Angela Lansbury has always been something special. During her younger years the critic James Agee remarked that she had “a special kind of short-lipped English beauty…evocative of milkmaids in 18th-century pornographic prints.” Pauline Kael has compared her versatility and dramatic impact to that of Bette Davis, referring to her as a “picture redeemer,” since so many Lansbury characterizations have helped salvage Hollywood wreckage. Angela herself admits: “I made peace with myself very early and decided I was going to be a rare bird. I was and I am!”
For a bird of passage—she was born in London, went to English dramatic school and made her first Hollywood movie at age 18—she has survived some rough storms over the past 30 years and in over 30 films. Out of economic necessity she even played Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii in 1961. Five years later she was the queen of Broadway in Mame. On Sept. 23 in New York, Angela will open the new theater season with a revival of the musical Gypsy, which she considers “unquestionably my most difficult role.” The revival has already had a successful five-month U.S. tour (which also uncovered a fresh new talent, page 50). Angela herself received the London critics’ best actress award for the role last year. But as she is the first to admit, “Nothing is a shoo-in.”
For one thing, Broadway theater-goers can still remember Ethel Merman in the role of Mama Rose, the character based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s dominating stage mother. “Everyone asks the same question: what does it feel like playing a role another performer made theatrical history with?” says Angela defensively. “I can’t beat Ethel at the singing game, and I don’t think she can beat me at the acting game. So, no contest. But I’m damned concerned because I am going into her territory, even though it’s been 15 years since she did Gypsy.” (Merman herself will be making her London theater debut in a sell-out, two-week, one-woman show at the famed Palladium when Angela opens here, but Ethel has warned she’ll take a look at Angela’s Mama Rose when she returns.)
As the second largest investor in the revival, Angela has more to lose than her acting reputation. However, New York’s biggest money critic Clive Barnes saw her performance last year in London, and wrote: “Miss Lansbury, rough, tough and just a little sentimental around the edges, is a joy. She has a heart of tin, a voice of brass and eyes of neon.”
Like the indomitable Mama Rose, Angela in real life has proven a woman of steel. She describes her last few years as being filled with “absolutely incredible tragedies.” Her husband Peter Shaw underwent major hip surgery; their Malibu home burned to the ground; and Angela’s mother, the delightful and talented character actress Moyna Macgill, had to have her voice box removed because of cancer. “Do you know what it means for an actress to lose her voice?” asks Angela.
Then during the shining hours of her Mame engagement on Broadway, her son Anthony became addicted to dope—it had been pot at 12, LSD at 14 and heroin at 17. “He is a young man of 22 with his life in front of him now, going to drama school in London,” says Angela. “But I can tell you he is one of the few who got away.”
For the future, Angela thinks she can handle almost anything. “I hope I have the sense of humor to do it with, but I am a rather serious person. I have only a few more years to kick up my heels,” she says, and then adds with a characteristic twinkle, “I haven’t done the classics yet, but I think I now have the chest and the experience to play Shakespeare.”