The Elusive Persona Of Angela Lansbury: From 'Gaslight' To 'Mary Poppins Returns'

(Welcome to Role Call, where we examine two performances from an actor – their first defining role and their most recent/last – to get a sense of who they are.)

You're gonna be thinking of Murder, She Wrote while reading this. That's okay. It's only natural. The grandmotherly Columbo dominated Dame Angela Lansbury's persona so strongly that a certain generation of viewers can't imagine her as anything but a cardigan-wearing bicycle enthusiast whom death follows like a puppy. After more than a decade, the series ended when Lansbury hit the traditional retirement age, but she's never quit working.

She'll turn 100 in 2025. She's worked through 8 decades. She's a stone cold force of nature.

No one (except maybe Dick Van Dyke) has had that kind of flourishing longevity. And like your friend's great-grandma who talks about her misspent youth as an arms dealer in South America, Lansbury is so much more than the kindly figure she's become in popular culture. So much more than the quiet ex-teacher from small town Maine who solved 268 murders.

Her Early Role: Nancy Oliver in Gaslight

If you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to find the time. Not only is George Cukor's thriller a taut agitation of abuse and revenge, but Ingrid Bergman was searing in her fear and power, Joseph Cotten was somehow not the creepy bad guy, and Lansbury plows through each scene with a flirtatious scowl. At 17, Lansbury made her mark alongside heavy weights in her first film. Bergman won the Oscar, and Lansbury scored a nomination for her supporting role.

She played a maid employed by Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) – a new husband psychologically tormenting his wife. Nancy is both a pawn in that scheme and a figure with a life almost completely outside the scope of the story. She's treated with a fawning disdain by Anton, who comments on her face and figure in a bid to further upset his wife and cultivate a sense of complete dominance over their home.

Lansbury plays against the bubbly ingenue cliche, appearing cold to Bergman's character and politely receptive toward Anton. Through a modern lens, it's crystal clear that her core emotion is discomfort – a young woman with a low-key gargoyle of a boss who she appeases in order to keep her job.

Nancy is detached without lacking emotion. She's stern and far from empty-headed. She's well-rounded despite being treated as a toy by her boss.

The Persona: Promising Young Star

Critics of the time all took notice of Lansbury's work in the film, recognizing her most for her ability simply to hang with veteran performers like Bergman. Despite her age, she's never cowed in the scenes, carving out her own space without overshadowing or stealing anything. The Oscar nomination cemented that status, as did her shrewd run of strong performances regardless of the overall quality of the movie.

That became her signature early on: critical love for her, apathy toward her movies.

In the cinematic world emerging from WWII, Lansbury didn't have a strong persona or signature beyond the narrow lens allowed to young actresses of the time. Locked into MGM dayplayer doldrums, she was consistently miscast in mediocre movies following her rocket launch of a debut. She'd later say that, "I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and [Louis B. Mayer] kept casting me as a series of venal bitches."

Whether a miscalculation or not (it's difficult to imagine Lansbury in the same helium-filled roles Arthur delivered), that acting purgatory allowed her to later avoid static casting as a sweet young thing pining for the hero love interest.

It also must have been profoundly frustrating. I couldn't find any, but it's not hard to imagine the hot takes of the time asking what happened to the thrilling promise of an teenage Oscar nominee relegated to the cool background.

Despite that lack of a specific persona, what's fascinating and yet so, so obvious to those of us who grew up with Jessica Fletcher is that Lansbury was once young. That embarrassing Eureka moment for me came when I saw The Court Jester for the first time, watching a goofy Danny Kaye pitch woo to a beautiful, flaxen-haired princess who would eventually go on to play a singing tea pot and be every grandmother's favorite amateur detective.

Her Latest Role: Balloon Lady in Mary Poppins Returns

There are four pillars to Lansbury's persona: the complicated ingenue, the kind mystery solver of Cabot Cove, the sweetly maternal wonderment of Beauty and the Beast, and – when Julie Andrews was launching her screen career as a strangely fantastic nanny in Mary Poppins – the diabolical villain of The Manchurian Candidate. These pillars illustrate her phenomenal range.

Lansbury portrays a balloon peddler in the Poppins sequel, essentially echoing the floating Ed Wynn character of the original as an elderly diversion for the adventurous to engage with (and learn something along the way). She plays the part as if she's always belonged in the universe. In fact, it's easy to imagine an alternative universe where Disney scored the rights to the character a decade earlier and got Lansbury to play the title role. After all, she's enigmatic, sweet, and a wonderful singer, too.

Instead, she spent the 1960s broadening her appeal, swerving into the Disney fold in the early 1970s starring in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The Personal: Magical Great-Grandmother

Lansbury has spent her octogenarian and nonagenarian years portraying eccentric drop-ins in children's movies, playing out-there figures like Aunt Adelaide in Nanny McPhee. This has been her persona for the past three decades, following her effective retirement from the American Jane Marple role she perfected on television (as well as literally playing Miss Marple on film before Murder, She Wrote was a thing).

Her portrayal of Miss Potts and her iconic solo while Belle and the Beast twirl around the computer animated ballroom floor launched a new chapter in how we see Lansbury. It would be too simple to view her solely as the cookie-bearing grandma who sing and solves crimes, and her early career easily confounds that interpretation of her work. But since she's been all over the map for half a century before settling into a cozy public image, her acting niche is ultimately elusive.

What's outstanding is how Lansbury has been able to cultivate not only a lengthy career, but a fruitful one, marking the years with a variety of indelible personae that each stand paradoxically as the definitive version of her. From dark young woman to beastly traitor to pie-baking sleuth to all-singing human hug. It makes her early years in MGM purgatory that much more irritating. So much potential wasted for years.

What she's achieved as a performer on stage and screen is literally peerless, and I sincerely hope she spends her 100th birthday crafting a new persona as a kindly serial killer. Just to round things out. You know she could do it.