When I first watched Gaslight (1944), I was blown away by the standard of the performances overall. It is still my favourite Charles Boyer role, and I think that Ingrid Bergman really shows her capacity for exhaustive emotional depth in her portrayal of the beleaguered woman, desperate to not succumb to insanity. But I think that Angela Lansbury’s performance as the conniving, disrespectful and openly sexually mature young maid, who treats the lady of the house disparagingly and flirts with her husband in front of her, is my favourite performance of the film. That may seem like an odd thing to say. Her character is probably as unlikable as Charles Boyer’s, and almost as destructive, because she is complicit in his abuse of his wife. But what Angela Lansbury shows, is that she is one of the greatest actresses of her generation.
Like many, I grew up watching her in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Murder, She Wrote. For me, Angela Lansbury was like my gran: clever, witty and possessing of a lovely softness and twinkling eyes. She was never young to me. But when I watched Gaslight, I realised that she had had an entire career before she played either Miss Price or Jessica Fletcher. And she had also been beautiful, with light brown hair and large eyes, and a lovely mouth.
And she had not been afraid to play very different roles. The part of Nancy Oliver in Gaslight is entirely removed from Miss Price. She is of the working class, she is nasty and she is keenly ambitious, very much desiring of getting out of her current status and possibly becoming the second Mrs Gregory Anton. She has no loyalty to anyone. It is quite clear from the moment she is introduced that she likes Gregory because she sees him as a kindred spirit: manipulative to the extreme.
Not for one moment is Angela unconvincing in the role. Her entire demeanour is spot on throughout. The way she carries herself, the way she addresses Ingrid Bergman as if she is beneath her, even though it’s really the other way around in terms of social position; and the way she angles her body when she is in scenes with Charles Boyer.
Every scene the two of them are in is layered with a discomfiting sexual charge. Even though the viewer is desperate for Ingrid Bergman to escape, to realise the dark, sick truth about her husband, watching Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury interact is like watching a snake charming, hypnotic and dangerously fascinating.
Angela was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, her first, followed by a nod for her performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray the following year. It is staggering to think that at the time of filming Gaslight, Angela was only seventeen years old. She had secured the part after meeting the co-author of the film script, John Van Druten, who suggested her for the role. She had to be accompanied onset by a social worker, and was paid $500 per week and was signed to a seven year contract at MGM. And it’s not difficult to see why the studio decided to secure her services so smartly. Her performance as Nancy is absolutely incredible for a film debut. She does not make a wrong step throughout the film. While the 1940 version of Gaslight, starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard is excellent, Angela’s performance as Nancy completely outstrips Catherine Cordell’s in the same part. While Catherine isn’t at all bad in the role, there is just something far more compelling about Angela, something far more knowing and unsettling. The way she looks at Charles Boyer, as if she knows what he’s all about, what he’s doing to Ingrid Bergman, but that she doesn’t care, that she may have done similar things herself in the past, and enjoyed them, too.
I think that while Charles and Ingrid are brilliant together, there is something that always draws me more to Charles and Angela’s scenes. Maybe it’s because I become so upset every time I see Ingrid wailing and begging for relief. But I think it is more likely that dark part of all of us, where we want to see what happens when things are forbidden, like a chambermaid having designs on her master, when souls as black as one another interact. While it may be argued that Nancy is very young and doesn’t fully realise what Gregory is up to, I think that it’s more likely that she may not know the why, but that she recognises the how. And that’s all down to Angela’s performance, about how she manages to convey so many unspoken things in her face, how she makes it utterly clear that she has no intention of passing up what she sees as a golden opportunity.
If you’ve only seen Dame Angela in later roles, or in one of the many roles where she was made to play a woman much older than she actually was, then definitely make a point of watching Gaslight. You’ll thank me later.
This is my contribution for The Adoring Angela Lansbury Blogathon, being hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Please check out her blog for more information and to read everyone’s posts.