When I grow up, I want to be Jessica Fletcher.
That’s the thought I have every time I put on an episode of Murder, She Wrote, the cozy murder-mystery series starring the inimitable, incomparable Angela Lansbury, who we lost on October 11. I have innumerable favorite Lansbury performances, as so many of us do — after all, the woman conquered the stage, the silver screen, and television without ever breaking a sweat. There is, of course, the two roles everyone mentions, the chilling mother from the jaw-dropping The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the precious Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast (1991), but I also adore her glorified cameo in the vastly underrated Dear Heart (1964), her flighty mother with a southern drawl in Blue Hawaii (1961), her beautifully bitchy princess in The Court Jester (1956), her glamorous showgirl in The Harvey Girls (1946)… I was tempted to put on all of those films upon hearing of Lansbury’s death, but instead I turned to the character I realized I loved the best: Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher.
According to Lansbury, “Jessica Fletcher was probably about as close — not to me, but to the sort of woman that I might have been had I not been an actress.” Exceedingly warm, clever, and self-reliant, Jessica is a widow and schoolteacher-turned-bestselling mystery novelist from Cabot Cave, Maine, a town that appears sleepy but is probably the murder capital of the world given how many homicides happen there over the course of 12 seasons. Based somewhat on Agatha Christie’s famous character Jane Marple, who Lansbury portrayed in The Mirror Crack’d (1980), Jessica becomes an amateur sleuth by chance rather than purposefully, her curious brain unable to resist the challenge of a strange clue or the contradictory statement of a suspect or an odd detail no one else notices.
In the season four episode “The Way to Dusty Death,” a psychic warns two soon-to-be suspects, “Beware a woman with a powerful will.” Before the episode is over, the couple realize that Jessica is that woman, whose obstinance and tenacity seem almost incongruous to her appearance. Thought of — and surely dismissed by some — as a sort of kindly grandmother, Jessica presents as a sweet lady who knows the town gossip and always inquires about your family and makes the best chicken noodle soup for your cold, but so many characters take this for granted and ignore the possibility that there’s a brilliant mind beyond the oversized glasses and comfy sweaters.
A single woman without any children (but with plenty of nieces and nephews), Jessica doesn’t conform to the idea that a life without a husband or kids is a life not worth living. With a thriving career, a love for travel, and a Rolodex bursting with friends in both Cabot Cove and around the world, she leads one of the most fulfilling existences I’ve ever seen on a TV show, and she does it all as a middle-aged woman. Interestingly, although there are a handful of episodes where Jessica encounters romance, Lansbury never wanted her to have a substantial love interest, saying, “I felt the minute I got into something like that, I was destroying the mystique of Jessica.” Jessica can still be desired — an important thing to depict with a smart, independent woman in her 50s and 60s — but part of the fun of the character is her mobility, her freedom to do whatever whenever without any strict ties.
Another vital, and little-discussed, aspect of Jessica is the way she takes up space, ignoring the label of “busybody” and nudging her way towards the truth with genuine kindness, seemingly banal questions, and innocent (but not really) observations. With her unmistakable femininity and unfailing politeness, she comes across as harmless, someone who can be overlooked and underestimated as so many women over the age of 40 are, but Jessica Fletcher knows exactly what she is doing and you’d be foolish to think your wit can match hers. She is steel and grace wrapped in a trench coat with a pocketbook slung over one shoulder and a flashlight in the other hand, and no one but Lansbury could’ve brought her to such glorious life.
From Mrs. Potts to Mrs. Iselin to Mrs. Lovett, Angela Lansbury was a phenomenon. The woman simply never made a false step. When asked by the New York Times what she wanted her legacy to be, she said, “That through my acting, I enabled people to get out of their own lives and … be transported into other areas of life that they otherwise would never have. I’d love to be able to feel that I enabled people to do that. Life is so hard for so many people.” Yes, but you made it so much easier, Ms. Lansbury.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of Establishing Shot, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Communications and Outreach Media Specialist. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.