What's clear is that Lansbury, even today, has an ardent fan base--not only among the sexually confused Broadway aficionado crowd (the star of Sweeney Todd on Broadway in 1979, Lansbury is, in real life, Stephen Sondheim's best friend), but also among random couch potatoes who, internationally and across the Internet, rally to the woman's strange charms. Possibly the charisma lies in her own mix of straight-laced motherly practicality and the muted eroticism of her great legs and inky eyes. In any event, fans don't just like Lansbury (who has won three Oscars), they are mad about her. The allure is hypnotic. As one fervid Internet devotee rambled, "Ever since I saw Murder, She Wrote, I have been dedicated to capturing every moment of the existence of Jessica Fletcher (Lansbury's character) on videotape. I have each and every episode."
Wading through these diary-like Internet confessions, however, I discovered another side to this former maid of Broadway--one that melted my fascination down to mucilage. During the height of Murder, She Wrote's popularity, Lansbury made a home exercise video, Positive Moves: A Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being at Any Age (available through the public library and Internet video retailers). It's a staggering document--a nutty, busy 50 minutes of health advice, family anecdotes, muscle stretches, and thoughts on womanhood, as the cameras point continuously toward Angie.
Filmed at Lansbury's pastel-toned home in Santa Monica, the video reveals the actress from an angle that even an in-depth interview could never reach, for she posits, in confidential tones for the video's female audience, a shocking theory: that we women must frankly act out the quality of femininity in our lives, just the way an actress learns her lines and performs them. It's an old, old idea, of course, one with which your grandmother would have been familiar. And this is why Positive Moves makes for indelible retro-cultural entertainment.
Body stretches and strengthening exercises come first; Lansbury leads while clad in a series of pastel-colored exercise suits resembling oversized versions of the onesies that babies wear during the first year of life. As if presciently foretelling the likes of Martha Stewart circa 1998, Lansbury admonishes her audience members to get busy around the house (assuming they own one): "Why, there's lots of things you can do... wallpapering, painting, gardening--I once put wallpaper in a house we bought in Scotland--on the ceiling!"
Falling into a pessimistic trough simply won't do, she insists. She urges women not to give in to weighing too much or being lazy, and doles out crisp advice ("Do you know that tea tastes better in a thin cup? It's true."), and generally instructs us to think happy, constructive thoughts. It's clear that this is the way Lansbury approaches her own life, simply stuffing the darker, more problematic side of experience into a psychic drawer. How dreadful to imagine the housewives and other viewers who might take these pieces of advice to heart.
Then the venerable stage trouper prances lightly around her desolate living room with over-dramatic movements she calls "Feelin' Free," a kind of dance exercise both touching and hilarious. She looks so vulnerable as she moves along her rock garden path, raising her arms and balancing on one leg. She always comes back to these classic dance movements, she confesses, "even though in the '60s, I rocked with the best of them," because she feels a woman's proper milieu is always one that emphasizes grace, fluidity, and femininity. In her world, a world of long, long ago (which for some folks exists in the present), these ideas are simply not up for questioning.
Finally, Lansbury reveals that women ought to project glamour and attractiveness, even if it's just an illusion of glamour. A spectacular scene features the songstress wearing a robe and lighting candles tubside; then, deep inside a warm and frothy bubble bath, she confides, "I think it's important for a woman to maintain an aura of mystery and loveliness." Soaking, she mugs the camera to suggest deep sensuality, her mouth frozen in an O. "I was never considered a pretty woman," she confides, yet she happily reveals that "even women who aren't actresses can learn the art of illusion."
When at the end of the video, Lansbury strides into view, elegantly dressed, reiterating her message of positivism, there's something lurking behind her in the furniture or shadowless corners of her living room, a creature rife with the exhausting masochism so often reserved for women in this culture. Lansbury is a product of her generation, no doubt, though many so-called cool, modern women today still adhere to the time-worn behaviors inherited, maybe, from ancestors and ingrown like cartilage: being pert, upbeat, and supportive, hiding in the dense social constructs and expectations that construe them as creatures of mystery and all-encompassing beauty, in contrast to men, who are... what? Evident and clear and messy (or "rakish") as they wanna be. What was the retro cocktail party culture in the '90s, if not a recapitulation of this game?
In Lansbury's world, women should be positive and cheerful at all times, and hide their woes with various illusory techniques like secret Medusas--because it's difficult to speak a language articulating the woes of the differential person. And going back two or three generations, there wasn't any good language for this. In those days, depicted so sharply in Jean Rhys novels, you got by via your wits and some luck and your ability to get a decent and moneyed man--or else everyone was gossiping about you. It's painful to see our lovely Angie locked up inside this life, but we must be positive and assume she is wildly happy, especially given her worldly success. As a gesture of solidarity with the poor, disappointing, foolish sleuth, roll the kooky Positive Moves video at your next party. Even (or especially) with the volume muted, it's a minor piece of perversion and a sure-fire, kitschy hit.