OPINION: Angela Lansbury: Star of stage and screen and gay icon

by Ash Kotak | AIDS Memory UK
Wednesday, 12 October 2022 13:31 GMT

Actress Angela Lansbury, who voiced the character of Mrs. Potts, poses as she arrives for the 25th anniversary celebration of "Beauty and the Beast" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, U.S., May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

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From ‘Murder She Wrote’ to Broadway musicals, Lansbury’s acting career spanned almost 80 years. But she will also be remembered for raising millions in the fight against HIV/AIDS

Ash Kotak is artistic director of #AIDSMemoryUK - the campaign to establish The AIDS Memorial in central London. He is also a playwright.

Hollywood legend Angela Lansbury, star of the stage and screen, AIDS campaigner and gay icon has died at the age of 96. Reports suggest she died in her sleep.

There was a natural empathic, realness to Lansbury who found early B-list stardom in the bygone era of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress in “Gaslight” (1944), her first movie role, directed by gay director George Cukor.

She went on to co-star in “National Velvet” (1944) alongside Elizabeth Taylor. The 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” earned her a second Academy Award nomination and the first of 10 Golden Globes. The following year, she played her first American character in the Oscar-winning musical “The Harvey Girls” (1946), starring Judy Garland.

But it was the Broadway musical “Mame” (1966) that moved her to the A-list, won her first Tony (of five) and brought a loyal gay following. Lansbury had actively sought the role knowing it would show her strengths. Her character, the giddy, unconventional, charismatic socialite, Mame Dennis, had 10 songs to sing and more than 20 costume changes. Lansbury was 41 years old, and it was her first starring role on Broadway.

The LGBTQ+ community had found their goddess and she cemented her gay icon status with Broadway roles in stage musicals “Gypsy” (1973-75) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979-1981).

Her most famous role, as Jessica Fletcher, in “Murder She Wrote” (1984-96) brought her greater fame – and riches – with her campy performance of the shrewd mystery writer turned detective spawning a million drag queens.

“Solve-Along-A-Murder-She-Wrote”, in which the audience interacts with an episode to uncover the murderer, has since become a cult hit in queer bars in the UK.

Lansbury herself recognised her gay fans. In 2009, during a revival of the Noel Coward play, “Blithe Spirit”, she declared herself a “proud gay icon”.#

Born in London, her grandfather, George, was a socialist reformer who became leader of the Labour Party in 1932. Her mother, Moyna MacGill, was an actress whilst her father Edward Lansbury was a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He died when she was nine.

At 15, soon after the onset of World War II the family escaped the Blitz and moved to the United States in 1940, first settling in New York and then moving to Los Angeles in 1942.

Her naivity was tested when aged 19 she unwittingly married a gay actor, Richard Cromwell. They separated nine months later but stayed friends until he died in 1960. She married fellow English expat actor, Peter Shaw in late 1946. They had two children and remained a couple until Shaw died in 2003.

In 2014, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to the theatre and her successful fundraising for HIV/AIDS research.

AIDS hit the creative community early on, including her own circle. Lansbury, with her lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor, responded whilst President Ronald Reagan stayed silent. The two actors spoke out in support of gay men and together raised millions for AIDS research.

She appeared in a 1995 AIDS Facts for Life commercial demanding that Americans “get the facts”. In 1996, just when new life-saving drugs changed HIV to a manageable chronic condition, Lansbury was honoured for her remarkable acting career and AIDS fundraising at an event that itself raised more than a million dollars for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

She was presented with the AmFAR Award of Distinction. The inscription reads: "To Angela Lansbury, for her courageous spirit and selfless commitment in the fight against AIDS."

Her emotional,10-minute acceptance speech sparked a standing ovation. "Never give up on the fight until the war is won,” Lansbury told the audience. “And we will win!"

Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury DBE (16 October 1925 – 11 October 2022)

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