“The day we sailed from Liverpool, it was bombed,” recalls Dame Angela Lansbury, her voice crisp and precise, yet with a distinct air of mischief, as we share a pot of coffee at her dining room table in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
“But we escaped! On a Canadian Pacific Line steamship called the Duchess of Atholl. And y’know, it’s curious, we didn’t really understand how crucial that journey was, or how imminent our demise might have been, if we had not been lucky enough to have an escort of destroyers, weaving around us, all the way.”
Not long after Lansbury’s 1940 voyage, the Atholl was sunk by a German U-boat in the South Atlantic, killing its crew. The actress, meanwhile, found her way safely to New York, where, still a teenager, she attended drama school before taking a cross-country train to Los Angeles.
It would mark the beginning of one of the most diverse and enduring careers of any Briton in Hollywood, including roles in such darkly subversive classics as Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate; family-friendly turns in the Walt Disney blockbusters Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Beauty and the Beast; a 12-year run on TV as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote; three Academy Award nominations for best supporting actress; and, most recently, an honorary Oscar.
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Given the profound upheavals of Lansbury’s youth, it’s perhaps fitting that her latest role, at the age of 92, is in a BBC adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s pioneering coming-of-age novel Little Women, which will be on this Christmas.
“Television I can deal with, in a limited way, though how much more I’ll do, I’ve no idea,” she says, hinting that Little Women may be her final role. But in person, it’s no exaggeration to say that the actress, who lives alone in a country-style home with a pool and canyon views (her children minutes away), seems decades younger than her real age.
Lansbury, whose grandfather was the former Labour leader George Lansbury, a radical liberal turned socialist who was jailed for his support of women’s suffrage, confesses that she has never read Alcott’s book – only the script by Heidi Thomas, who created Call the Midwife and the updated Upstairs Downstairs.
“I don’t know why I wasn’t immersed in that wonderful story as a youngster,” she muses. “But my life was torn up by my father’s death when I was nine, and I grew up terribly fast. From then to the age of 13, I was out of school, the war was on – then I came to America. So my knowledge of it was extremely limited.”
When Little Women was published in 1868 in the US, just after the Civil War, it was a pop culture sensation – creating an entirely new market for “girls’ fiction”. With its semi-autobiographical narrative about the lives of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, it was quickly embraced as a guide to a new and non-traditional kind of womanhood.
Alcott’s heroine, Jo, is opinionated and tomboyish and wishes that she could join her father, a military chaplain, on the front lines of the Civil War. Instead, she moves to New York to become a writer, where she marries a professor some 15 years her senior.
Like Alcott herself, Jo – played by Maya Thurman-Hawke, the 18-year-old daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke – is now regarded as a feminist icon.
Although Lansbury plays the difficult and bad-tempered Aunt March in the BBC production, she has much in common with the younger protagonist. Lansbury’s family were similarly broadminded – “my entire life was an open door” – and the early tragedy of her father’s terminal stomach cancer made her fearless when the whole family, including her younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, relocated to the US.
“I can’t say that I was homesick,” she recalls. “It was a huge adventure… those were dramatic times. Can you imagine, coming to America, with the World’s Fair on, and we were greeted by the American people with such incredible warmth and friendliness? My mother also happened to be getting out of an unfortunate love affair [to Scotsman Leckie Forbes, a former British Army colonel] and was very happy to be leaving England, for that reason. So, here we were, with a chance for a new beginning.”
After moving to Los Angeles, Lansbury landed a job as a sales clerk at the Bullocks Wilshire department store. But she auditioned relentlessly, and it wasn’t long before she graduated from wrapping Christmas gifts to a contract at MGM, which led to a nomination for best supporting actress at the 1945 Academy Awards, for Gaslight, and again the year after, for The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The following years, however, proved frustrating, as she often found herself cast in roles far older than her real age. “I wasted about ten years of my early professional life doing some pretty rough movies,” she says, with a low chuckle. “Things like Tenth Avenue Angel…” – she makes a face – “that was a low point, yes.”
Like Jo March, Lansbury also found comfort in a man 15 years her senior, Richard Cromwell, who had starred with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in Jezebel. They married at a small civil ceremony in 1945.
“I understand younger women marrying older men,” says Lansbury. “It’s a father – she didn’t have the father, and now she’s looking for it.”
The relationship, however, was doomed before it even began, and they had divorced within a year. “I had no idea that I was marrying a gay man,” she says, addressing a subject that for decades remained off limits. “I found him such an attractive individual, a very glamorous person – he knew everybody, he was a friend of Joan Crawford’s, these people who I was fascinated by as a young actress. And he wanted to marry, he was fascinated with me, but only because of what he had seen on the screen, really.”
Does she regret being so naive? “Listen,” she says, “it didn’t injure or damage me in any way, because he maintained a friendship with me and my future husband. But it was a shock to me when it ended, I wasn’t prepared for that. He simply couldn’t continue – he just left. It was just a terrible error I made as a very young woman. But I don’t regret it, and I’m sorry for the sadness that it caused him down the road… [when] he realised he couldn’t fulfil his function.”
