When Sir Ian McKellen heard that the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival was giving him a tribute and their Mill Valley Film Festival Award, his first thought, he said, was “Why on earth am I getting the Lifetime Achievement Award?” His second thought, apparently, was how he could share the honor. When he learned that the slogan of the MVFF this year, in honor of the historically low percentage of women directors in film, was Mind the Gap (appropriately British, since it references London subway stations), he asked if the clips in his tribute could feature the women he’d worked with over the years.
Well, no, they said, it’s all about you, and the clips have already been selected.
Whereupon McKellen offered to put together his own program of clips and commentary. Although the program had already been printed, Director of Programming Zoe Elton told me, “How could we say no?” The only available slot was on Monday afternoon, the day after the tribute, and somehow they got the word out and the largest room in the Smith Rafael Film Center was entirely filled.
Sir Ian was dapper in a linen jacket, a spotted t-shirt, grey-blue pants, immaculate white sneakers, and a long multi-colored scarf — considerably less formal than he’d been the night before. “Oh dear,” he began, “it was a late night last night.”
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But he wanted “to give a little present back,” and told us that he’d never done this before, and to “just relax!”
The slide show started with a brief history lesson — tributes to Lilian Baylis, whose efforts to bring culture to the masses resulted in the founding of the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet, and the National Theatre (“good on Lilian Baylis, huh?”), and early actresses Nell Gwyn and Fanny Kemble.
The first of the greats that McKellen had actually worked with was Dame Sybil Thorndike — he had been cast as the Dauphin to her St. Joan in a BBC recording of extracts from the Shaw play, and was so wound up at the prospect that he arrived at the studio half-an-hour late.
Some highlights of the dense and yet light-hearted afternoon, in which McKellen glanced at a brief page or two of notes, obviously meant just to jog his memory: Lynn Redgrave played opposite him in his first-ever television appearance, and the inside gossip stated: “We were playing sweethearts…she asked me to marry her. I thought she was about to make the same mistake [as her mother]” since her father, Michael Redgrave, was bisexual. McKellen added, wryly, that somehow Alan Bates ended up opposite Redgrave in the part he was supposed to get in the great success, “Georgy Girl.”
In “Thank You All Very Much,” Sandy Dennis becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with McKellen (“my character was probably gay”), and decides to raise the baby on her own — “Rather tame these days…she was very nervous, nervous in her acting, too much, I thought.” Dennis, he said, was married to jazz musician Gerry Mulligan at the time, and was very proud of her zoo: “endless pictures of her cats — they all looked the same to me — and dogs and crocodile.”
A sexy picture of a bare-chested McKellen with Vivien Merchant, the wife of Haold Pinter, was from a film maudit, Alfred the Great, written in faux-medieval language. When Pinter read the script, he told Merchant that she was not to speak a word of the appalling dialect. The result, said McKellen, was that she became a dumb character, “I took over all her wretched lines, and she got all the closeups!”
McKellen’s first leading part was playing D.H. Lawrence in “Priest of Love,” with Janet Suzman, Penelope Keith, and Ava Gardner — lovely memories of his first travel in first class, his first suite in a hotel — in Oaxaca, overlooking a swimming pool, where he looked down and saw Ava Gardner in an emerald one-piece, doing the breast-stroke, who looked up and waved and said “Hi, Ian!” “I did feel HIGH!,” he laughed.
Another Gardner anecdote: he was appalled that Gardner had a shared trailer, with a bathroom that all the crew had access to. “Call your agent,” he told her, “you’ve got to get a better trailer.” “No, I will not call my agent,” she said. “I will call Frank.”
The next day the biggest trailer in Mexico arrived. “If you’ve been married to Frank Sinatra, you don’t need an agent!”
After coming out, McKellen played the “raging heterosexual” John Profumo, England’s Secretary of State for War whose affair with playgirl Christine Keeler — played by Joanne Whalley Kilmer, “one of the most beautiful” women he worked with — who was also consorting with a Russian spy, brought down the British government, in the movie “Scandal.” When it came to the sex, McKellen said, “I didn’t quite know what to do,” so he asked his friend, actor Edward Petherbridge “Can you give me some tips?” He drew matchstick men and women, so “I’m now an expert in the missionary position!”
