In The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury Played The Most Evil Movie Mother Ever

If Frank Sinatra had his way, Angela Lansbury would never have given her finest film performance. For the role of Eleanor Iselin, a dead-hearted Communist agent plotting a series of assassinations that will result in the ascension of her alcoholic, McCarthyite husband to the White House, the Chairman of the Board favored Lucille Ball. In conversation with Alec Baldwin at the 2016 TCM Film Festival's screening of "The Manchurian Candidate," the actor confessed a bit of curiosity for this alternate bit of casting. "I mean, that could've been fascinating. You wouldn't have believed that she could be this devil incarnate."

For 1962 audiences, when "The Manchurian Candidate" was initially released, it would've been staggering to see the beloved First Lady of comedy play a cunning matriarch who has the barely suppressed hots for her brainwashed, trained-killer son Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey). But, trust me, when the film was re-released in 1988, it was plenty jarring to behold America's favorite sleuth, Jessica Fletcher, perform the same dramatic function.

Thank god director John Frankenheimer had the foresight and chutzpah to go against his notoriously controlling star. Ball would've been stunt casting. Even if she pulled it off (and she very well could have), "The Manchurian Candidate" would've been marketed on Ball's unprecedented heel turn. Lansbury didn't have anywhere near that cultural cachet at the time. Though she'd earned two Academy Award nominations early in her career for two of her very first screen performances in "Gaslight" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Lansbury had quickly gone from ingenue to character actor. At the age of 37, she played 27-year-old Elvis Presley's ditzy mother in "Blue Hawaii." So no one blinked when she was cast as the 34-year-old Harvey's mom in "The Manchurian Candidate." 

In the case of Frankenheimer's film, it wasn't so much about the projection of maturity, but rather her ability to devour her male cast members whole.

Dealing from a stacked deck

As written in Richard Condon's hilariously overheated novel, Eleanor Iselin is Lady Macbeth armed with Gertrude's incestuous sex drive. This ain't hamartia — it's strength. And it's only an eleventh-hour, deus-ex-machina moment of clarity that compels Shaw to murder his mother and step-father. As presented by screenwriter George Axelrod, Eleanor's sexual affection for Shaw is acknowledged but never consummated. It works better this way. You sense that Eleanor has literally overplayed her hand (Shaw's murderous instincts are activated by the Queen of Diamonds), but you doubt the young man's resolve — and this doubt is wholly predicated on Lansbury's performance.

Lansbury's Eleanor is a gloriously evil reptile. She holds in her hands not just the fate of her cuckolded husband and addled son, but the global balance of power. She has successfully, through years of coordination with the Soviets, orchestrated a palace coup. Once her drunken blowhard of a spouse assumes power, she'll call the shots and destroy her enemies. For her, the United States is not enough, and this is the kicker — she did not know Shaw had been brainwashed. 

It is, as Roger Ebert noted in his Great Movies essay, a reckless, seemingly illogical move on Russia's part. But of course these Kremlin baddies underestimated Eleanor.

The greatest villain monologue in film history

This culminates in a monologue for the ages, where Eleanor lays out in fiendishly exact detail, right down to the precise line in the presidential nominee's speech, when Raymond is to fire a bullet into the candidate's skull. You can watch it on YouTube, but if you've never seen "The Manchurian Candidate," I implore you to stream the film posthaste. It's a brilliantly crafted film on every level, but we exalt it because, for a few blessed minutes, Lansbury rises to the nefarious occasion in a manner no screen villain has done before or since. 

The calm conviction of her delivery, her unwavering belief that the overthrow of the U.S. government is a fait accompli, hits harder now than it ever has. "I know you will never entirely comprehend this, Raymond, but you must believe I did not know it would be you. I served them. I fought for them. I'm on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country."

Raymond stirs to righteousness at the very last second, and it's the least believable part of the film in 2022. A huge swath of Americans are now in the thrall of wannabe authoritarians far less convincing or articulate than Lansbury's Eleanor. She leaves you nostalgic for a better class of mutineer and a less gullible populace. She flattered us.