Angela Lansbury in Conversation With Charlotte Moore, a LPTW Event at Bruno Walter Auditorium Lincoln Center
Angela Lansbury is a phenomenon at 94-years-young. She’s still acting, still beaming, still working on her craft. What a pleasure for the The League of Professional Theatre Women and the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts to host an interview with Angela Lansbury conducted by friend, actress and Artistic Director of Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, Charlotte Moore. Both women have secured their place in the New York Theatre community and are a joy to know and work with.
The interview was held Thursday, 14 November at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as a free event produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser with LPTW members in attendance along with friends of Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Moore. All present were delighted to discover Ms. Lansbury’s wisdom and hear stories about her career which spans seventy-five years and includes performances on stage, in films and on television.
A Tony Award winner for Mame (1966). Ms. Lansbury made her stage debut with Bert Lahr in Hotel Paradiso (1957) and was in her first musical Anyone Can Whistle in 1964. Since Mame, she has won four more Tonys for Dear World (1968) Gypsy (1974) Sweeney Todd (1979) and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit for her portrayal of Madam Arcati (2009) which she played five years later at London’s Gielgud Theatre winning an Olivier Award. Other London performances range from the RSC production of Edward Albee’s All Over, to Hamlet co-starring Albert Finney at the National Theatre.
You may have seen Ms. Lansbury in Deuce by Terrence McNally (2007) Madame Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (2010) or Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (2012), all on Broadway. And if you were in Australia in 2013 you might have been able to catch her on tour with James Earl Jones in the acclaimed production of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy.
Appearing in over 70 films, Ms. Lansbury was a part of the Studio System. She began at age seventeen with Gaslight (1944) working with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer whom she mentioned were kind to her as a youngster starting out. Her performance as Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and Laurence Harvey for which she is perhaps most noted, won her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. That she was around the same age as Laurence Harvey and was able to convince theatergoers that she was his steely, cool, politically compromised mother is certainly a testament of her acting skills.
As a side note, both Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate are so striking as cult classics, they have produced memes that have been used with references to their dramatic plots. The memes are currently on Social media.”Gaslighting” has come to mean tricking or conniving to brainwash then victimize. (It references the husband’s nefarious plot to dupe his wife into thinking she is insane.) “Manchurian Candidate” has come to mean an unwitting puppet groomed and compromised by an adversarial government. (It references a useless idiot brainwashed to believe an alternate reality for an adversarial government’s nefarious purposes to further their own agenda and destroy a nation from within.)
In films Ms. Lansbury acted with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and became friends with her and Richard Burton and many other Hollywood greats, for example Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. Recently, Ms. Lansbury has been in Nanny MPhee, Mary Poppins Returns and the animated The Grinch That Stole Christmas.
When she took the starring role as mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, it was a boon. She was so beloved, that the network kept the show running for 12 seasons, 264 performances from 1984-1996. It was the longest-running detective drama series in TV history. As a result she was either nominated or won the Golden Globe as Best Performance by an Actress in a TV series 10 out of the 12 years the series ran (5 Golden Globes). And she was nominated for a Prime Time Emmy 18 times.
The rest of her award list belies that Angela Lansbury is very charming and humble in person. She is a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She won 3 Oscars, a Silver Mask for Lifetime Achievement from the British Academy, and an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures. In 2014 she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. But perhaps her greatest honor was her marriage to motion picture executive Peter Shaw for 53 years. In her discussion she noted the pleasure of raising her three children and looking forward to watching her three grandchildren grow up.
Charlotte Moore co-founded the award-winning Irish Repertory Theatre with Ciarán O’Reilly in 1988 after acting together and discussing Irish theater. It was an event of synchronicity for as they bonded, they decided to work together to form the successful Irish Repertory Theatre.
Before her fated discussions with Ciarán O’Reilly, Charlotte Moore appeared in A Perfect Ganesh, The Perfect Party and Private Lives on Broadway (with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who became dear friends) to name a few productions. She also appeared in many performances with the New York Shakespeare Festival. During the thirty-one years at the Irish Repertory Theatre she has directed almost eighty productions, the most recent being The Plough and the Stars, part of the Sean O’Casey Season and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Ms. Moore has received two Tony Award nominations, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Drama League Award, the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2008 Irish Women of the Year Award. In 2011 she was named “Director of the Year” by The Wall Street Journal. This year Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly will receive Ireland’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.
Charlotte Moore asked Ms. Lansbury about her friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, mutual friends. Ms. Lansbury mentioned that they came to see her perform and visited her backstage. And when they came, she made sure to have alcohol at the ready for the Burtons. This received much laughter. She noted the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes. They were striking. One couldn’t help when one was in Ms. Taylor’s presence to not only listen to what she was saying but to note the stunning color of her eyes.
Charlotte Moore asked Ms. Lansbury about her relationship with Katherine Hepburn who many knew that in her later years became rather prickly; she didn’t suffer fools gladly. After rolling her eyes at the implication that Katherine Hepburn was a definitive personality, which got a laugh, Ms. Lansbury said that they were good friends and Katherine Hepburn was an interesting and lovely individual. Ms. Lansbury would visit at Katherine Hepburn’s home on Long Island. (Ms. Lansbury pronounced it as the natives unwittingly do running the guttural “g” into the “Island” to much laughter.) She referenced that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey were partners who would never be able to marry or go public with their relationship. However, she knew Tracey as well and she thought he was a superlative actor and lovely individual.
When Charlotte Moore asked what it was like to work with Frank Sinatra, Ms. Lansbury was specific. He was a gentleman and they became good friends. It was not a romantic relationship. However, he took her under his wing and told her a lot about the Studios and Hollywood and a lot about the industry for which she was grateful and very appreciative. When asked about the nature of The Manchurian Candidate and the character she played. Ms. Lansbury was profound. Without being definitive and ruining it with one theory or another, she implied that The Manchurian Candidate was a complex film. There are no easy answers, especially with regard to the ending which cannot be framed as a thesis/antithesis, either “this” or “that.”
One of the interesting tips that Angela Lansbury suggested for budding actors is to leave their personality and their identity at home. She always tries to do that, to put aside her thoughts and concerns about her own life and immerse herself in the character she is playing. And she quipped that the characters were always more interesting anyway and that reality and being oneself is rather boring. Again, the audience laughed.
The overarching impression one received from the interview was that Angela Lansbury enjoyed working. Familiar to acting, like second nature, she started acting when she was a child, coming from an acting family (her mother was an actress). When Ms. Lansbury commented that she is British-Irish (her father British and her mother Irish) Charlotte Moore indicated her great pleasure about the “Irish part,” and the two shared the joke, considering that Charlotte Moore has devoted a good part of her life to uplifting Irish culture.
Angela Lansbury actually is British-Irish-American. In fact her family came over during WW II (1939-1940) to escape The Blitz. With her mother and two brothers, she moved permanently to the United States. She studied acting in New York City and then proceeded to Hollywood, Los Angeles in 1942 and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There she obtained her first film roles, Gaslight (1944) and The Portrait of Dorian Grey (1945). She struck gold right then and there with two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe.
When Ms. Moore asked what it was like working with George Cukor, Ms. Lansbury said he was a very fine director and no nonsense. She learned a lot from him, other directors and her co-actors with whom she always got along. Her pleasant attitude seems to always have been about being professional and following the suggestions of the director to enhance her character portrayals.
The easy conversation between Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Moore flew by. The audience was sorry that it had to end. Members of LPTW, friends and patrons of Lincoln Center and the Irish Repertory Theatre gave Ms. Lansbury a standing ovation in celebration of her life and career spreading joy to millions.