Every slide or clip brought forth a witty reminiscence, usually kind, but not without interesting insight —Stockard Channing in “Six Degrees of Separation” reminded him of Tallulah Bankhead’s “wild personality” —and even occasionally a bit of a sting: “Here’s a naughty story which you can’t repeat:” McKellen was not pleased that Will Smith, playing a gay character in the film, refused to kiss another actor, since he thought his fans wouldn’t like it. “It was IN THE SCRIPT!,” McKellen said, finding this unprofessional. “I got my own back. At the premiere, I gave him a great big kiss — on the lips!”
He played with two great Dames, Eileen Atkins in “Cold Comfort Farm” and on Broadway in “The Promise,” and Judi Dench — “everybody loves Judi, that’s her quality, she’s lovable” — in “Macbeth” —her Lady Macbeth was “sympathetic!” “Eileen and Judy haven’t had facelifts.”
Kate Beckinsale, another great beauty and co-star in “Cold Comfort Farm,” also proposed marriage, though not, it seems, as seriously as Lynn Redgrave’s offer.
Clips of McKellen in his own screenplay of “Richard III” (“I played it at the Curran [in San Francisco] and each night went back to the hotel and wrote the screenplay…”) brought up Maggie Smith: “chalk and cheese with Judi Dench, yet they’re the two pillars of British acting,” and a cute little story about Eddie Redmayne, “who didn’t get the part [he auditioned for] of 1 of the 2 boys killed — he’s never let me forget it, but it’s not really held him back, has it?”
McKellen shared the screen with another great beauty, Rachel Weisz, in “Swept from the Sea,” directed by Beban Kidron, who was “heavily pregnant — it had a good effect on the film.” “The week after the film wrapped, she delivered — he’s now a strapping thirty-year-old.”
Meryl Streep, in “Plenty,” was “terribly attentive to me” — during the rehearsal period, they were working, and her assistant told her the President of the United States was on the line, and Streep asked if she could call him back! She said they’d do a play together “in a few years, after the offers die down” — “Of course, I’m still waiting!”
Halle Berry, his co-star in “X-Men,” is “one of the most beautiful women in the world— we’ve done four, with Rebecca Romijn, Famke Janssen, Jennifer Lawrence — it’s an honor to be in the presence of these high-powered, glamorous women.”
“Gods and Monsters,” with Lynn Redgrave, again, brought up sweet memories of her niece, Natasha Richardson, with whom he co-starred in “Asylum,” one of her last films, and whom he obviously adored: “nonstop fun…perfect hostess…wonderful cook…always worried about her career, she was robbed of that and so were we.”
“Here’s a beautiful actor — Audrey Tatou,” with whom he worked in “The Da Vinci Code.” “We fell into each other’s arms and laughed a good deal and wondered what we were doing in this film.”
His co-star in “The Lord of the Rings” movies, Cate Blanchett, he never actually met or worked with until “The Hobbit.” Guillermo del Toro thought “they should be sweet on each other — a suggestion of Elvish/wizardly romance,” which was indeed faintly visible in the clip. “Isn’t she gorgeous? — no other face like that in the world.”
“Who better to end with than Laura Linney,” Sir Ian said, his co-star in “Mr. Holmes,” and a “great friend of Armistead Maupin, your local author and author of ‘Tales of the City,’ in which she played Marianne.” (Maupin, also a great friend of Sir Ian, introduced him at the previous night’s Tribute.) Linney had just had a baby before filming the rather dour, older character in “Mr. Holmes,” and “the little baby was getting his dinner in between shots — a lovely reminder that life goes on.”
When I met Sir Ian afterwards, I assured him that, with a very little polish, he now had a one-man (and many women) show he could take on the road. “You could call it Dames I Have Known and Loved,” I said. He looked cheered, and then stricken: “I forgot Helen Mirren!” Perhaps she will show up in his Los Angeles presentation.