Soon afterwards, Lansbury met her second husband, Peter Shaw, an English actor and producer who had moved to the US after serving in the British Army during the war. They remained together until his death from heart failure in 2003, at the age of 84.
Lansbury says she didn’t suffer any harassment or abuse from male executives during her early years – a phenomenon that has recently been recounted by many women who work or have worked in the entertainment industry – suggesting that such behaviour may have been institutionalised by Hollywood in a later, less chivalrous era.
Indeed, she argues, unfashionably, that women have played their own role in defining themselves as sex objects.
“There are two sides to this coin,” she says. “We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us – and this is where we are today. We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that. Although it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped.”
She isn’t suggesting that fault lies with individual victims: “Should women be prepared for this? No, they shouldn’t have to be! There’s no excuse for that. And I think it will stop now – it will have to. I think a lot of men must be very worried at this point.”
For Lansbury, any pain caused by her life in Hollywood was mostly a result of her children, Anthony and Deidre, becoming addicted to drugs, including heroin, in the 1960s. Worse, living in Malibu, Deidre had become involved with some members of the Manson Family, the cult that murdered the actress Sharon Tate and eight others.
“Everybody knew about Charles Manson – the family were living up there in the hills, you couldn’t be a resident and not know,” she recalls. “God, that was a terrible period.”
When their house burned down in 1970, Lansbury used it as an excuse to move her entire family to Cork, in Ireland, where she had holidayed as a child. (Her mother, Moyna MacGill, was from Belfast.)
Everybody, including the teenage children, had to learn how to cook and tend to the garden and live in relative obscurity. They stayed there for a decade, with Lansbury turning down Hollywood jobs, taking theatre roles in London instead. (She has won five Tonys, plus a recent Olivier Award for her 2015 turn in Blithe Spirit.)
To this day, while Britain no longer feels like home, with her roots planted so firmly in Los Angeles, she still owns a house in Ballycotton in Cork, which she visits once a year. It was Murder, She Wrote – one of the longest-running and most profitable television franchises in history – that brought Lansbury back to LA.
Her husband, Peter, and stepson, David, were producers of the show, and her son, Anthony, a director. Indeed, Lansbury at one point took ownership of the franchise, only to sell it years later – a move that she now regrets. Nevertheless, the show helped Lansbury amass a fortune that has been estimated at more than £50 million.
Every year during the show’s run, Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy, but never won, a snub that remains a sore point, perhaps because it reminds her that her talents were never fully recognised or utilised by Hollywood.
“It p***ed me off!” she roars. “Because I just didn’t add up at all in Hollywood. Everywhere else in the US, Murder, She Wrote was huge, but not in Hollywood – no, no, no, they didn’t want to know. I wasn’t upset… well, I was upset, really. It rankled me. I can’t say it didn’t.”
Lansbury is surprised to learn that her first film – Gaslight, based on the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton – has enjoyed a renaissance of late, thanks to the term “gaslighting”, a reference to the technique of making a person question their own memory, perception and sanity. It was used during the Brexit vote and Trump campaign; one influential op-ed was entitled Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.
“Truthfully, I haven’t heard that term applied,” she admits. “Gaslighting. Really, well, I must start to use it!”
This brings us, inevitably, to the aforementioned subjects of Brexit and Trump. On the former, she says, “I can’t really have an opinion, but…” – she growls – “they should stay! By God, they should stay!”
As for Trump: “I am feeling the instability [since his election] tremendously. It’s very real. I think the whole world is in absolute uproar, I really feel that. Nothing is as it was. The world is too much with us, as Wordsworth said. I wish I could say that I was optimistic, but I’m not particularly, quite frankly.”
She pauses. Then, laughing: “How come we’re having a political discussion?” Meanwhile, although her professional life is slowing, she has already completed work on a new Disney movie, Mary Poppins Returns – starring Emily Blunt and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda – in which she plays the Balloon Lady, a character from the original PL Travers books.
Lansbury says there’s no particular secret to maintaining such youthfulness well into her tenth decade – an achievement made all the more remarkable by her avoidance of cosmetic surgery, and a defiantly un-LA diet. (“I’m very English in my eating habits. I love a baked potato, that’s my absolute fave. And bacon and eggs. And sausages – yes!”)
“It’s genetics,” she explains, matter-of-factly. “It really is, absolute genetics, yes. I give a lot of credit to my grandfather George, actually, who had tremendous energy and stayed on top of everything until the end of his life. I walk and keep moving a lot, by choice. I do sometimes find myself sitting and reading and knitting and such things – and I fault myself for doing too much of that.”
With that, she straightens her shoulders and clenches her fist – as determined now as she was when she stepped off the Duchess of Atholl, 77 years ago: “You’ve just got to get up – and get on with it, y’know?”
Little Women will air across three nights on BBC1: on Tuesday 26th December and Wednesday 27th December it will begin at 8pm and on Thursday 28th December it will be broadcast at 8:30pm.