Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Angela Lansbury

Episode Summary

Angela Lansbury (1925-present) has been performing professionally for 78 years. She’s been rated a perfect 100 on People Magazine’s lovability index.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady has been performing professionally for 78 years. She’s been rated a perfect 100 on People Magazine’s lovability index. Let’s talk about Dame Angela Lansbury.

Angela was born in 1925 in Central London to wealthy parents. Her father Edgar was a merchant and politician, who served as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. When Angela was nine, Edgar died from stomach cancer—a tragedy that she later described as life-defining. 

Growing up, Angela followed in the footsteps of her mother, Irish actress Monya Macgill. Angela was fascinated by the arts and often went to the movies. In her early adolescence, she would sit on buses and try to look interesting—desiring the attention of her peers. 

As WWII broke out, the Lansburys moved to New York, where Angela attended theater school on scholarship. She got her first job in a Canadian nightclub by pretending to be 19 at age 16. Soon thereafter, Angela’s mother moved to Hollywood and Angela followed. There, Angela met playwright John van Druten, who had co-written the script for Gaslight and suggested Angela audition. Angela signed with MGM and at 17, was cast as Nancy Oliver, though they had to wait until she was 18 to film scenes in which she smoked. Angela’s debut performance was universally praised and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 

Angela’s career began with lots of love from critics. She appeared in National Velvet and became lifelong friends with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1946, Angela was again nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray

In 1945, Angela married artist Richard Cromwell. It was a troubled relationship, and their marriage ended less than a year later after Angela came home to find a note that said, “Sorry I can’t go on.” Then in December of 1946, Angela met the love of her life, English actor and producer Peter Pullen Shaw. They married in 1949, after she proposed to him, and remained married for 53 years.

By 1950, Angela had made a name for herself in the film industry. But she was unhappy with the roles she played. Though Angela was in her mid-twenties, MGM repeatedly cast her as older, manipulative women. Angela later said: “Hollywood made me old before my time.” 

In 1952, Angela terminated her contract with MGM. And after appearing in box-office hits like The Long Hot Summer and The Reluctant Debutante, she pivoted to Broadway.

In 1957, Angela made her Broadway debut in the short-lived Hotel Paradiso. She then appeared in A Taste of Honey as an emotionally abusive mother to an actress only four years younger than herself. 

Angela returned to film in 1960 in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, where her performance garnered overwhelming praise. The following year, Angela appeared in The Manchurian Candidate, where she—again—played the mother of an actor only a few years her junior. Angela received her third Academy Award nomination and second Golden Globe for the role. It is considered one of her most memorable pictures.

After 20 years in show business, Angela was finally cast in her first leading role in the  Broadway musical Mame. In it, Angela changed into more than twenty costumes and incorporated rigorous dancing and singing into the part of fabulous bohemian Mame Dennis. Mame ran for 1,508 performances and won Angela her first Tony Award. The role made her a household name. 

While her career thrived, her personal life was marked by serious challenges. Her children became involved in the LA counterculture. Her son Anthony became addicted to cocaine and heroin, and her daughter Deirdre was briefly involved with the Manson family. In 1970, Anthony entered a coma from an overdose and their home in Malibu burnt down. Angela moved the family to Ireland, where Anthony recovered.  

Still, Angela kept acting. In the 1970s, she appeared in her first Disney movie, Bed knobs and Broomsticks. She received her third Tony for her role as Rose in a revival of Gypsy, and her fourth for originating the role of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

In 1983, Angela was offered the lead in a sitcom and a mystery series. Against her agent’s advice, she chose to star as detective novelist Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Angela was given creative input over Jessica, and eventually became the show’s executive producer. Murder, She Wrote ran for 12 years and is one of the longest-running crime dramas on television. And though she was nominated for an Emmy every year the show aired, she never received one.  It was during Murder, She Wrote that Angela was cast in her highest-profile film role since the Manchurian Candidate: Mrs. Potts in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. 

After her husband’s death in 2003, Angela said she would only take cameo roles. She has starred in Nanny McPhee, Little Women, and Mary Poppins Returns, as well as four Broadway shows. She’s since won her fifth Tony for Blithe Spirit.

Angela has been given a number of formal honors. She was appointed as Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, in addition to receiving Kennedy Center Honors and multiple Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Though she wasn’t given a lead role until she was 41, Angela Lansbury continues to wow audiences. Her life is a tale of resilience and reinvention. 

All month, we’re talking about leading ladies. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.