Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate

Angela Lansbury received her third and final Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Mrs. Iselin in John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. The film is generally acknowledged as a classic, and while I did like it a good amount, I found that it also had a lot of flaws that bothered me. It's major weakness was definitely the acting ensemble, which is surprising. From the charisma lacking performance of Frank Sinatra, to the robotic delivery from Laurence Harvey, and the non-existent Janet Leigh, the main cast left a lot to be desired. Lansbury gave the best performance of the film, and one that has become a timeless classic for good reason. The plot concerns the son of a right-wing political family who has been brainwashed as an assassin for the Communist party. Lansbury plays his mother, the manipulative forced backing the entire film.

The best way to describe Angela Lansbury's performance in the film is 'iconic'. She has such an amazing presence throughout the film, and you're eyes almost gravitate towards her whenever she appears on screen. From that first moment in the film where she comes rushing on stage to greet her returning son only to turn the moment into a publicity opportunity you can tell that Mrs. Iselin is going to be a despicable character, though it is not until you see her sinisterly watching over her husband as he attacks a war general at a press conference that you can really tell exactly how evil she will turn out. By giving Mrs. Iselin a certain callous and deceptive presence mixed with one that almost seems chipper at times, it makes you fear her even more because Lansbury gives you a feeling something deeper is going on. She plays her part in a very straightforward manner, and really is just great at being evil. With her expressive eyes, and unassuming appearance, she is not the most obvious villain by any means, but makes herself into a great one.

The length in which it takes to fully unveil Mrs. Iselin's actual intentions gives Lansbury the time to build up the mysterious and intriguing nature of her character, but at the same time is limited by her slow build as well. That is because during the entire film she feels very one-note and lacking in personality. Yes, she is mysterious and intriguing, but you never really feel like those aspects of the character are ever explored, and her motivation and purpose never feels touched on. She's great at being all of those things, but her entire build-up climaxes in a single monologue at the end of the film that even still only hints at giving her character some added depth. That being said, this monologue is really her shining moment in the entire film, and Lansbury does a phenomenal job of giving a bracing, demented, and impactful moment that I'm sure will having me thinking it over for days. The best way I can think of describing her performance is that it is 90% one-note yet iconic, and 10% engaging beyond the surface.

This may seem like a bizarre comparison for some, but Angela Lansbury's performance in The Manchurian Candidate is in the same vein as a Darth Vader or a Sarumon, albeit on a less fantastical scale obviously. Her Mrs. Iselin is just pure evil, and she does a really great job at making her character as despicable and interesting as she can, but in the end she's just the villain meant to be beaten and never feels like a real, palpable character. I admire this performance a lot, and it's really iconic and memorable, but it's getting only  4/5 Thelmas from me. I hope this isn't too controversial, because I know how widely loved this performance is.

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