Jessica Fletcher Don’t Give a Damn

What Murder, She Wrote teaches us about aging actresses

Jessica Fletcher don’t give a damn. She’s snubbed, condescended to, and threatened by police, detectives, friends and the public. But does this matter to her? Not in the least. Push her down the stairs or intimidate her with a gun, and Fletcher just keeps going.

Jessica Fletcher, protagonist of Murder, She Wrote, is the American incarnation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Instead of knitting like her predecessor, she jogs. Instead of being a spinster, Jessica is a widow. She fills her time keeping tabs on everyone’s life and writing mystery novels. Due to her inquisitive and outgoing nature, she’s invited to picnics and house parties, award ceremonies and archeological digs. Anywhere you go and anything you do, Jessica Fletcher has already been there, seen it and done it.

Murder, She Wrote ran for a mind-blowing 12 seasons, due in large part to the talent and hard work of its leading lady, Angela Lansbury. The first season is lackluster but by season two, cast and crew hit their stride. Lansbury steps into Fletcher’s sensible shoes and becomes unstoppable.

Fletcher arrives, energetic at a time of life when most women are diminishing. Without youth and beauty, older women lose their value and are discarded to the sidelines of life. Fletcher is a widow and without a husband to care for or the desire to remarry, society pronounces her role in life finished.

Not so for our leading lady. She’s learned a lot about people during her lifetime and she’s determined to use that knowledge not to comfort and placate elderly gentlemen, but to solve crime. Instead of playing the passive older care-giver society expects, she pushes outward, traveling across the United States, solving crimes and sending cops into rages.

Every episode is filled with men trying to coerce or intimidate her. Sometimes they’re good men and sometimes they’re bad, but whoever they are, Fletcher regards them with calm blue eyes, a loaded smile and a placid retort. She continues on with her work as they sputter and scoff in the background. Each episode turns a doubter into a committed Jessica believer and after 12 seasons, it’s safe to say the whole of the United States’ police force dials her number whenever a murder occurs.

Most of the show’s many guest stars are former silver screen actors like June Allyson and Ann Blythe. Patrick MacNee–Steed from the old TV series The Avengers–shows up in one episode, helping Fletcher save her look-alike cousin. He wore his signature bowler hat from his Avengers days’ but was not, alas, carrying his trademark umbrella nor a champagne glass. I regularly use IMBD to look up the aged stars and recognize the great classics they formerly starred in- this is one of the show’s particular delights.

Youth and beauty don’t count for much on Murder, She Wrote; it’s a show that reveres old age. Older characters are embroiled in just as much drama as their younger counterparts, and no one’s drama is over till they’re absolutely dead. The elderly may be bed-ridden or just creeping along; it doesn’t matter. They’re still alive with as many emotions, troubles and cares as any other young person.

Free from the dictates of sex or motherhood, Fletcher casts off her robe of invisibility for a life of writing and adventure. The show’s enduring popularity is no surprise. Our society has few older woman as role models. The altered and worried visage of Kim Novak during the Oscars told too common a tale. She should have been beautiful without trying. Losing sexual allure and failing to win it back rains societal scorn and derision down on women.

This needn’t happen. Women’s value does not ride on their looks or their care-taking abilities. Jessica Fletcher is not just a sleuth but a superwoman, pushing back the twin powers of ageism and sexism. In our own recent time, more super ladies have arisen on screen and stage: Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Note that all these women are British, including Lansbury herself.

America’s entertainment business fails older women actors, but there was a recent push (and fail) for a reboot of Murder, She Wrote to star Octavia Spencer (the Help). While I love the idea of a racially diverse Cabot Cove, Murder, She Wrote was the product of a dedicated Angela Lansbury along with her cast and crew. The show quit filming nearly two decades ago and it’s time for Hollywood and TV producers to create new stories and characters worthy of terrific older actors. Maggie Smith’s performance as the Dowager Duchess in Downtown Abbey demonstrates the delightful power that comes to actors in older age. And let’s not forget Helen Mirren in Red. Her terrifying character is equally at home trimming roses for a bouquet or mowing down men with a sub machine gun. These women are far from useless. And their wisdom, intelligence and beauty make our lives richer and better. Let’s embrace this group; they’re incredible.

*First appeared in The Stake