There are a couple of days to go before Turner Classic Movies (TCM) begins its month-long extravaganza honoring the Oscars, but tonight the network is dedicating the evening to three of the four recipients of Honorary Awards presented last November by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In a six-film mini festival beginning at 8 pm (Est) the careers of Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Piero Tosi will be celebrated. Having recently re-watched what I believe is Angela Lansbury’s greatest role and performance, I thought I too would take a moment to pay her tribute.
Making her film debut in George Cukor’s, Gaslight in 1944 for which she received the first of her three Oscar nominations, Angela Lansbury has enjoyed a seven-decade career during which she’s left a definitive mark in all genre of film. In fact the second feature TCM is showing in her honor is George Sidney’s 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls, in which Lansbury is so convincing as Judy Garland’s rival that she was often hissed at by the public after the film’s release. (IMDB) However, it is the actress’ work in John Frankenheimer’s, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which TCM will open the evening with, that shines brightest in my opinion. This one is a performance for the ages.
In Candidate Lansbury plays Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin, arguably one of the most powerful and evil women to ever appear in a film. Mrs. Iselin is the mother of Raymond Shaw, a decorated war hero who is the central pawn in the political intrigue that’s central to the film’s plot. Eleanor is also the wife of senator, John Iselin. The life and future of both men, “her boys” meticulously planned and executed by Eleanor. The script of The Manchurian Candidate by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon, ensures the power and menace that are intrinsic in Eleanor simmer just under the surface throughout the entire film from the first moment we see her. Such is the power of the presence of Angela Lansbury in this movie – she’s present even when not on screen.
As the plot thickens (or clarifies depending on which way you look at it) Lansbury’s depiction of Eleanor Iselin by way of a relative few scenes simply blows everyone out of the water. True to Condon’s novel, Eleanor Iselin is the role that either makes or breaks the movie. Frank Sinatra who stars in the film and was instrumental in getting it made told of a conversation he had with his friend, President John F. Kennedy. When Sinatra mentioned to Kennedy that a film version of The Manchurian Candidate was in the works the President immediately asked, “Who’s playing the mother?”
Well, Lansbury delivers and then some – as I believe no one else could. She masters as puppet master, a woman with unfathomable power in a man’s world, setting forth plans for domination in a manner that’s both cold and passionate at once.
“I’ve always had a problem playing downright rotten women, but I felt this woman. Her crimes were so sub-level that I couldn’t find a reason not to play her. I gave it careful thought, went to Washington and studied that culture. (In the end) no one had to age me – it all had to do with how I carried myself, my general demeanor.”
Much has been said about the fact that Angela Lansbury was just a year older than Laurence Harvey who plays her son in the movie. However, even knowing that I don’t believe it – because she so truthfully delivers on what she mentioned in the above quote. She becomes this woman – The Queen of Diamonds – an extremely powerful force, her every word adhered to without question. Hers is a steady power maintained throughout the movie with a control that is so ingrained she delivers all – whether a command to a waiter while planning a social event or to a would-be assassin with whom she has an indelible bond – with the same power, clarity and precision. This woman was made to command and when her plan is ready for completion she delivers a guttural discourse that sends chills down your spine. Then, as we sit mesmerized by her at that moment she adds another layer to her already horrific plans with a subtle, yet potent gesture we watch in disbelief. Scary beyond words.
Angela Lansbury received a nomination for her performance in The Manchurian Candidate and lost to Patty Duke for her portrayal of Helen Keller in Arthur Penn’s, The Miracle Worker (1962). It’s difficult to argue Lansbury’s loss that year because Duke’s performance is great. However, time has served Lansbury and her performance honorably because I’d say hers is the more memorable of the two due in large part to the lasting relevance of The Manchurian Candidate. For all of its definitive ties to the era in which it was produced the possibility of the horrors portrayed in this film still terrify in our world today.
I’m purposefully not divulging any of the details of The Manchurian Candidate in case you haven’t seen it, although I can attest to the fact the film doesn’t lose its power in repeat viewings. It’s an intelligent film with complex intrigue, intense suspense that grabs you from the get-go. A definitive must-see!
It’s worth noting that aside from Angela Lansbury performance The Manchurian Candidate shows a very effective Frank Sinatra (as Marco) in my favorite of his performances/roles. Laurence Harvey is also wonderful as Raymond Shaw. The film is also shot beautifully, reminiscent of early live television dramas, which stands to reason since Frankenheimer had an extensive career on live television. The film features many shots wherein the action is framed and layered (the picture of the Congressional hearing above is a perfect example), as if in a stage production where we see the actors move about while the camera stays steady. And then there’s the editing, something I rarely comment on, but must be noted here because it’s extraordinary thanks to the talents of Ferris Webster. The “brainwashing” scene in particular is mind-blowing – a sequence that shifts from subjective to objective and back again with ease and clarity, a rather complex circumstance depicted seamlessly. Hypnotic!
So that’s it for now – why don’t you go play solitaire, stop when you see the Queen of Diamonds at which time you are to watch The Manchurian Candidate on TCM (tonight at 8pm).
Congratulations to Angela Lansbury and the other recipients for the honor bestowed upon them by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It is well overdo that Ms. Lansbury be recognized by the Academy for her wonderful work.