Earlier this month, on October 11, Angela Lansbury passed away at the age of 97, after a prolific career in films, television and the stage, studded with awards and accolades. Active to the very end, Lansbury, did about 112 screen projects over an amazingly long-lasting career, going out with a cameo in the 2022 film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Though a large part of her film work was in the US, she was born in London and was honoured with the title of Dame (the female equivalent of a knight) in 2014, for her lifetime achievement in her field. She was the last of the glorious divas of the Golden Age, doing an amazingly wide variety of work over eight decades.
The passing of Dame Angela brings to mind the names of brilliant British actresses, all over 80, and still making movies — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Andrews, Eileen Atkins, Joan Collins, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson. (Joan Plowright is alive too, but had to retire due to blindness caused by macular degeneration.) Their careers are landmarked with memorable performances and a roster of awards from Oscars Golden Globes, Emmys, BAFTAs and every trophy imaginable.
At a time when ageism (and women suffer the worst of it) is rampant, there must be something in British society and culture that does not reject older actresses and hide them away from public life. Show business continues to make space for them, and they get to play exciting, age-appropriate roles, wearing their wrinkles with pride. A lot of their roles are as grandmothers, but spirited ones, not like Indian films that usually typecast older women as weepy martyrs, lamenting being abandoned by their children.
Looking at just their recent work, out of a filmography running through decades, there’s Maggie Smith, 87, in Downton Abbey (nobody can do imperious better than Dame Maggie) and the Harry Potter films. Judi Dench, 87, has played 007’s boss in several James Bond films and has done significant roles in recent films like Belfast and Artemis Fowl. Julie Andrews, 87 (immortalised as Maria in The Sound of Music) has appeared in Bridgerton and The Princess Diaries; Eileen Atkins, 88, has acted in Doc Martin and The Crown. Joan Collins, 89, has done Glow & Darkness and Tomorrow Morning. Vanessa Redgrave, 85, has done The Lost Girls and Call The Midwife.
It must be the early start, years in the theatre in Shakespearean and classical plays and training with the best that have granted these women great memories, fine voices and a sense of humour. They were not counted among the great screen “beauties”, but they had the range and the confidence to tackle any role, and bring to it their knowledge and experience. Admire those bright eyes and clear skin — no trace of Botox or fillers — and none of the insecurity or fear of ageing seen on the faces of so many older women who feel judged by society and are unfairly found wanting.
Some of the Dames have worked together in films like Tea With Mussolini and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and though there must have been some degree of rivalry, there is also a deep camaraderie. A search threw up Roger Michell’s delightful documentary, Tea With The Dames, in which Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins meet at the country home Plowright and her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, had built when they all had thriving careers, happy marriages and kids to raise.
The four are friends in real life, and must have, at some point in their careers, competed for the same roles. They probably still do although, as Ms Plowright jokes, they only get the cameos that Ms Dench hasn’t got her paws on! But the conversation is sparkling, the laughter is hearty, the memories precious.
Of course, they are exasperated when young people do not know how to handle fragile-looking elderly ladies. Young crew members often talk about them when they are present in the room, assuming perhaps that all old people are deaf, dotty or both. They are frequently asked if they have a carer, and by other seniors if they have planned their funeral. Ms Smith quips that she hasn’t because she is never going to die. Still, they joke about speaking teeth and eating teeth, and being able to channel their fear of ageing. Sure, there are liver spots on hands, and weak knees, but there is also the kind of vitality that a life well lived can bestow.
Watching clips from their film and seeing photos from their albums, one can only get a glimpse of how eventful their lives must have been, and how rich with experience. Ms Plowright observes that none of them is in “the first rank of world beauties,” and recalls the time she was told, “You are no oil painting, my girl, but you have the spark.”
In the Variety review of the film Guy Lodge writes, “The old friends affectionately tease each other and mock themselves throughout — proving themselves a lot sharper, more acerbic and expletive-inclined than the cosy heritage projects in which they routinely get cast. Tea With the Dames would be worth the price of admission if only to witness Smith’s barely-veiled disdain for some of her more popular credits: Admitting that she’s never seen an episode of Downton Abbey, she mordantly notes, “I shall have to hasten or I’ll never see the wretched thing.”
They are all quite thrilled with the idea of their Damehood, but also say, “It doesn’t make any difference, you can still swear.”
When asked what it was like working with their husbands, they laugh, “Which one?”
Inevitably they are asked what they would have advised their younger selves, and admit they wouldn’t have listened anyway. Still, Smith comes up with, “When it doubt… don’t.” and Dench says, “Try not to be so susceptible to falling in love.”
And the best quote: “We’ll work forever if we are asked.” Cue a standing ovation there.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic, and author