who has a knack for bringing back the wrong dead person in Coward's fizzy comedy.

What's more, it's hard to imagine anything topping the reception she received when she took the show to London this year. As an eyewitness to the post-show scene outside her stage door, I can report that the throng of fans was what you might expect to see at a Rolling Stones concert, not a revival of a 1941 British chestnut.

Lansbury attributes her popular fame to the 1971 Disney classic "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and "Murder, She Wrote," but the theater is where she became a legend, and after all these years there's still nothing she'd rather be doing.

"I love to be on stage," she said. "It's lovely to be able to entertain an audience, and with me so much of it has to do with the innate humor in people. Madame Arcati is such an earnest soul. She's totally serious about every aspect of what she's about. This is what makes her so fascinating and fun to play."

Acting is a game of pretend that she was born to play. Her mother, Moyna MacGill, performed in the West End and once on Broadway. She didn't push her daughter into a career, but she showed her the way. Lansbury began studying at a British drama school as a teen, but she and her family left for America during World War II.

Lansbury's father, son of a distinguished Labour Party leader and a politician himself, died when she was 9. Her mother, she said, leaned on her for emotional and later financial support. Lansbury continued studying acting in America through a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing, for which she now raises money as the organization's honorary chairwoman.

The stage was always her dream, but Hollywood beckoned with opportunities. Before the war was over, she was under contract at MGM, working with some of the all-time greats, including Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in "Gaslight" (for which she received an Oscar nomination) and Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney in "National Velvet."

Lansbury received another Oscar nomination for her 1945 performance in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" but soon felt trapped by the studio system. "Looking back I used up a lot of valuable years in making lousy movies at MGM, and let's face it, they were not great or suitable parts for me," she said. "Because I was a so-called natural actress I would play anything anyone handed to me. I was under contract at a studio that would say, 'I'm sorry, dear, but this is what we'd like you to do,' and they would have me playing these older ladies and character roles."

When asked if these early years helped her versatility, Lansbury shook her head: "I did it because I had to. I needed the money. After all there was family involved, but I was always longing for theater."

Ironically, it was one of Lansbury's biggest successes in the movies — her Oscar-nominated performance as the well-coiffed maternal terror in the 1962 classic "The Manchurian Candidate" — that propelled her to switch gears and make a serious go of it as a musical theater performer. She beamed when I told her that this landmark film is as potent as ever, but at the time she feared getting trapped in villainess roles.

"You can't live down a part like that," she said. "I decided, 'Forget it. I'm going to sing now. I'm going to make you happy by singing.'"

In accepting the part of the diabolical Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper in Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' "Anyone Can Whistle" in 1964, she may have launched her Broadway musical career, but she wasn't exactly softening her image. Cora was a zany caricature of greed and deviousness.

Did Laurents cast her because of what he saw in "The Manchurian Candidate"? "Maybe he did, but as he got to know me he knew that he made a terrible mistake in thinking that I would relish coming in and playing Mrs. Iselin [her character in 'Manchurian'] again on stage in a musical," she said. "We had some shouting matches."

The show wasn't a success, and Lansbury wasn't pleased with her performance. "I didn't sing for a year after that. I hurt my throat — I was singing all wrong, screeching instead of singing. It sounded terrible, I thought."

Broadway stardom came for Lansbury in 1966 with "Mame," which brought the first of her Tony Awards. "The show ran for years, and I sang it nonstop," she said. "I brought it out here to Los Angeles, which was an exciting way to return, though it didn't mean anything to Hollywood. I didn't get the movie because Warner Bros. didn't believe that I could bring the audience in."

There's no bitterness in her tone, just more straightforwardness. She said she didn't see the 1974 movie, and when the subject of Lucille Ball's negative reviews came up, she was sympathetic to the "great lady."

The enduring upside of "Mame," however, is that it won Lansbury the affection from fans she had long been craving. "It affected a generation of young men, many of whom I've met as the years went by," she said. "Fifteen-year-olds, 12-year-olds, they were so taken by the relationship between this glamorous woman and idolizing schoolboy. Very hard for my children to put up with."

