Part 1 may be found here. Part 3 may be found here.
In 1976, Trevor Nunn, Sir Ian's fellow-undergraduate at Cambridge who had succeeded Peter Hall as the director of the RSC, invited Sir Ian to act at Stratford. Below are pictures from some of the productions.
1976 – shot taken at make-up call for MacBeth. (Judi Dench played Lady MacBeth.)
1976 – as MacBeth.
Sir Ian played the title role in Romeo and Juliet opposite Francesca Annis, whom he described as “the most beautiful woman I have ever worked with”. (She was a fantastic actress, too.)
1976 – Romeo and Juliet.
1976 – Romeo and Juliet, on the way to the Capulets, with Michael Pennington as Mercutio.
1976 – Romeo and Juliet, Sir Ian with Francesca Annis, who played Juliet.
1976 – Romeo and Juliet, standing over Tybalt.
1976 – Romeo and Juliet, rehearsing with Francesca Annis.
1976 – Romeo and Juliet, with director Trevor Nunn.
1976 – As Leontes, in A Winter’s Tale.
1976 – The cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Seated in center: Ian McKellen. Left to right: Robin Ellis, Richard Durden, Francesca Annis, Cherie Lunghi, Ivan Beavis, Judi Dench, and Donald Sinden.
1978 – As Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, with Roger Rees as Sir Andrew (from the small-scale tour).
In 1979, at forty, Ian was asked to play Salieri on Broadway. Below is a little anecdote about Sir Ian in Amadeus. It comes from a 1982 article-interview cited in Pt. 1, The Gentle Giant of the English Theatre: Bringing Magic to The Stage. Michael Billington, the author, wrote of the “uncharacteristic fatigue” which had seized McKellen after a year’s run on Broadway.
He said he did not even have much interest in working and simply wanted to sleep all the time. Indeed, in his post-Amadeus tiredness, he sounded quite surprised to be reminded how much Shaffer's play and his performance had affected the Broadway audience. When, for instance, Salieri plotted one more dastardly move against Mozart, a woman cried out "Oh, no", to which McKellen replied with a wickedly malicious "Oh, yes".
"New York's a wonderful town if you've got money and you're in a hit show. But being in a play in New York is actually rather like being in the village pantomime. Everybody knows it's on, who's in it and what they've done before. Half of them are hoping it's going to be a disaster and it usually is. Where a puritan like me gets worried is in wondering, after a certain time, what it's all for, who the audience is and where they've come from".
The McKellen paradox is that his puritanism co-exists with a voluptuous delight in acting. The great moment in his Salieri came when he made the transition from crabbed age to glittering youth. In one single, sweeping movement he shed his old man's cloak, back to audience, and turned round - arms triumphantly aloft - to appear as a handsome, tall dark-wigged young man. That was the real McKellen: an actor unafraid of the big romantic gesture. But to find out where this comes from one has to dig back into McKellen's roots as a theatre-mad lad in the forties' north of England.
1980 – Amadeus on Broadway, with Ian as Salieri and Jane Seymour as Constanze Weber.
1980 – Amadeus, with Sir Ian and Tim Curry (as Mozart).
Sir Ian had appeared on television before this, but only in a few films. His first major film role came in Priest of Love, about writer D. H. Lawrence. It was filmed in 1979, but was not released until 1982.
1979 – Sir Ian as D. H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (release dates listed are 1982 and 1983)
The film received mixed notices and was not a hit at the box office, but he enjoyed the experience.
Back in a seventies interview (which I cannot now locate), when he was asked about making films, he dismissed film acting. But that might have reflected the fact that no one was beating down his door to hire him for film. Once he began doing satisfying film roles, he seems to have liked it very much. He continued all the while to act on stage, and still condiders himself primarily a stage actor.
1982 – from The Scarlet Pimpernel, made for television. Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews co-starred. Sir Ian played the villain, Chauvelin, and got the best reviews.
1982 – Loving Walter, aka Walter and June. This uncompromising film about the life of a mentally challenged man was made for British television. I was able to borrow a copy through interlibrary loan, and was it good. McKellen was superb playing Walter, never patronising or sentimental, allowing Walter to come through with all his warmth, love, and dignity, never leaving behind Walter’s sense of humour in spite of his losses, but also showing Walter's more difficult behaviours. Of all the things I’ve seen Sir Ian do, this counts as one of his finest performances.
1982 – Another shot from Loving Walter. Other than a bad haircut and an awkward gait, Sir Ian’s only extraordinary make-up for the role was a set of artificial upper teeth to change his bite. Otherwise, the transformation was achieved through acting alone.
Back to stage plays:
1984 – Sir Ian as Pierre in Venice Preserved at the National Theatre, with Michael Pennington.
1984 – Rehearsing Wild Honey with Charlotte Cornwell at the National Theatre.
