Gaslight (1944): Cukor Discovered Angela Lansbury, Only 17, Oscar Nominee

George Cukor’s big casting coup was not getting Ingrid Bergman, but the hiring of a young British girl, Angela Lansbury.

Lansbury was to play the important role of Nancy Oliver, the shrewdly conniving maid who attempts to lure Anton (Charles Boyer) away from his tormented wife Paula (Ingrid Bergman).

Looking for a girl to play the sluttish maid, Cukor knew one thing: she had to be English.

At a party hosted by her mother, Magna Margia, the young Lansbury met John van Druten, who had recently co-authored a script for Gaslight, a mystery-thriller based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play.

Van Druten told Cukor of the British actress Magna Margia, who was in town with her daughter Angela and her two sons. To make ends meet, the entire family was working at Bullock’s in the Christmas rush.

Cukor asked Lansbury to a test, which went excellently. The young actress had the right poise and her Cockney accent was quite authentic. But she was too young and didn’t seem seductive or sexy enough. Slightly overweight and spotty, Lansbury looked like a real department-store salesgirl.

“I don’t think you’re going to get the job,” Cukor told her, “but I think you’re a very talented girl.” Lansbury went back to Bullock’s with a mixed reaction of dejection and encouragement.

However, a week later, Cukor looked at Lansbury’ test again, and called her in for a second audition. It turned out to be even better than the first. In the end, Cukor liked her so much that he had her role rewritten and expanded. When Lansbury told her Bullock’s manager that she had found a better job, he proposed to raise her pay to 27 dollars a week. He was shocked when she said that Mr. Cukor at MGM had signed her for a seven-year-contract at 500 dollars a week!

There were some unanticipated problems with Lansbury, however. At 5’8″, she was the same height as Bergman. To add to her height, so as to contribute to the suspense of the scene in which she threatens Paula, Cukor made her wear platform shoes. “They thought my towering over Ingrid would make me more sinister,” recalled Lansbury.

Another unexpected problem was a scene in which she lights a cigarette, in defiance of her mistress.  Since Lansbury was only 17, a social worker had to accompany her on the set. Obtaining an agent, Earl Kramer, she was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM, earning $500 a week and using her real name as her professional name.

The menacing smoking scene had to be postponed for several weeks, because the studio’s teacher would not allow her to smoke until she was 18. When this eagerly-awaited day arrived, Cukor and Bergman threw a surprise party for her on the set.

Cukor later said that, aside from Katharine Hepburn, Lansbury was the only other actress who took to film so quickly. An ordinary-looking girl, when the audience saw Lansbury for the first time, all the character was right in her face; she became the character by just drooping her mouth. “Even though Gaslight was her first picture,” Cukor said, “she had the ability to transform herself into the character she was playing as soon as the cameras turned.” “Some people have experience, but still remain eternal amateurs,” Cukor elaborated, “but Angela was a pro from the very first day.”

Lansbury’s stunning debut in Gaslight certified her talent and honored her, at the age of l8, with the first of three Oscar nominations. “I was really very young,” recalled Lansbury in an l978 tribute to Cukor, “and I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. He introduced me to style.”

A huge box office hit, Gaslight was nominated for eight Oscar Awards, including Best Picture, though Cukor failed again to receive a directorial nomination. At Oscar time, the movie won two Oscars: Best Actress for Bergman and art direction for Cedric Gibbons.

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