Woot, Angela Lansbury! Who I have loved since I was a small child and saw The Court Jester in which her comic timing was ON POINT. And then I had a 30 year interval of not caring about her, and then discovered Murder She Wrote. Anyway, now she’s dead, which is sad but not that sad because she was 96. And it’s happy because suddenly everyone is talking about how awesome she is!
I think I do have to talk about The Court Jester for just a second first. Great movie, great idea, set in fantasy fairy tale adventure land, our hapless hero is a cowardly performer who supports the resistance, and then ends up getting trapped and hypnotized and pulled into all the evil plotting at the castle. It’s a Danny Kaye movie (his wild jumps between personas as the hypnotism goes on and off is everything), but it only works because of the cast around him Mildred Natwick as the Evil Witch/Nanny, Basil Rathbone as the Villain, and (surprisingly) Angela Lansbury as the young princess! It’s surprising because Angela is not a character actor and not very experienced and playing a purposefully bland role (the empty headed golden haired princess these movies always have). But she manages to do everything just right in order to make you laugh hysterically.
And then there is Murder She Wrote! Which is arguably the most calmly clearly feminist TV show ever to be on American television. It’s not that it lectures you about feminism or anything, it just assumes a world in which we are all aware of the gender imbalances through which we move and there’s no point in talking about it. This fits, to my mind, with Angela’s real life. She came from an acting family and when she was a teenager her mother became trapped in an abusive relationship. So she planned an escape and moved the whole family to Hollywood to get away. Angela herself went on to act partly to help support her younger siblings.
Angela’s own life was very undramatic. She worked hard and did well in her acting career. She eloped at 19 and that marriage quickly ended (although she remained friends with her ex) marrying again at 24 to the main who was her life partner until death. They had two children together and, in the early 1970s, her kids started going down a bad path (daughter got in with Manson, son got into Herione). So Angela moved the whole family to Ireland and focused on her kids and by golly it worked! They both got over their bad patches and went on to happy productive private lives and give Angela lots and lots of grandkids.
So we have a woman who saw domestic violence as a teen in her own home, struggled successfully with balancing career versus family as a working woman, and had an understanding and compassion for misguided young people. What a WONDERFUL person to put as the lead of a detective series!
Murder She Wrote really is great. The mysteries are solid, the solutions hold together and you can’t usually guess the answer in advance. Most episodes have a totally new cast (except for Angela Lansbury) and a totally new setting, all well-researched and well-written. But most of all, in a genre that tends to authoritarianism and victim blaming, it is so very human. Victims are NEVER blamed for putting themselves in danger, men are constantly blamed for underestimating the women around them, and women are shown being smart and successful and happy in life pursuing their dreams.
Just some quick examples, there is a recurring character of one of Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher’s nieces who is married to an aspiring actor. She always has a different job and is always super successful at it (ad executive, real estate agent, etc.) and her husband is always struggling. But they are happy! He loves her and she loves him and their marriage is very happy and loving and no one cares that she brings in the regular salary and he is the dreamer. Also, in the first episode where we meet them, he is performing at a drag club and enjoying it.
There’s another episode I distinctly remember where Jessica Fletcher’s old friend runs a very successful cookie company based in a midwestern small town, only she is struggling because of her worthless ex-husband. The show doesn’t have to tell us “this is a brilliant businesswoman who fit herself into the cookie making business because it is the only place a woman could fit”, it just shows us that.
And sooooooooooo many episodes about domestic abuse! Ranging from a super handsome and wealthy man who showers his wife with affection, but also beats her up at night. To a very angry and emotionally abusive small town man who terrorizes his wife and daughter until they happily burn all his photos the day he is murdered. Oh right, and they are murdered. Murder She Wrote isn’t big on the downer “and there’s no way to fix it” kind of endings. Jessica Fletcher always leaves people better than she found them, gets wives away from abusers, supports deserving female businesswomen, finds jobs for struggling single mothers, all kinds of things.
Angela was like that in life as well, supported causes from helping abused wives to HIV/Aids patients. She didn’t go “oh well, I will make a public statement about this” she just went in and rolled up her sleeves and DID it. And then quietly starred in and produced a super fun well-made show that presented a world in which women MATTER. Women, and the underclasses, and the elderly, and children, really everyone that other media ignores.
Now, the most important part of this post of course. Recasting Murder She Wrote!
Jessica Fletcher, widow and murder mystery writer and murder investigator: Juhi Chawla! She’s about the right age now, and she has that irresistible warm quiet charm that the role requires.
Seth, Jessica’s Gentleman Friend and the local doctor: Anil Kapoor! Absolutely someone who would follow his lady friend around while she solved mysteries and help her find clues
Mort, local cop from the big city who moved to a small town and found lots of murder: Amit Sadh. Not sure why, but it feels right
Bad Boy old boyfriend returned to town to find a shipwreck and also con people: Shahrukh Khan
Bonus: Recasting The Court Jester!
The Court Jester/Danny Kaye: Rajkummar Rao
Rebel Love Interest: Kriti Sonam
Air Head Princess: Jacqueline Fernandez
Witch: Neena Gupta
Basil Rathbone: I don’t know! Basil Rathbone raised from the grave?