Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Sir Ian McKellen

Photo from Wiki.

In the August 27, 2007 issue of The New Yorker is a delightful profile of Sir Ian McKellen, one of England's great classical actors, written by John Lahr.

Although McKellen has played characters in "King Lear," only recently has he played the part of Lear himself. In September, he will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in playing Lear. Hmmm....How can I manage to see him? I'd love it. Lear is perhaps my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, because the playwright gets the family dynamics exactly right, especially when power and money are thrown into the mix. When Lear asks his daughters to expound on how they love him, you just know that he's going to come to a bad end.

Of McKellen's performance of Lear, Lahr says:

Later, enraged by Cordelia's refusal to match her sisters' encomiums, he held up the coronet that was to have been Cordelia's crown, turning it on its side so that it formed a large zero, then shouted through it to Cordelia, "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."

Only the abstract of the profile is online, so I'm going to have to some typing.

Most recently McKellen played Gandalf the Grey, the wizard in "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring". He's played many of the great Shakespearean roles, but he says Lear is the one of the most difficult he's done. Along with acting the classics, he's appeared low-brow movies and even taken on "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live".

McKellan's family were freethinkers, but, as Lahr says:

...he never discussed his homosexuality at home. "You didn't lie in our house," he said. "That was hard for me because, in not talking about myself, I was lying. Is it any wonder that under that sort of pressure, day in day out, eventually you give in and say, 'All right, yes, I'm queer"? It's quite a small step from saying 'I am unusual' to saying 'I shouldn't be the way I am.' You invent your own homophobia. You hate yourself. And, oh, it hurts. I am still hurt by it.

When he did come out publicly, he did so dramatically. In January, 1988, on a BBC radio show about the infamous Clause 28 - legislation that aimed to prohibit local authorities from publishing material condoning homosexuality or from referring to it in state schools as an acceptible life style - McKellen took part in a discussion with the right-wing columnist Peregrine Worsthorne, who kept referring to gays as "them." "Let's not talk in the abstract," McKellen said finally. "Let's not talk about them. Let's talk about me.

McKellen met with politicians to lobby against Clause 28, including Conservative Michael Howard, a fervid anti-gay spokesman. He got nowhere with Howard on Clause 28, but Howard asked for an autograph for his children. McKellen agreed, writing, "F**k off! I'm gay." Clause 28 passed, but was later repealed by New Labor.

McKellen was a key player in the formation of Stonewall, an organization to promote equal justice for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Not all gay activists were pleased with his prominence:

The filmmaker Derek Jarman, calling McKellen "Sir Thespian Knight", mocked his late arrival to the cause and Stonewall's intention to negotiate with what Jarman perceived as the enemy.

The profile is long, as those in The New Yorker are prone to be, and I meant to write more about the acting part of his life, but I can't copy the whole thing, can I? Here's how the post turned out. So be it.

Here are a few more morsels to chew on:

Stuck in the corner of the mirror in his dressing room at the theater, is a piece of paper with these words, "O Romeo, Romeo! Where the F**k Art Thou, Romeo?"

Early in the profile, Lahr quotes McKellen on the Queen's voyage on the Thames to celebrate the Millennium:

"One of the entertainments for the evening was going to be watching the Queen going upriver to the Millenium Dome," he recalled. "A really unattractive boat came chugging up the river. She was on City Cruises! If she hadn't been wearing lime green, one wouldn't have noticed. We wanted proper people rowing her up....I wanted her to do the job superbly."

He recalled rushing out of the R.S.C's Aldwych Theatre to watch the Queen's Silver Jubilee parade in 1977: "No cars parked, no buses, no traffic. You're suddenly aware that the whole place is a set. You hear birds. Around the bend comes this car, unlike any other car I've ever seen. It's got glass all around. This car's going at ten miles an hour. Everything is unusual. Inside it, these two dolls clearly made up. I found myself waving. And what was I waving at? The two richest people in the country, actually. That's why it won't do when she comes up the Thames on City Cruises. Far too democratic."

McKellen's friend Armistead Maupin, tells the story of McKellen's devotion to his stepmother, Gladys, in her old age. Although, as a teen-ager, relations between McKellen and his step-mother were difficult, they became close in later years. She became senile, and McKellen visited her often, but Gladys was convinced that the only reason he visited was because he was having an affair with her maid. Finally, exasperated by his failure to convince her otherwise, he said, "Gladys, for heaven's sake, I'm gay." She said, "So they say."


  1. Lahr is the son of the Cowardly Lion. He also edited the diaries of the English playwright Joe Orton and wrote a biography of Orton entitled "Prick Up Your Ears". Orton had intended this Shakespearean quote - which takes on a very, very different meaning when one plays very gently with its pronunciation and inflection - for the title of a never-written play (in 1967 his lover beat him to death with a hammer). It is also the title of a film biography of Orton, screenplay by Alan Bennett - check it out if you haven't seen it.

