Angela Lansbury on ‘Manchurian Candidate’ and Elusive Film Stardom

Angela Lansbury in 'The Manchurian Candidate'

At a recent screening of The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury spoke about what she termed her “unrequited movie career.”

Lansbury, 85, told a packed audience that she’s an actress, not a movie star, and although she says she doesn’t regret it, she didn’t seem entirely happy about it, either.

“I know that I missed out on a few things that I would have liked to have played,” she wistfully reminisced. “I just never got to play the great roles, and I think I would have loved to have had a crack at some of them.”

The evening, however, was centered on one of Lansbury’s undeniably great roles, as Laurence Harvey’s evil mother in the 1962 Cold War thriller that also starred Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh. The New York screening was part of Turner Classic Movies’ “Road to Hollywood” series, a run-up to TCM’s Classic Film Festival, taking place through this weekend in Los Angeles.

It all started when TCM host Robert Osborne, in noting Lansbury’s wide range as an actress, pointed out that she could play Harvey’s mother when she was, in fact, not even three years older than he was.

Lansbury speaking with TCM's Robert Osborne in New York.

Although the performance – as one of the most reprehensible maternal figures ever depicted – brought her an Oscar nomination for supporting actress, it wasn’t at that time the kind of role that was likely to be a catapult to stardom.

But Lansbury wouldn’t let that stand in her way.

“I was pretty foolhardy,” she said. “I was more interested in acting, you see. I wanted to be an actress.”

“I always thought that you had one of the great, great careers in movies,” Osborne told her, “because one never knew where you were going to show up or what you were going to be doing.”

Lansbury countered by suggesting that her range as an actress might actually have been a liability for her in the movies.

“It sort of put me in a category that was very disappointing to me in the long run,” she responded. “I never really advanced in movies beyond The Manchurian Candidate.”

Being a great actress was at cross-purposes with being a star, she told the crowd.

Lansbury with Laurence Harvey in 'The Manchurian Candidate'

“The movies didn’t really know how to use me,” she said. “They weren’t used to having a real actress on board, and I’m sorry to say that that was to my detriment. It really slowed my upward rise as a film star, very much so.”

In movies, she said, her next biggest success was Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971.

“I had to go to the theater,” the London-born actress said, “to find the career that was going to give me the greatest satisfaction.”

On Broadway, she starred in Mame, for which she won the first of five Tony awards – she’s tied with Julie Harris for most wins ever.

Then, of course, there’s television. Lansbury is perhaps most well known for playing the crime-solving mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in 13 seasons of Murder, She Wrote.

There were moments during the evening, however, when Lansbury appeared to regret that she’d never been a full-blown movie star. Many in the audience, as well as host Osborne, just didn’t see it quite the same way she did.

“It’s so interesting that from your standpoint it wasn’t a great career, because as an observer, it seemed like a great career to me,” Osborne said.

“The whole idea in those days was to be a big box office star, to be Joan Crawford or Kate Hepburn, to have that kind of clout,” Lansbury responded. “And to also appeal to that huge, broad audience.”

Lansbury with 'Manchurian Candidate' director John Frankenheimer

Sure, she said, she had a “specific” audience that was interested in “what I was going to do next.”

“But I was not a star,” she continued. “I was a supporting actress, and a featured player, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being a featured player. Some of the best actresses around are featured players.”

Still, she wanted more: “I wanted it all, and I didn’t find it for myself.”

At the same time, she wanted everyone to know she’s not complaining about a movie career that’s spanned six decades, with more than 50 movies.

It’s not “sour grapes,” she said. “I had a great career – and I’m still out there doing it.”

Lansbury just finished filming Mr. Popper’s Penguins with Jim Carrey, which opens this summer.

“Keep your eyes open,” she said. “You’ll have to look fast to find me, but I am there.”

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Lansbury will be discussing her first movie role, in Gaslight, at a screening of the film at the TCM Classic Movie Festival in Los Angeles tonight.

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What’s your favorite Angela Lansbury role?

Lansbury discusses The Manchurian Candidate, with clips. Warning: there are spoilers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5Y0LT5NuB8

Lansbury discusses Gaslight (1940), with film clips:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFbKCggrxPs

Lansbury, with Bea Arthur, singing “Bosom Buddies” from Mame in 1983:

Lansbury in 1985 in Murder, She Wrote, singing “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird,” a song she first sang in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlp5m-2TKRk