Friday, October 14, 2022

Angela Lansbury Gives a Performance for the Ages in The Picture of Dorian Gray

                On hearing of the recent passing of one of brightest lights of stage, film and television, the remarkably versatile Angela Lansbury, key images from her illustrious screen career came to mind: her legendary, take-no-prisoners villainess in The Manchurian Candidate; her equally impressive and very moving work in All Fall Down; showing a sly sexuality and impressive maturity in her film debut, Gaslight; bringing a sweet, breezy good-naturedness to The Long Hot Summer as Orson Welles’ loyal mistress; and stealing the show from a cast of heavyweights as a florid, woozy vamp in Death on the Nile. However, the first Lansbury role I visualized after hearing the sad news of her death, and the choice I’d make if I could only take a single performance of this legendary talent with me to a desert island, is her deeply felt portrayal of the lovely, fragile Sibyl Vane in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM’s tip-top adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic 1890 tale of the supernatural detailing the evil that men do, particularly in the case of the said title character.

              As an early target of the central figure’s affections, the lushly beautiful Lansbury is introduced singing the plaintive “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” at “The Two Turtles” bar/music hall, and completely awes both Dorian and the audience with her dreamy, lilting delivery of the melancholy tune. Already a skilled, intelligent performer in only her second year in movies, with an adept understanding of the subtleties involved in film acting, there’s a wonderful openness and naturalness to Lansbury’s playing that accentuates an emotional vulnerability seldom seen in her other roles, wherein she often played tough, wise-beyond-her-years characters (see her dance hall hostess in the following year’s The Harvey Girls), when not flat-out playing mature matrons, which she started doing at about 20 (check out Lansbury circa age 23 staying toe-to-toe with Hepburn and Tracy in 1948’s State of the Union for one impressive example of Lansbury’s fierce confidence on screen, as no one’s typical ingénue). In perhaps her most compassionate role, Lansbury looms large as Gray’s most human element, and the warmth and gentleness she conveys linger throughout the movie.

            Sibyl may deem Dorian her perfect “Sir Tristan” (inaccurately, once his nefarious nature is exposed), but she truly represents Dorian’s ideal mate and his best chance at happiness, and the point of no return for him once he decides to test her worthiness, as his life becomes extremely wayward once the loving, loyal Sibyl is gone from it. From Sibyl’s first scene, Lansbury does a vivid job illustrating the character’s romantic, shy nature and naiveté, while also demonstrating an undercurrent of emotional depth and sadness that makes a viewer feel very protective towards Sibyl; Lansbury’s great affinity with Sibyl finds the audience wanting to do anything to help her get away from Dorian and his hard nature as his chilling egomania becomes more evident. During her showcase moment singing “Yellow Bird,” Lansbury radiates a goodness and purity rarely seen on screen, making it clear Dorian’s initial reaction to and adoration for her as a very special ladylove is well-earned, with her radiance also pointing up just how cold and lurid Dorian ‘s subsequent actions will become. As Pauline Kael explains while praising Lansbury’s work as possibly her best on film, “When she sings “Little Yellow Bird” in a pure, sweet voice, the viewer grasps that the man who would destroy this girl really is evil.”

           Although a plethora of outstanding performances followed Lansbury’s sensitive work as Sibyl Vane, the manner in which Lansbury details the innocent girl’s plight with grace, nuance and a great understanding of her character’s every mood makes her appearance in Gray the screen role that looms largest in one fan’s memory, at least. Upon release Lansbury’s standout portrayal also received wide acclaim, giving her another boost in an already burgeoning early career, as Lansbury had one of the most impressive starts in the movies, with her first three films bringing her two Oscar nods (for her Gaslight debut, then the following year for Gray, which also gained Lansbury her first Golden Globe award, while the third movie in-between was a little horse opera called National Velvet). Truly a pro right out of the gate, despite limited professional experience prior to Gaslight, Lansbury was a natural who demonstrated an awesome capacity to play in any type of role or genre, and of course made good on her early promise at least tenfold throughout eight auspicious decades in the business. R.I.P., dear lady.

                As for the rest of Gray, although it sometimes is criticized as being too tame an adaptation of Wilde’s novel due to the restrictive Production Code of the era, I’ve always thought writer/director Albert Lewin does a great job suggesting Dorian’s debaucheries, which allows the imagination to reel more than if the mature themes were explicitly laid out for a viewer. Concerning the film’s most explicit and famous image, seeing the horrific “after” portrait of Dorian in a couple of the few color shots in the film (with the beautiful, lush Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography by Harry Stradling showcased the rest of the time), one is hard-pressed to think exactly what evil actions would lead to someone ending up looking like this (the painting by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright is on display at the Art Institute in Chicago, and seeing it face-to-face, the queasy impact of the disturbing imagery remains as potent as it was when first seen in the film). Lewin maintains a deliberately tranquil mood throughout much of the film, which is expertly narrated by the Cedric Hardwicke in a sophisticated, calm-yet-foreboding manner, so when jolts such as the portrait reveal do come, the shock value is intensified in a highly disturbing manner.

