Who was Angela Lansbury in Gaslight? Debut role got her an Oscar nod

Alexandra Ciufudean October 12, 2022
Who was Angela Lansbury in Gaslight? Debut role got her an Oscar nod
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

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Angela Lansbury, best known for playing novelist-turned-detective Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, made her debut in a very different role. The late actress appeared in 1944’s Gaslight which earned her an Oscar nomination while she was still a teen.

The children of Dame Angela Lansbury announced her death in a statement released to the press on Tuesday. She was 96.

But as a newcomer to Hollywood and to America, the actress’s first ever role was in the 1944 George Cukor film Gaslight, where she played a cunning housemaid who helps her employer drive his wife mad.

Looking back on it in interviews, Lansbury admitted she “really didn’t know what [she] was doing” or where she had the “experience” to portray such a manipulative, worldly character while still a teenager.

Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

Who was Angela Lansbury in Gaslight? How old was she at the time?

Lansbury played Gaslight’s Nancy Oliver, a cunning and ambitious maid determined to improve her status at any cost. The role netted her a seven-year contract with MGM and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Nancy is hired by the film’s villain, Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer) and takes part in his plan to manipulate his wife, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman), into believing she is losing her mind. Nancy openly flirts with Anton in front of Paula, makes suggestive jokes and speaks to her employers with disdain, all of which add to Paula’s mounting paranoia.

The character is a far remove from the kindly Jessica Fletcher, the role Lansbury would later become associated with in the public’s imagination.

Nancy Oliver is crass, manipulative and forms an unlikely bond with the despicable Anton purely because she sees him as a kindred spirit.

Lansbury was just 17 years old while filming Gaslight. In fact, she had to be accompanied by a social worker on set, and shooting a number of scenes had to be delayed until she turned of age.

Nancy Oliver ‘was a naughty, rather dirty girl’

In a 2000 interview with NPR, the actress opened up about what her on-set experience was like. “[Director George Cukor] felt that [Lansbury’s character in Gaslight, Nancy] was a naughty, rather dirty girl, and that was the way he saw her,” she remembered.

“He felt she was – and when I gave him that, he thought it was terribly funny. And he encouraged me to be this snotty, cocky little person who was able to dominate [castmate] Charles Boyer with inference.”

Because of Lansbury’s age, scenes where Nancy is smoking had to be put off. Finally, when she turned 18 during filming, she was able to take a cigarette pack out of her purse, light one and smoke it. “I hadn’t been able to let on,” she added, “that I had been smoking from the time I was, really, about 14 years old.”

In the scene where her character, Nancy, smokes a “rather long Cigarettello”, Lansbury explained, “they only let me puff it. And I wasn’t allowed to inhale.”

Other provisions were also made on account of Lansbury’s young age, such as the fact that her castmates, Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, refrained from swearing in front of her.

“Of course the director was the great George Cukor and his language was really ripe and rare and marvelous,” she later said in an interview with David Letterman. “They literally covered my ears.”

Her debut role in Gaslight earned her an Oscar nod at 18

In the same NPR interview, Angela Lansbury recalled turning 18 on-set of Gaslight, and how the star-powered cast celebrated her.

“I always remember it because Ingrid and Charles and George Cukor were so wonderfully kind,” she said.

“And Ingrid gave me lovely bottles of Strategy, which was a lovely, smelly cologne, which – I’d never had anything as lovely as that – and powder, you know, sort of talcum powder and things that, you know, set. I always remember that.”

Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

The role in Gaslight and the one that followed – Sibyl Vane in The Portrait Of Dorian Grey – earned the young actress two consecutive Oscar nominations right out the gate. Not winning, though, was a blessing to young Angela Lansbury’s career.

“I’ve often felt that earning an Academy Award too early is a deterrent,” she told The New York Times in a 2010 interview. “You don’t know what to do next.”

Fans remember Lansbury’s iconic role with masterclass in gaslighting

The title of the film would later take on a life of its own, as a term depicting manipulation based on a sharp imbalance of power, where one’s sense of self, and ability to trust their own perception, are systematically undermined.

In Gaslight, Anton’s attempts to distort his wife’s perception of reality include tampering with the gas lamps in the house and convincing her that the flickering she notices is all in her own head.

Nowadays, the term is becoming overused, especially in online spaces, to cover everything from run-of-the-mill lying to annoying, if innocent, behaviors.

Angela Lansbury fans, however, have gaslighting down pat – as they demonstrate in these tongue-in-cheek tributes to the late actress.

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Alexandra Ciufudean is the Head of Entertainment at The Focus where she manages a growing team of outstanding writers. On a day-to-day basis, she hunts for the latest in online trends and keeps her finger on the pulse of US culture, politics, and celebs. Alexandra helped launch The Focus in 2020 and developed the site into an expert online news source. A language nerd through and through, she boasts 5 years of experience as an editor, writer, and content specialist across web, video, and social platforms, and a master's degree in Comparative Literature.