    McKellen was raised in Bolton, a short distance (eight miles) from my home town.

  2. Lapin, fount of all knowledge, I actually knew that John Lahr was the son of the Cowardly Lion.

    I did not know the info about his part in editing the diaries of Joe Orton, so you have contributed to the education of an old lady. Also, I do get the "Prick up Your Ears" play on words and pronunciation, so you don't have to explain it to me.

    What a sad end. I'll look up the film.

    So. You and McKellen never took a walk together. So near and yet so far.

  3. "Prick Up Your Ears" was Gary Oldman's second "starring" film, after playing Sid Vicious in "Sid & Nancy". Though I haven't seen it in years, I enjoyed it a lot and I think that it has probably held up - Oldman's an excellent actor and Bennett a pretty good playwright. I recall that V. Redgrave is also in it, as Orton's agent.

    Small distances were far longer than they now seem in the England of the 40's and the 50's. Eight miles was a huge distance back them.

    Enough of this "fount of all knowledge" stuff. Pride is an easy sin to slide into. Don't encourage it!

  4. Thanks, Mimi - McKellen is one of the great actors of our times, in my view. And although I've read and loved the books for years before he came along, he will forever be 'Gandalf' in my mind now!

  5. Lapin, you must take what I say with a grain of salt - especially the compliments.

    Tim, I agree. He acted a marvelous Gandalf.

  6. that's funny. I had forgotten all about prick up your ears and for some reason thought about it just yesterday. how strange.

    and don't go to NYC in Sept. - I'll be there in October (21-26) and am hoping to finally meet a couple of NYC area OCICBW'ers that week. That is the week you need to come to NYC. A mini gathering of OCICBW'ers!

  7. Dennis, I checked out the Lear performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and they are sold out. I'm not surprised. I'm a little late to the party.

    I am interested in the mini-gathering in NY, if only to prevent the rest of you from talking about me behind my back.

    Seriously, I think it would be fun. You have my email address if you'd like to give me more details about the gathering.

  8. What a lovely post Grandmere! Ian McKellan is one of my favorites.

    Lahr is someone I admire in general. He also worked with Elaine Stritch on her amazing and most fabulous one woman show, which I got to see on Broadway in 2002 I believe.

    And if you come to NY and if I can help you in any way, let me know!

  9. Fran, if all of this comes to be, I'd like to meet you and have a meal with you, at the very least.

    You're a blogger. You have some idea of how long it takes to put together a post like this, when there's no copy and paste available - and even when there is. I typed the quotes from my magazine. I wanted to include more, but then I worry about "fair use". It's a fuzzy line, and it can be hard to know when the line has been crossed. I want to do it right.

  10. I love Ian McKellen as well, and to me, he was the epitome of Gandalf. What presence he projected, what depth!

    I could be enticed to NY for a lunch or something!

  11. Eileen, I'm enticing you. Dennis is too. Any of our other buddies who want to join us are welcome, too. Remember. We are inclusive!

    Come for more than lunch, if you like.

  12. Damn. If it were during Fall Break I'd come! I love New York in the fall, too.

    Thanks for a great post. Love the stories. And lapin, I didn't know you were on the other side of the Big Bathtub. I obviously haven't been paying attention.

  13. The city's not that far from Hartford: hint, hint.

    Keep me posted and I'll be there: any of ya.

  14. Jane, Lapin is our side of the bathtub. He's an immigrant.

    Johnieb, do you see the word "inclusive" in my comment up there? That means even you can come.

  15. Thanks for posting this fine article. Sir Ian is truly magnificent..

    My most remarkable theater memory: Strindberg's Dance of Death in NY -- Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, and David Strathairn together onstage.

    Absolutely thrilling, magic..


  16. Hi, JerseyJo, welcome.

    Here's a bit from the profile on that appearance:

    Self-aggrandizement seems to have been at issue between McKellen and Helen Mirren when they teamed up on Broadway, in 2001, to play the warring husband and wife in Strindberg's "Dance of Death." "That was tricky," Sean Mathias, who directed the production, and who lived with McKellan from 1978 to 1987, said. "Mirren doesn't like to do too much working it out - it sort of kills it for her. She didn't enjoy the method. I think she found him self-serving."

    However, it seems to have turned out quite well in the end.

  17. Mimi, many thanks for your gracious welcome.

    In case you haven't found this gem on the Internet, Sir Ian's been blogging since 2000 (tho' it looks like he's he's been away for awhile recently).


    PS to self: must learn how to post a link correctly

  18. JerseyJo, I visited McKellen's blogs. Interesting.

    I want to see him in "Lear" so badly, and I'd travel to New York to do it, but all performances at BAM are sold out.

    If you want to learn how to do links you can check out this page on the web.


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