1984 – Wild Honey, rehearsal.
1984 – Wild Honey, in performance with Abigail McKern.
A production Sir Ian found less satisfying to work on was another Coriolanus, which opened in 1984 at the National Theatre. This time he was playing the title role, Caius Martius (Coriolanus). Its famous director, Peter Hall, had a concept for presenting the play that, as far as Sir Ian was concerned, did not work. Sir Ian wrote of the experience,
[Peter] Hall placed about 30 members of the audience on the stage. They were expected, under the direction of the cast, to respond to the action. This they either totally failed to do – blocking my first entrance, for example, too nervous to interfere by shifting their ground so the arrogant Caius Martius had to walk ignominiously round them – or they joined in too enthusiastically, waving or chatting amongst themselves at inappropriate moments. After 30 performances I was fed up with all this and, having established Irene and the rest of the cast agreed, I wrote a memo to Peter asking for his permission to try a couple of performances with the audience where they belonged, i.e. not on the stage with the actors. Peter refused, accusing me of “rather undermining everything I think about the production”. Mmmmmm. I retorted “After every performance I talk to friends who have seen the show and with one, I promise you only one, exception they are unanimous that the on-stage audience is a distraction and a comic distraction at that. You can imagine how disheartening it is when friends want to talk about the odd characters they have spent the evening looking at, instead of talking about the production.” No response to that plea. A few shows later as I was about to start the soliloquy in the enemy camp a woman returning from the bar asked me to sign her programme.
Ha ha ha!
But Sir Ian graciously went on to explain, “This disagreement was not typical of my relationship with Peter, which was otherwise trusting and cordial during and after the rehearsal period.”
1985 – Coriolanus. (Obviously a rehearsal shot; *love* the briefs.)
1988 – a nice shot of Sir Ian from Henceforward, a play by Alan Ayckbourn.
Sir Ian still wasn’t yet in many films. As mentioned above, he had had his first leading role as D. H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (filmed in 1979), and he acted in two television projects, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Loving Walter (filmed earlier, but released 1982-83).
In 1983, he made the film The Keep, directed by Michael Mann. Mann went on to direct a favourite suspense/horror film of mine and my husband’s in 1986, Manhunter (based on “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris), and The Last of the Mohicans in 1992. But working on The Keep sounds as though it was an ambivalent experience. Sir Ian wrote of it,
Before Michael Mann had devised Miami Vice he directed The Keep and produced it and wrote it. He cast me as the heroine's father, a Romanian academic who gets caught up with Nazis and a monster trapped deep in the Keep. Ever-diligent, I had specially made my first trip to Bucharest and then had a couple of lessons from a dialect coach in London. So by the first day of filming I was ready to sound and feel authentically Romanian. Just before my first take as Dr. Cuza, Michael said: "Drop the accent - make him more Chicago." Well, if the writer/producer/director makes a request, you jump to it.
We filmed in North Wales, in the tiny village of Bettws-y-coed where tourists drop by for a five minute look at the pretty waterfall before driving off to clamber round Caernarvon or Conway castles. On my free days in Bettwys, it always seemed to be raining and the hotel was damp and drear.
The locations were spectacular whether outdoors in the disused quarry where the facade of the Keep was surrounded by an East-European-style village - or underground in the disbanded slate mines. Dr. Cuza had a strange disease that made him look 30 years older than he was. This was convincingly achieved after five hours in the make-up chair. For 12 days in succession, I was aged early each morning but never called to the set to work. I began a nervous breakdown or at least the line-producer thought so, because I was flown home from wet and dreary Bettwys for a week-end's recuperation back home in London."
Sir Ian was in two films released in 1985, the very well-received Plenty with Meryl Streep—he thought she was wonderful to watch work—and Zina, an art house film about the daughter of Leon Trotsky being treated by a psychiatrist (McKellen’s role) just before Hitler’s rise to power. It sounds like it was an extremely interesting film, winning prizes at film festivals, but it’s very difficult to find.
He made some interesting notes about working on it and learning more and more how to adjust his craft to film work:
Both extraordinary and exhilarating; much of the film was decided at the last moment, with scriptwriter and director arriving with new ideas just as the cameras rolled. Quite a contrast with the theatre, where in general by the first night you know what you are doing. But then film acting is like that. That's the challenge. You have to trust the director, believe he has the film in his head. And in Ken McMullen's case, I was happy just to do as I was told.
In 1988, he appeared in Scandal, a British film based on the “Profumo affair”. Ian played a supporting role (John Profumo, Secretary of War) to John Hurt’s sympathetic osteopath, Stephen Ward. The scandal was over extra-marital relations of one of the high and mighty with a nineteen year-old model and showgirl, Christine Keeler. The movie was mostly extremely well-reviewed, but might have had a sparse release in the U.S. It had difficulties shedding its NC-17 rating because of an orgy scene (no, I have no idea if any of the leading actors were in it). An NC-17 rating usually means box office doom in the U.S. because so few venues show films rated higher than R.
