Angela Lansbury will receive honorary Oscar
Angela Lansbury first attended the Academy Awards at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on March 15, 1945. Just 19, she was nominated for supporting actress for her role as a conniving Cockney maid in “Gaslight.”
And now, nearly seven decades later, the 88-year-old legend is winning her first Oscar. On Saturday evening, Lansbury will receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ fifth Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
“It’s very, very special for me,” said Lansbury over the phone from her New York home. “It is very unique and wonderful to receive at my time of life though I am still in the running — doing things and acting.”
Comedian Steve Martin and noted Italian costume designer Piero Tosi also will be receiving an honorary award, while Oscar-winning actress and philanthropist Angelina Jolie is the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
“When a light shines brightly, it really lasts a long time,” academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said. “I would say Miss Lansbury is a perfect example of a light shining brightly. Her skill, her passion for acting is such that she has influenced many actors and actresses, I would say, through the years.”
She was only 17 and a newcomer to Los Angeles when she began work on her film debut in 1944’s “Gaslight,” which was directed by George Cukor and starred Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten.
Lansbury, her mother, actress Moyna Macgill, and her twin brothers had left Britain at the outbreak of World War II. They first lived in New York and then settled in Los Angeles.
“I was introduced to MGM studios by a young friend of mine who was an actor and was being considered for a role in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’” Lansbury said. That friend, Michael Dyne, became a noted playwright and screenwriter.
Dyne, she said, had become chummy with MGM casting director Mel Ballerino, who told the young British actor they were looking for someone to play the maid in “Gaslight.”
“He told him about this young girl who had just come from England and had been training to be an actress and maybe he would like to see her,” Lansbury said.
Lansbury and her mother reported to MGM. “I was immediately snatched by the casting director who said, ‘I will take you to see Mr. Cukor and the producers. I would like them to meet you.’ That was my introduction to MGM. I tested in the role and I was tested for ‘Picture of Dorian Gray.’ I played both parts and through happenstance was nominated for best supporting actress for both. My mother and I were shocked.”
Still, MGM didn’t seem to know what to do with the character actress. She ended up playing women far older than her years. “I was villainous or a rather distasteful woman, the unpleasant wife,” Lansbury said. “I was a character actress at a very young age, and I simply adapted myself to the requirements of the role. That is what actors do.”
Lansbury earned her third and final Oscar nomination for supporting actress for her chilling performance in 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” She played the frightening Eleanor Iselin, the Lady Macbeth-esque wife of a senator (James Gregory) who is involved in a plot with Communists to overthrow the government. Laurence Harvey, who was not quite two years younger than Lansbury, played her son, who had been brainwashed to become a political assassin.
The actress had just worked with “Manchurian” director John Frankenheimer on his 1962 drama “All Fall Down” as Warren Beatty’s mother.
“On the last day of dubbing, he slapped this book on the table next to me and said, ‘Your next role is in this book,’” Lansbury recalled. “I don’t know how he knew, but he knew I could pull that one off.”
After “Manchurian Candidate,” Lansbury became a mainstay in Broadway musicals, winning four best actress Tony awards for “Mame,” “Dear World,” “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd.”
She peppered her stage roles with an occasional film, such as the 1971 Disney classic “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” And she would return to the Disney fold as the voice as the sweet Mrs. Potts in 1992’s award-winning animated classic, “Beauty and the Beast,” in which she sang the Oscar-winning title tune.
Lansbury, who last appeared on screen in 2011’s “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” has been concentrating on the theater. She won her fifth Tony four years ago for the revival of “Blithe Spirit” and recently appeared in the revivals of “A Little Night Music” and “The Best Man,”
She recently completed a six-month tour of Australia with James Earl Jones in “Driving Miss Daisy.” And she’s set to start rehearsals in London in January for a limited run of “Blithe Spirit.”
But Lansbury is perhaps best loved as Jessica Fletcher, the New England-based mystery writer and amateur sleuth in the lighthearted 1984-96 CBS mystery series “Murder, She Wrote.”
She caused a bit of a stir earlier in the week when it was reported that she thought it was a mistake for NBC to reboot the series with Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). In this updated version, Spencer would be playing an entirely different character.
“I think it’s a mistake to cash in on the title,” Lansbury explained. “It’s very misleading. I am a great admirer of the actress, but the story has nothing to do with ‘Murder, She Wrote.’”
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