The Best Movie Ever: Sir Ian McKellen

One of the most celebrated actors in the world is also one of the geekiest. Sir Ian McKellen, that fine thespian of the stage and screen, may be celebrated for his Shakespearean turns and dramatic tour de forces, but he’s best known for playing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Magneto in the X-Men franchise. That dude is a world-class rock star, acting-wise at any rate.

Check out: Must See Summer Blockbusters Featuring X-Men: Days of Future Past

With his latest film X-Men: Days of Future Past hitting theaters this week, we asked the CraveOnline film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – to single out which of Sir Ian McKellen’s many mighty movies qualified as The Best Sir Ian McKellen Movie Ever. For the first time, they’re split down the middle, a 50/50 vote for… well, you’ll find out in this latest installment of The Best Movie Ever, and then you can vote for your favorite Sir Ian McKellen movie at the bottom of the page.

Witney Seibold:

Sir Ian McKellen occupies a strange place in popular culture. He is a classically trained stage actor, having performed in many Shakespeare productions, over the course of his entire life. He was a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theater Company, and is, by all rights, a stage baby through-and-through. Even if he had never appeared in any feature films, he would still be a notable actor. And yet, here in the states, he is better known for his feature film work, famously portraying pop culture characters like Magneto in the X-Men films and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films. He is a stalwart British professional and a geek-gasm icon all in one. A subtle performer of broad big-budget effects extravaganzas.

His best performance – and perhaps his best film – came from Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which McKellen co-adapted. In this version of Richard III, the court of York is re-imagined as a World War II-era fascist dictatorship with the Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) as an aspiring Nazi ruler, à la Hitler. As Richard, McKellen snarls, limps, and connives his way to the top, happily losing pieces of his soul as he goes. On the page, Richard III is a mere evil schemer. In this film version, however, Richard III becomes far more satisfyingly monstrous. And yet, thanks to McKellen’s performance, we can also sense who he is at heart: a wounded man who is actually working hard to get what he feels he deserves. McKellen makes the famous role thrilling and twisted and fun. You can always see actors breathing a sigh of relief when they perform Shakespeare; they are finally relaxed in the fact that they’re reciting something great. McKellen is not only relieved, but is having a ball imagining a great play in a new way.

Richard III was the first time many people noticed McKellen as a performer, and it pretty much cemented his reputation. We’ve known him well ever since.

Brian Formo:

For as great as Sir Ian McKellen is in Gods and Monsters, Apt Pupil and the X-Men and Lord of the Rings series (it is quite hard not choosing Gandalf, posting a clip of “You shall not pass!” and dropping the wizard staff), there is really only one way to answer this question. It’s Richard III. That’s McKellen’s film. It was adapted from his own stage production and it’s the only film that McKellen has co-scripted and produced. It’s his and he rules in it. From this point on, I’ll refer to it as McKellen’s Richard III.

Remember the 1990s when Shakes the Playwright was being dropped into modern times? Well, McKellen did it the most naturally. In McKellen’s Richard III, Sir Ian updated the Shakespeare play to 1930s Britain because a) it rests between World War I and World War II, as fascism advanced, and b) it’s the most modern of eras that — despite tanks and early automobiles — would still feel distant enough that the language wouldn’t be a distraction. 

McKellen’s Richard III also featured some of the best British actors (McKellen, Jim Broadbent, Kristin Scott Thomas) who were seasoned, feisty, but still unfamiliar because — at least on this side of the pond — their greatness wasn’t cemented until after this film (Gods and Monsters for McKellen, Topsy-Turvy for Broadbent, The English Patient for Scott Thomas). 

Their Hollywood counterparts (Robert Downey, Jr. and Annette Bening) were fresh peculiarities. McKellen, like many Brits, had been acting Shakespeare for decades. And he knows how to re-contextualize it and why. When Richard’s (McKellen) Jeep is stuck during battle and he exclaims that, in that moment, he’d give his kingdom for a horse, it smartly compartmentalizes that everything in his push for total geographic control is failing his advancement, including modern machinery. Richard, the fascist, should desire to retreat by way of horse. To the past. Where we, McKellen, Gandalf, and even Magneto, hope to expel all emerging tyrants. But those who thirst for tyrannic power repeatedly make updates on Richard III (and X-Men) relevant. 

Fred Topel:

Now I’m going by memory on this one, but I think I can trust my recollection of my first impression seeing this film. I had known Ian McKellen from Apt Pupil and Richard III which I saw at the indie movie theater in college. I must have seen Gods and Monsters only to complete my Oscar nomination viewing, but I was enthralled by the drama and character, so much that I still remember its impact even though I have not revisited it as often as I would have liked to in the last 16 years.

McKellen plays James Whale, director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein at the end of his life. Brendan Fraser plays a gardener who develops a relationship with Whale, whom Whale makes uncomfortable with his sexual interest in him. I was sympathetic to Whale’s character, wanting to explore his sincere desires, and also for Fraser’s fictional character who was in over his head simply because these desires weren’t openly discussed. The scene that stands out is Whale making him try on a gas mask which was certainly fetishistic. 

If Gods and Monsters had much to say about Whale’s work in filmmaking, I don’t recall that aspect. It certainly would have been a major hook for me into the story, but I still remember being captivated by McKellan, Fraser and their relationship so that Gods and Monsters remains the Best Ian McKellen Movie Ever some 16 years later.

William Bibbiani:

Yikes, this one was hard. Although Sir Ian McKellen’s film career has been relatively short compared to many of his thespian contemporaries, despite several false starts in his youth, he’s already made his mark on cinematic history by playing and typifying some of the greatest characters in fiction: Richard III, Gandalf and Magneto. Yes, I put them all in the same sentence. And by heavens, each performance is marvelous, and by all rights deserve to go down as some of the best acting of the last decade and a half.

But the more I thought about it, the more I view Bill Condon’s nostalgic but confrontational Gods and Monsters as the Best Sir Ian McKellen Movie Ever. It may lack the justified bravado of Richard III, and it may lack the pop culture gravitas of the X-Men and Lord of the Rings movies, but that only solidifies my point. With Gods and Monsters, playing Frankenstein and Invisible Man director James Whale, McKellen crafted a classic performance without the audience’s familiarity to back him up. He didn’t create Whale from scratch – he was a very real, and very fascinating man – but he had no preconceptions of the character to play to, or against. James Whale is Sir Ian McKellen, much as Amadeus‘s F. Murray Abraham will forever be Antonio Salieri (a role, incidentally, that McKellen originated on the stage). 

Gods and Monsters doesn’t have nearly as much Old Hollywood pandering as I thought it would (or, if I’m being honest, hoped it would), but it captures just enough to represent the memories of a dying man whose days of freedom, cavorting in naughty parties with naked young men, are behind him. Whereas the work in which he took pride once gave him the luxury of being open about his personal life, his obscurity as an aging director forces him in a position to be frowned upon by his own gardener (Brendan Fraser), the very sort of handsome lad who would have been clamoring for Whale’s attentions just a few decades previous. Of course he forms a connection with this day-laborer who should, from his perspective, be rather far beneath him: he demands the dignity of being understood once more, and for someone to look at him as he stills looks at himself.

With Gods and Monsters, Sir Ian McKellen introduced me to a character with something to say about owning one’s own life, and dealing directly with one’s choices years after they perhaps shouldn’t matter. He gave us something new, something special, and in my opinion, probably The Best Sir Ian McKellen Movie.

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