1988 – Scandal: a publicity shot with John Hurt.
It is not surprising that Scandal should have resonated for Sir Ian in 1988, the year that he came out. About working on the film he wrote,
I agreed to play the British politician, John Profumo, after other actors had turned it down as being too sensitive an issue. The scandal of the Conservative cabinet minister's extra-marital affair, about which he lied in a statement to the House of Commons, galvanised the nation and severely damaged the government. Since his disgrace Profumo has rescued his name with charity work in the East End of London and his friends were sad that this film should reopen old wounds. The producers felt that the issues of the case remained relevant 30 years on, touching on the relationship between parliament and the press as well as on the hypocrisy that bedevils sex and public figures. I agreed with them. Before agreeing to play Profumo, I wrote to him asking for his opinion but I received no reply.
I had just come out as a gay man and one of my motives for then proceeding, was to prove that I could be convincing as a character about whom little is remembered other than that he was a raging heterosexual. On my first day I had to simulate the missionary position under silk sheets with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. I enjoyed that, particularly as I was the envy of my straight friends.
It was also good to work for the first time with John Hurt, a splendid actor with whom I have sometimes been confused — to some people, long-faced British actors all look the same. John played the lead role of Stephen Ward whose suicide during his unjust trial resulting from the scandal, made him the true victim rather than Profumo and his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson.
As to his coming out, from his own account, and according to that of others, Sir Ian had never been in any doubt about his orientation growing up. Friends and people from his work life all seemed to have known he was gay.
After his first years in rep he moved to London (1961). His lover Brian Taylor, a history schoolteacher from Bolton, lived with him for eight years in Kensington. When that relationship “changed” in 1972, Sir Ian bought his first house and lived the next several years on his own, but he was openly gay at home and at work. With the money he made from Amadeus during 1980, he bought a house in Limehouse. His lover in those days, actor and filmmaker Sean Mathias, lived with him there for many years.
But his family didn’t know, nor did the press. Interestingly, Ian had already played Max in Bent on stage in 1979. (Max is a gay man who ends up in a German concentration camp, only coming out as a homosexual at the very end.) How different was it for him to play the same role ten years later in the London revival (in 1989), the year after he’d gone public?
Ian McKellen’s decision to come out was a spontaneous one, apparently. He was in the midst of a BBC Radio 4 discussion with Peregrine Worsthome, whom Mckellen describes as “a homophobe,” about the Thatcher government’s infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act, making illegal the public “promotion of homosexuality” in public schools. Literally overnight Sir Ian became an activist for the cause.
This moment was fleshed out in John Lahr's New Yorker article (August 27, 2007, quoted here):
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.
This reminded me of his story of his decision to become a vegetarian. I wish I could remember where I read that anecdote; I think it was in his blog for miscellaneous discussions, “Bits and Bobs”. He said that he had been standing on a terrace overlooking the Thames and saw the bloated, hairless corpse of a four-legged creature, he couldn’t tell what, half-washed up on the shore. The sight struck him in such a way that he made up his mind, then and there, to stop eating meat. He didn’t think about it, he just did it, as if his sensibilities only needed the right stimulus. When he came out publicly as a gay man, he did so in the same way.
In the Nov. 2, 2005 article excerpted below, Ian McKellen’s Rise From a Man for All Seasons to the Da Vinci Code (viewable here), Christopher Stone asks Sir Ian why he didn’t come out sooner. Seven years later, he spoke of the event.
“I’m the guy who gets cowed by authority. Which means that you resent authority but you don’t necessarily fight it. Deep down, I was ashamed of the fact that I wasn’t normal. I do feel I should have spoken sooner, yes.”
In August, McKellen admitted to Newsweek, “I was absolutely wrong in thinking coming out of the closet wouldn’t make a difference in my career. I became a better actor, and my film career took off in a way that I couldn’t have expected. You can’t lie about something so central to yourself without harming yourself.
"Acting in my case is no longer about disguise--it’s about telling the truth, and my truth is that I’m gay. I’m very happy for people to know that, and then I can get on with telling the truth about the character that I’m playing. That’s why I can say to other actors: If you really want to be a good actor and a successful one, and you’re gay, let everybody know it.”
Whatever fears he may have had about going public, they were unfounded. The comment below comes from a Wikipedia entry on McKellen.
When he came out of the closet to his stepmother, Gladys McKellen, who was a Friend (Quaker): "Not only was she not fazed, but as a member of a society which declared its indifference to people's sexuality years back, I think she was just glad for my sake that I wasn't lying any more."
