Renaissance man

Richard III star Ian McKellen may well be the greatest actor you've never heard of

"Oscar-caliber" is the kind of backhanded cliche that film critics dole out at year's end like gruel at a soup kitchen. (Critics hope to guilt Academy voters into seeing things their way or suffering the consequences--whatever those might be.) The plaudit, so overused to begin with, is faint praise at best. After all, aren't the Oscars less famous for their sagacity than infamous for their glaring omissions (and idiosyncratic choices)?

The wisdom of the Academy can be assessed on February 13, when it announces its nominees. The inclusion of Sir Ian McKellen on that list--for his enthralling performance as the lead in Richard III, which opens in Dallas Friday--may well be the litmus test for whether the Oscar stands for anything other than the Almighty Dollar.

Sure, last year the Academy nominated Nigel Hawthorne (playing King George III), mostly for his touching reading of a passage from King Lear. But this time it's different: McKellen doesn't deserve a nomination as some vague life-achievement nod, or for handling a single passage from Shakespeare well, but for giving the hands-down best performance by any actor last year. The Academy, in other words, can't be vindicated just by nominating him. He must win.

"In the theatre we don't talk about awards at all," says McKellen in a lilting British accent. "When they suddenly happen, you go, 'Oh! I've been nominated,' or, 'Oh! I haven't.' But Oscars?! My God, people start talking about them before you've shot a foot of film."

While looking forward to the prospect of a nomination, Sir Ian has mixed feelings.

"I'm not saying I don't want to be nominated for an Academy Award--it would be an absolute gas--but the downside of these awards, certainly for actors, is that we are put in competition with each other. It's a ludicrous competition: How can my performance be compared with Tony Hopkins [in Nixon] or Sean Penn [for Dead Man Walking]? You cannot compare them; you cannot say one is better than the other. And yet, one night, in front of an awful lot of people, that ludicrous proposition is declared.

"And the worst thing is, I might be in the position of wishing ill to Sean Penn, hoping he doesn't win. Good God! He's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful actor, and I'm very, very grateful for that performance. Why should I wish him ill? For what? So that I can be thought better than him?"

Yes. McKellen's treatment of Richard III is a good argument that, yes, he is indeed better than Sean Penn, or Anthony Hopkins, or anyone else last year. Ian McKellen may, in fact, be the greatest actor you've never heard of.

His career on the stage has been the kind of classical paradigm you rarely hear of this late in the century: a Tony for playing Salieri in Amadeus (and nomination for his masterful one-man show, Acting Shakespeare), plus a distinguished career in London's West End, including, of course, his interpretation of Richard III.

Despite a record of precise screen portrayals in art-house films (Priest of Love, Six Degrees of Separation), mixed with quiet credibility in monstrous disasters (The Keep, Last Action Hero) and accolades for the landmark HBO tele-film about AIDS, And the Band Played On--and despite (or perhaps because of) his tireless campaigning for gay rights--he's never been a marquee actor.

...That may change with this film, with McKellen's performance that makes him seem almost Godlike to any actor who would presume to suppose how God might play the infamous tyrant king, and especially with the controversial decision to move the setting to 1930s London.

"The setting worked so well [on stage] with audiences throughout the world that it seemed a good basis for starting the film," he recounts from the penthouse of the Adolphus Hotel. Although this version of Richard III has been updated from medieval times to the 20th century, McKellen dismisses the scattered criticism that he's bastardized the play.

"The original plays were in open-air theater, and there were no actresses," he reminds. "When we come to do Shakespeare in the modern, indoor theatre, and you've got women playing the women parts, you are actually not doing the plays as Shakespeare intended. But nobody objects to that because we have, as it were, transferred or translated the play into conditions that we like or understand. And frankly, I thought making a film of Richard III was the same sort of translation from a former theater into a modern forum."

McKellen is quick to complain about unwarranted snipes at the film, which he helped produce and to which he has dedicated the past two years of his life. "Some people have said this is the Cliffs Notes version of Shakespeare. I think that's unfair. I think perhaps they're missing the wit of what we've done."

McKellen leans in conspiratorially, as if Richard has sprung to life and wants to share his plan for conquest. "I think anyone who knows the play well [admires what we've done]. Professors sidle up to me all the time and say, 'I've been teaching Richard III all my life; this is better!'" McKellen says in a gleeful whisper.

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