           Hurd Hatfield is notably restrained and glacial as Dorian, and the still contenance he consistently displays offers plenty of intrigue to the viewer, as one can see this detached, impossible-to-read version of Dorian getting away with murder and who knows what else, while constantly remaining what seemingly appears to be the embodiment of a perfect gentlemen, abet one with an unusual knack for defying age regardless of how many years pass by. The lack of emotion the controlled Hatfield sustains helps keep the role believable for a modern audience, as the serene young star shows no signs of overplaying in his scenes, allowing audiences to read their individual notions into what factors determine Dorian’s ignoble character and his immoral actions, as through his placid performance Hatfield ensures Dorian reveals little of his sordid life choices to those he encounters.

As Gray’s equally unprincipled ally, Lord Henry Wotton, the casual-yet-acerbic George Sanders so perfectly suits the role in manner and voice, and he offers many of the movie’s best and most caustic lines with such a beguiling dry wit, that the viewer is drawn to this entertaining rouge, even if one should hate him as Lord Henry proves to be the primary influence encouraging Gray to live a decadent life free of virtue. Among the rest of the top-notch cast, the earnest Lowell Gilmore makes a strong impression as Basil Hallward, the friend and moral counterpoint to Gray, who is responsible for the title portrait, while Douglas Walton makes a brief, compelling appearance as Allen Campbell, a former and current victim of Dorian’s attentions, in a scene that, in as clear of terms as the Code would allow, suggests a one-time homosexual alliance existed between the two. Donna Reed and Peter Lawford are both charming and extremely photogenic in early roles, while Reginald Owen and Lansbury’s mother, Monya Macgill, are both seen fleetingly to good effect.

Upon its release in early 1945, The Picture of Dorian Gray met with decent box-office returns and lukewarm critical reaction, with some clearly preferring the book to its handsomely-mounted screen adaptation. However, along with Lansbury’s essential contribution and Stradling’s evocative cinematography, praise was afforded the aforementioned portrait by Lorraine Albright and the contrasting one of the young, beatific Dorian by Henrique Medina, and the Oscar-nominated set designs by John Bonar, Cedric Gibbons, Hugh Hunt, Hans Peters and Edwin B. Willis, which perfectly capture the appropriate time-and-place of late-1800’s London. Over the decades since its release, Dorian Gray has been introduced to new audiences via television, VHS, DVD and more recently in a fine Blu-ray release by Warner Archive (which includes a marvelous audio commentary by Lansbury and Steve Haberman) and has found favor with many as a class A production making an honest attempt to do right by Wilde’s source material. Aside from other merits, Lansbury’s singular work guarantees that, in a manner similar to Dorian versus his portrait, despite any dated elements the film might now carry, in the form of Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane, The Picture of Dorian Gray will persist in maintaining a beguiling sense of freshness and beauty, no matter its age.

        I witnessed little of Lansbury’s stage work, outside of listening to the Mame original cast recording often, specifically “We Need a Little Christmas,” which of course is still heard annually, and watching her ingenious rendition of “The Worst Pies in London,” from Sweeney Todd via the 1982 lensing of the 1978 Broadway hit. However, although with seeing Lansbury give a delightful interview with Robert Osborne prior to a showing of “Gaslight” at a TCM Festival (her mention of how she and her mother mulled over the best way to “spend the dough” once MGM abruptly changed her fortunes was a highlight), I was also fortunate to catch Ms. Lansbury in one of her final stage triumphs, when she recreated her Tony-winning role in Blithe Spirit in an L.A. production shortly after the Broadway run of the play. As the zany Madame Arcati, a well-in-her-eighties Lansbury amusingly swooped around the stage with the aplomb and skill of a veteran, five-time Tony winning star, exhibiting a terrific, enchanting energy and love for acting that remained undimmed in her seventh decade of performing. She made every move and laugh look easy, but it was clear the audience was witnessing a dedication and talent rarely seen in the Arts, and of course the ovation and cheers she received at the curtain call were resounding and well-earned, as they always were throughout her rich, unequaled career. As a fan I sent her an autograph request afterwards, and she graciously replied with a signed photo I treasure. R.I.P., dear Ms. Lansbury.

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