This last thought brings a mist to her eyes as she recalled a difficult time in 1971 when she moved her family from Los Angeles to Ireland, where she still has a home. "The kids came and, thank God, got off the drugs," she said. "Both discovered what they wanted to do with their lives." In reporting on their successes, Lansbury, like many a guilt-racked working mother, registered as much relief as pride.

Lansbury's eyes welled up again in reference to her second husband, agent-producer Peter Shaw. Their 53-year marriage lasted until his death in 2003. Balancing family and career wasn't easy, but she pulled it off even as she kept challenging herself professionally.

With the revival of "Gypsy" in 1974, Lansbury had the opportunity to show what an actress of her caliber could do in a musical. The production aimed to draw out the dramatic complexity of Laurents' book. Her performance in this first major Broadway revival helped establish "Gypsy" as the "King Lear" summit for American musical divas.

In his memoir "Original Story," Laurents writes of Lansbury, "Understandably, she worried about comparisons with [Ethel] Merman, but 'Mame' had strengthened Angie's voice, which had the power and range for 'Gypsy.' Because she was also a marvelous actress, I wanted to direct this 'Gypsy': with Angie, it would be a very different play with different values, one much closer to the play I had written."

Lansbury had not seen Merman in the role, but she said her recording of "Gypsy" was often heard in her house. "I've still got it in the cabinet," she said. "She was it, even though she really couldn't act her way out of a paper bag. But boy, could she sing. It was the exhilaration in the voice that thrilled any musical lover. Nobody could imitate her. I had to forget my adoration of her. I gave her credit for giving me the excitement of approaching it in my own way, because I knew I couldn't beat her at her own game."

The originality of Lansbury's attack was nowhere more evident than in her handling of "Rose's Turn." Laurents, as he recounted in "Original Story," went back to his "original premise: The number takes place in an empty theatre, the applause is only in Rose's head." This nervous breakdown was literally a tour de force.

"What I brought to the number was an understanding of why the character behaved the way she did," Lansbury said. "A woman was being cast aside by the daughter who she had made. She stands there and watches her daughter being idolized by the audience and this was when she said to herself, 'I gave up my life for you. Now it's my turn. You didn't do it. I did it.'"

Did any of this insight come from Lansbury's own experience with a mother whom she had eclipsed? Lansbury, who won a Tony for her portrayal, resolutely said no even as she hinted that the real story is too private to tell.

"I am not one of those people who pulls out my own life experiences and replays them for the purposes of becoming a character," she said. "I'm a great believer in, and I tell this to young actors whenever possible, "Leave yourself at home!" Don't bring yourself into the dressing room. Yes, bring the body and all the know-how and everything else. But when you walk on that stage, you are not yourself. You are not bringing anything that has to do with a memory that might trip you into the mood. No, don't do it, because you'll wreck yourself. Many people have. It's all about imagination. Acting really has to be imagination."

This attitude is largely responsible for her incredible longevity. Memorizing lines is the biggest hurdle now. "Once I've learned them, they are screwed in tight," she said, though she wears an earpiece just in case.

"Blithe Spirit," she insisted, is not her swan song. The play, described by Dame Angela "as an absolutely hilarious British play with a lot of overtones about men and women together in marriage," has only whetted her appetite for more. "Comedy is what I really want to do at this point because it's fun to lift people," she said. "I may be even going back to London to do some Restoration comedy. I think Restoration comedy is great because it's so dirty and slutty, and I think at my age I should do that."

She no longer frets about the consequences of playing a dastardly female character. After all, it was her portrayals of a bulldozing stage mother in "Gypsy" and a cannibalistic entrepreneur in "Sweeney Todd" that transformed her into one of Broadway's immortals. And an honorary Oscar isn't bad compensation for not getting to play the sweet ingenue all those years.

But more important, she knows that it's through her warm humanity that she has forged a special link to her audience — a connection that has grown with her voice-over performance as Mrs. Potts in the endlessly popular 1991 Disney animated film "Beauty and the Beast" and the worldwide syndication of "Murder, She Wrote."

As for her special magic as an actress, Lansbury, in responding to my litany of her attributes (piercing intelligence, comic flair, musical prowess), resorted to a famous phrase from Coward: "a talent to amuse."

"This is what I understand I am able to do," she said. "And as it is a God-given gift, I must use it or I'm turning my back on something that gives pleasure to others. That's what keeps me coming back."

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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