Seven times Angela Lansbury proved herself a fierce gay ally and icon
Angela Lansbury, star of Murder, She Wrote and the “first lady of musical theatre” has died aged 96.
Born in 1925, Lansbury made a name for herself as an MGM actor in the 1940s before she dominated the stage in Mame and other musicals.
Throughout her life, Lansbury firmly cemented her status as a gay icon. She was a tireless AIDS activist who raised millions for the cause, and brought to life some of the most iconic roles in film, television and Broadway history.
As the world reflects on Lansbury’s extraordinary life, we take a look at seven times she proved she was the ultimate gay icon.
1. Angela Lansbury had gay friends – and even a gay husband – in a very different era
It won’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who watched Angela Lansbury’s career that she was close with her fair share of gay men throughout her life.
Early in her career, when she first moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, Lansbury became friends with a group of gay men, and became involved in the city’s underground gay scene.
It was the 1940s and public attitudes to gay people were not kind – but Lansbury didn’t care.
In 1945, she followed what is essentially a rite of passage of every gay icon – she married a gay man. Her marriage to Richard Cromwell lasted less than a year, but they remained friends until his death.
2. She slapped Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls
One of Lansbury’s early career highlights came when she took on the role of Judy Garland’s nemesis in The Harvey Girls.
It was just Lansbury’s fourth film role, but she left her mark when she slapped Garland in the face in one famous scene.
Sadly, that was the only time the two gay icons appeared on screen together – both of their careers at MGM, under Hollywood’s studio system, were relatively short lived.
Speaking to Vanity Fair about her time at MGM, Lansbury said: “We called it the factory… I was a utility actress, as far as MGM was concerned. They could put me into almost any role, and I would act it.”
3. Angela Lansbury bounced back in the best way when her career stalled
Lansbury had a decades-spanning career, and it was inevitable there were going to be times the work wasn’t exactly rolling in.
One of those moments came after she left MGM in 1952. She parted ways with the studio because she was unhappy with the roles she was being given, and that same year, she gave birth to her son Anthony.
What followed was “an all-time low” for her career, as one biographer described it. She struggled to get meaningful work and took on roles in east-coast touring productions of two Broadway plays.
But Lansbury, ever the icon, bounced back spectacularly, proving that she wouldn’t be cowed by Hollywood’s ingrained sexism. She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and built a career as a freelance actress. By the late 1950s, she was a star on the rise once more.
4. Her Broadway career is the stuff of legend
In 1957, Lansbury made her Broadway debut in Hotel Paradiso. The musical ran for a disappointing 15 weeks, but it started her on a new path. She later declared that her “whole career would have fizzled out” without that role.
Over the course of her Broadway career, Lansbury won five Tonys, and she took on what are now considered some of the most iconic musical theatre roles of all time.
She starred in Gypsy and Sweeney Todd, but there was one role in particular that truly cemented her status as both a gay icon and as a legend of the stage.
5. Angela Lansbury originated the title role in Mame
Angela Lansbury originated the title role in Mame on Broadway, and it catapulted her into a new era in her career.
There was some surprise in the press in 1966 when Lansbury landed the role in the hotly-anticipated Broadway musical. At the time, she wasn’t exactly the biggest name.
Aged 41, Mame became Lansbury’s first starring role – and she wowed critics and audiences alike. She won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance, and the role made her a “superstar”, according to one of her biographers.
It was also with Mame that Lansbury became a much-loved gay icon. The character had already been popular in the gay community because of the non-musical film Auntie Mame, which meant that queer folk flocked to see Lansbury in the role.
To this day, Mame remains hugely popular with gay audiences.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I am a gay icon,” Lansbury declared at the age of 88.
“It’s because of the role I played in Mame. She was just every gay person’s idea of glamour. Everything about Mame coincided with every young man’s idea of beauty and glory and it was lovely.”
6. Murder, She Wrote breathed new life into Lansbury’s career
By the time 1983 rolled around, Lansbury had an extraordinary career on film and on the stage behind her. It was then that she turned to television with the legendary role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.
Murder, She Wrote launched when Lansbury was almost 60 and it ran for 12 seasons. Her fictional detective character immediately became one of television’s most widely loved figures, and it helped her amass an even bigger gay following.
Lansbury was fiercely protective of her character, and she resisted efforts by the network to put her in a romantic relationship. The series proved particularly popular with older people, and it has an enormous cultural legacy to this day.
By the time the show bowed out, Lansbury was an executive producer, proving once again that she was always ready to take on new challenges.
7. She raised money for AIDS charities
During the worst years of the AIDS crisis, Angela Lansbury was a staple at AIDS benefits, helping raise millions of dollars to fund AIDS research & patient care. "This illness is robbing us of our friends and our futures. This disease knows no discrimination." https://t.co/6jUwswZ2eT pic.twitter.com/rMMaoIEG35
— Eric Gonzaba (@EGonzaba) October 11, 2022
It should go without saying that Lansbury proved herself the ultimate ally during one of the queer community’s biggest moments of crisis – the AIDS epidemic.
During her lifetime, she raised more than £1 million for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organisation.
She was even given an award in 1996 for her AIDS activism. At that ceremony, she gave a speech in which she told the world it must “never give up on the fight until the war is won”.
Lansbury once ran an AIDS benefit which saw her sending Christmas cards to 10,000 supporters.
The card read: “During this holiday season, as you gather to celebrate with family and friends, it is important to give extra thought to those who are less fortunate. As you do, please remember Aid for AIDS.”
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