Angela Lansbury was a boundlessly versatile performer, with a decades-long career filled with roles that played to her many strengths. She was a chilling villain in The Manchurian Candidate, a flighty and flirty accomplice to the psychological torment of Gaslight, and a winsome tavern singer in The Picture of Dorian Gray, earning an Oscar nomination for each role. She played a kindly grandmother figure in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; a much more sinister one in The Company of Wolves; the slyly meddlesome amateur sleuth of Murder, She Wrote; and the cheerfully resourceful (if murderous and insane) Mrs. Lovett of Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece Sweeney Todd. A jury could debate for weeks over her greatest part and fail to arrive at a definitive answer.
But when I heard the news of her death at the age of 96 yesterday, one film immediately came to mind: Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the 1971 Disney movie that served as a spiritual sequel of sorts to the 1964 smash hit Mary Poppins. Released to mixed reviews, it was at best a modest success, but I watched it constantly on VHS as a child. Lansbury might’ve been one of the first actors I could immediately recognize. On rewatch, it’s certainly a strange hodgepodge of a children’s film, but it succeeds on the back of Lansbury’s unique charm: She’s steely but somehow warm, playing an oddball who’s nonetheless instantly lovable.
When Lansbury accepted the lead in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she was almost three decades into a storied film career that had already yielded multiple Academy Award nominations. She was also an established theater star who’d won Tonys for her lead roles in Mame and Dear World. But despite her track record, she was already starting to be typecast in dull supporting roles by Hollywood. Lansbury noted that she was being prematurely aged on screen, playing roles such as Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii despite being just 10 years older than him. “I must stop playing bitches on wheels—and people’s mothers,” she joked. “One of these days I’d like to get my hands on a part in which I can hit many chords.”
Bedknobs and Broomsticks drew on her experience as a Broadway marquee idol; the role was initially offered to Julie Andrews, who dithered over accepting (possibly because of the film’s similarity to Mary Poppins). Lansbury proved to be the right casting choice; she could better essay the flintiness of Eglantine Price, a reclusive aspiring witch living in World War II–era Britain. Asked to take in three orphaned children, she’s reluctant at first but quickly bonds with them over their love of the magical arts she’s still learning. Eventually, they link up with the con artist Emelius Browne (played by David Tomlinson), and through use of an enchanted bedknob, they visit other dimensions, rob a cartoon lion, and do battle with invading Nazis using witchcraft.
Look—I never said the film was Shakespeare. But part of what made Lansbury such an exquisite performer was her commitment to utter silliness, a skill she evinced again later with frothy pablum such as Murder, She Wrote. Eglantine Price is a surprisingly complex character for a kids’ film laden with special effects and animated sequences: She’s frosty and resistant to intimacy, but not written off as a sad spinster or a dotty loner. Lansbury makes her both funny and sympathetic, giving a fantastical, high-energy movie some needed emotional grounding.
That’s likely why her career survived so many transformations over the years across the film, theater, and television industries; after all, no other actor from Gaslight ended up starring in a video game. Lansbury was quick to joke about the narrow pathways Hollywood found for her in her prime, but she also kept evolving past them, enduring decade after decade and resonating with different generations in different ways. I adored much about her career, but the news of her passing took me right back to my beginning with her. In revisiting Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I found even more to love.