More was said of Sir Ian's life at home and his relationship with his stepmother in this blog article, which expanded on the John Lahr article from the New Yorker. Sir Ian’s family were relative freethinkers, Lahr wrote, but,
[Ian McKellen] 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. (…)
Another Lahr anecdote, but which strikes a lighter note:
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."
And now, back to the theatre.
Sir Ian had portrayed Max in ‘Bent’ in the original London production in 1979, but he played Max again ten years later, in another production at the Adelphi Theatre.
1989 – Sir Ian as Max in the Adelphi Bent. He was fifty years old.
Sean Mathias, the friend and former lover with whom Sir Ian has continued to work, directed the 1997 film version of Bent. It starred Clive Owen as Max, a part for which Sir Ian was now too old. McKellen did act in it, however, playing Max’s uncle Freddie. A film full of excellent performances, it is well worth watching.
Below is a shot from a television production in which he played Hitler. From the reviews, he was just as good at playing the man responsible for the concentration camps as he was at playing the victims.
1989 – Countdown to War (as Hitler), for British television. I’d love to see this.
In 1991, Ian McKellen became Sir Ian, knighted for his contributions to the arts. Not that it sprang from his knighthood, but it was in the ‘90s—Sir Ian in his fifties—that he really started to work a lot in film. In 1992 and 1993 he could be seen in Tales of the City, The Ballad of Little Joe, I’ll Do Anything, Last Action Hero, Six Degrees of Separation, as well as And the Band Played On. In 1994 he was in Cold Comfort Farm, The Shadow and Jack and Sarah. In 1995 he was in Restoration and Thin Ice.
1996 saw the release of the film version of his much-acclaimed Richard III, a huge stage hit in 1993. It won so many prizes and got such great reviews I actually went to the movies to see it (I had been out of the movie-going habit for years). It was the only time I saw Ian McKellen in a film before I saw him in LOTR. The film showed brilliance, but it wasn’t my sort of Shakespeare at all and I never watched it again.
In 1996 he also appeared in Rasputin, made for television, earning a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe award as Tsar Nicholas II. I look forward to receiving a copy of Rasputin through interlibrary loan, not just for the sake of watching Sir Ian, but also because Alan Rickman plays Rasputin. (Alan Rickman and Greta Sacchi also won Golden Globe awards.)
In his notes on making the film, Sir Ian describes working with Rickman in glowing terms, which says as much about Sir Ian's generous spirit as Rickman’s merits:
Alan Rickman is a diligent and generous man. Five minutes after I reached St Petersburg, he phoned up to my hotel room to invite me to meet colleagues over dinner, although he had been filming all the long day and might well have rested alone with room service. He did the same with all the actors arriving from the UK to start work abroad. It's not just that Alan is gregarious; rather that he wants the actors to work as a team and whenever there was a need for a leader, he was there to play that part as well as to play Rasputin. On the set it was the same; he was always alert to other people's worries and supported them. Such tone-setting behaviour is not usual from leading actors, nor is it a contractual requirement.
Watching him at close quarters was instructive. Once I feel I have played a scene as best I can, I long for the moment when the director accepts my efforts and moves on to the next. Alan's special quest for perfection shames me somewhat. He never wants to move on until he has done better than his best. As Rasputin his acting style is broad yet precise, outlandish yet subtle and is properly at the centre of the spectacular architecture and crowd scenes which might otherwise have stolen the show. His awards were well-deserved.
1996 – Sir Ian as Tsar Nicholas in Rasputin.
In 1997, Sir Ian appeared in Friendly Fire, the film version of Bent, and Swept from the Sea.
Because of all this film work, Sir Ian could not be in plays for a few years. So he “stretched his acting legs” on stage intermittently, in a solo show called A Knight Out. When he returned to the stage he did Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, but also J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, playing—what else?—Captain Hook.
1997 – Sir Ian as Captain Hook, at the National Theatre, London.
Back to his film work, in 1998 he was in Apt Pupil, as well as the film that is probably my favourite (so far) for showing off his abilities, Gods and Monsters.
Gods and Monsters is a wonderful film and all the actors are wonderful in it. But Sir Ian is a marvel of subtlety and flair, both at the same time. And he’s moving, so moving. I loved this film so much I actually bought a copy. I only buy films if I know I'll watch them over and over again. Every time I watch Gods and Monsters I think about it for days. Its images, its themes, its scenes are so evocative for me.
In 1999, Sir Ian was in a new David Copperfield made for British television. I watched a library copy to see Daniel Radcliffe in his first role (he's very good as young David), not even realising Sir Ian was in it. He's deliciously repellent as the stupid, sadistic schoolmaster.
Sir Ian continued to be extremely busy in the new millennium. After X-Men (in 2000), came...
...the LOTR films, which were released in 2001, 2002 and 2003.