Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane

Angela Lansbury has died at ninety-six. Unfortunately, like many accomplished performers who continue to act well into their later years, Lansbury, whose primary work was in theatre, is now identified by the broader public primarily with her long-running senior citizen role in the TV series Murder, She Wrote. She also performed in some cheesy children’s movies during the 1970s. But if you want to see her as a screen actress, and understand what she was capable of at her professional peak, before she was a “household name,” I recommend the 1945 film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The film lacks much of the novel’s psychological complexity, of course, and Hurd Hatfield’s performance as Dorian has always been divisive (emotionless posing or subtle representation of the aloof, self-indulgent nihilist). But Lansbury’s Sibyl Vane, though greatly simplified from Oscar Wilde’s conception of the character, comes closer to capturing the essence of the book’s horror than anyone else in the cast, embodying the minor tragedy of the innocent girl crushed by the cynical machinations of Dorian and his Mephistopheles, Lord Henry Wotton. She is heartbreaking in the suitably understated way that no Hollywood diva of the time would have been willing to render. She serves the story humbly, so humbly that her quiet emotional torture resonates much longer than that of any other character in the film. An outstanding example of movie acting, much of it wordless and reactive, for which Lansbury properly won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress.

I wonder if there is any actor or actress today — that is, any under, say, ninety years of age — who will leave cinematic characterizations worthy of being remembered with tenderness, as having truly and incisively presented something touching and painful about the more delicate reaches of the human soul. I have a hard time imagining so at the moment. This probably has less to do with today’s crop of actors as such — there are always plenty of “talented actors” out there, since acting is not as difficult a craft as, say, plumbing or carpentry — than with our age’s loss of any personal contact with those delicate reaches of the soul. That is to say, Lansbury could capture the inner beauty of a shattered innocent so effectively, not merely because she had acting skill, but because she had a personal understanding (I almost wrote “an innate understanding”) of what it means for a young woman to be innocent, modest, and intoxicated by confusing new feelings that seem to intimate a promise of forever. That understanding would seem to be a precondition of performing such a role, and for depicting the life-annihilating shock of having that crystalline new feeling suddenly shattered into a million pieces by a few cold words. Today, when every young person is raised in a world of easy and disposable pleasure, a dozen casual “relationships,” and, in the case of women, the love-deflating cynicism of politicized emotions, where is the actress who could even relate to Sibyl Vane’s predicament, let alone define her soul in a few facial expressions and shifts of the shoulders, as Lansbury so impressively does?

Sibyl Vane, in Wilde’s original conception, is a girl whose gift for performing is entirely a product of her innocence and longing, and who, having fallen in love for real, suddenly loses all interest and enthusiasm for acting out those feelings on the stage — who, in other words, instinctively and irresistibly loses her ability to depict fake love, now that the overwhelming beauty of love’s truth has displaced the performer’s will to imagine such feelings, or to live vicariously through these superficial imaginings. To act this role, you would have to understand the emotional vectors of the change. Few young women today, actress or otherwise, could be expected to understand such things, whereas they would have been the easiest thing in the world for any ordinarily sensitive person of past eras to grasp intuitively, with little explanation.

Several years ago, I taught The Picture of Dorian Gray in a university class. When we discussed Sibyl’s heartbreak, and specifically Dorian’s sudden change of heart and belated attempt at reconciliation, I asked the women in the class how they would respond if they actually received such an olive branch as that which Dorian planned to offer to Sibyl after destroying her so thoroughly the day before. One good student, with whom I happened to make eye contact, responded silently, so as not to speak rudely in class: “F— you!” she mouthed, on Sibyl’s behalf. And that amusingly blunt sentiment seemed more or less to represent the consensus among those students who had any impressions about the situation at all. But that, unfortunately, is exactly the problem I am describing here. To react with power, with anger, with a dismissive “Who needs you!” is the modern, feminist way. But it is manifestly not the way of one truly in love, let alone one in the horrible aftermath of such brutally rejected love as Sibyl has suffered at Dorian’s hands. Sibyl’s response to the rejection — desperate, hopeless, tragic — is the appropriate and natural way of innocence destroyed. My student’s insouciant anger was the response of one who has firmly, confidently “decided to move on,” as though love were a simple and replaceable free choice of free individuals, rather than a kind of beautiful tyranny in the soul from which there may seem to be no escape but…escape.

After reading the novel closely with that class for several weeks, we watched the 1945 film version, for the sake of comparison. I tried to subtly observe the reactions of the students during certain key scenes. Naturally, Lansbury’s performance of the silly song, “Little Yellow Bird” — the movie’s pathetic substitute for the brilliant Shakespearean acting by which the novel’s Dorian becomes entranced — made the K-pop-sated students smirk with condescending amusement. But when Dorian calculatingly and forcefully “tests” her, and then rejects her, belittling her love and denying his own, even giving her money for her troubles as though she were a prostitute, Lansbury’s unspoken reactions had the group silent and rapt, the triteness of the little yellow bird long forgotten.

It’s a small thing, because acting is a small thing. But Angela Lansbury did it well enough to save a mangled movie adaptation’s reduction of an important novel’s human symbol of suffering spirituality and the primacy of reality over art. She made a simplified Sibyl Vane believable and pitiable, even to a few young women of this feminist, flat-souled, hyper-sexualized era, who might have been forgiven for failing to understand what all Sibyl’s fuss was about.

You may also like...