Saturday, August 26, 2006

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

When Lansbury first barrels onto the tarmac in "Manchurian Candidate", one might think "Oh, no! Too broad! Too broad!". But the actress is in total control of her arsenal and very quickly it's obvious she's operating with hair-trigger precision. Her Bo-Peep scene with John McGiver is a stunner. Lansbury knows just when to lower the emotional drawbridge, then slam it shut again. And, of course, therre's the final extended scene with Raymond - an exponential explosion of dramatic complexity. It's here that an already mesmerizing performance lifts off and soars into the stratosphere. I can't even write about it without wanting to watch it again right away. In the DVD commentary, John Frankenheimer mentions that Sinatra was initially determined to cast Lucille Ball in the role. Hearing that, I suddenly felt that sometime in 1962, the planet had managed to dodge one hell of a killer asteroid. Thank God Lansbury got to play the role she was born for!


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Love Lansbury, but a cast-against-type Ball actually might have been interesting, too. She played in all kinds of films before hitting the jackpot as a zany redhead, and had proven herself a capable pro, regardless of genre. I think she would've probably "got" the fact her signature wackiness wass unsuitable for Raymond's mother, and could've handled the role in fine fashion (also, offscreen Ball was considered a tough customer).

CanadianKen said...

It would be interesting to know if the plan to cast Ball ever reached the stage where she was actually approached. And, if so, whether there was any real interest on her part.
It would have been risky. A villainous role in a potentially controversial project. And I think, in the end, even if she were interested, she would have nixed it, preferring not to gamble with her hard-won status as a beloved icon.
No doubt Ball WAS shrewd and gutsy. And Sinatra presumably knew this first-hand. I suspect insiders were probably fascinated by the disparity between the innocent TV Lucy and the canny, hard-nosed pro behind the scenes.
I'm of two minds where Ball's concerned. I think her Lucy Ricardo is a wonderful creation. A miracle really. All the elements converged to make it work. The scripts, the co-stars, her personal stake in it, her time of life - not to mention, the excitement and challenge of TV's early days. All these things helped provide Ball with the perfect outlet for her unique talent.
With Lucy Ricardo, she emerged as a great artist. But I firmly believe that that role defined the parameters of her greatness. I do love THAT Lucy. But I've never enjoyed anything she did before or after. And that takes in a lot of territory. For me, there was just no delicacy or nuance in her movie work. Her approach always reminded me of a prize-fighter jabbing at a punching bag. In a bit like the one she has in "Follow the Fleet", her lines come off as bitter rather than funny. "The Big Street" requires more than just meanness. But that's all she brings to it. When she's used purely as a showgirl ("Roberta","Ziegfeld Follies") she's statuesque, true. But overdoes the snooty look. In "Easy to Wed", she's too noisy and misses the sympathetic possibilities in the part. A hundred other 40's actresses could have brought more warmth and spontanaity to "The Dark Corner". To me, it's no surprise that during her long, long apprenticeship, there was no great positive response from the public. It took "I Love Lucy" to make her a bona fide star. Drama wasn't her forte. Nor musicals. In fact, most types of copmedy weren't either. Lucy Ricardo was her forte. As for her post-Ricardo career, well it wasn't much fun watching Lucy Carmichael, increasingly brittle and mechanical as the seasons marched on. Movie-wise, "The Facts of Life" and "Yours, Mine and Ours" made money and were liked in their day. But they haven't aged well. And Ball's no great shakes in them.
I just don't think she had the range or dramatic weight for "The Manchurian Candidate". A formidable lady, no doubt. An admirable one,too, I suspect - with plenty of grit and integrity. And in the one role she was born to play - a genius. But Mrs. Iselin, no.

P.S. If Ball really did want the role and lost out to Lansbury, then, presumably, she got some sort of satisfaction when she eventually snagged the movie version of Lansbury's biggest stage triumph, "Mame". Not, by the way, a Lucille Ball performance that would make me change my tune.

Vertigo's Psycho said...
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Vertigo's Psycho said...

Watching Ball in something like 1937's Stage Door, 1945's Without Love (wherein she easily holds her own with Tracy and Hepburn; it's possibly her finest pre-I Love Lucy comedy performance) or 1949's Sorrowful Jones and Miss Grant Takes Richmond (she matches up perfectly with costars Bob Hope and William Holden, respectively), makes it hard for me to agree with your pre-1950's assessment of her overall onscreen abilities. Certainly Ball was never a superstar prior to Lucy, but she wasn't inept on the big screen, either; she kept a film career going for 15 years before television immortalized her and, unlike many 1930's and 1940's contract players, her work hasn't dated much- in the majority of the Ball roles that I've seen (and I don't count a walkon part in something like Roberta or Top Hat for or against her, as who's become a star doing a throwaway bit? I think Door was possibly the first real opportunity Ball had to make an impression in a substantial role), Ball comes across as natural, believable, and perfectly capable of handling any material thrown her way. I think the problem was the scripts- Ball didn't have too many great parts come her way prior to Lucy.

Fortunately, we can definitely concur regarding Mame- I've never been able to sit through it, and I weep for Lansbury's lost opportunity.

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CanadianKen said...

Karan, thanks for your kind comment. As you can see, it's been years since I wrote this post. Glad to see someone is still getting some enjoyment from it.

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