Book Review — Ian McKellen comes to life on the page in “A Biography”

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One of the delights of the third act of Sir Ian McKellen’s life and illustrious career has been throwing dinner parties, sometimes in swank restaurants here or there — often in the ancient and storied pub he owns, The Grapes.

He invites old friends, colleagues from film and a lifetime in the theater, wines and dines the lot. And at the end of the evening, as related in Garry O’Connor’s “Ian McKellen: A Biography,” he stands up at head of table, grins and makes a sweeping, theatrical gesture and utters the words everybody fumbling for the check is delighted to hear.

“Gandalf PAYS!”

Indeed he does. O’Connor may track, in quick vignettes, sketches and the like, the long life of the knighted thespian, heir to Olivier and leading interpreter of Shakespeare for his generation. But cinematic glory — and great wealth — didn’t show up until he became Gandalf the Grey — or the White — in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings/Hobbit” pictures.

O’Connor is a contemporary of McKellen’s, an old friend from the theatre who became a biographer of some note — publishing books on Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guiness, among others. As such, he has just enough biographer’s distance to tell a complete story of the man’s life — pick at his foibles and celebrate his true triumphs.

The opening chapter is O’Connor visiting Sir Ian to enlist his help, and not getting it. How very McKellen, one who has deigned not to write an autobiography, “modestly” refusing to pitch in on a deep dive into his career, his personal story, his life of activism and his victory lap — the post-Magneto (“X-Men”), after-Gandalf celebrity that has made him a public figure still revered in some quarters — but adored far and wide for his fan-friendly projects.

I’ve never seen him on the stage, and first noticed McKellen in “Scandal,” the 1980s British drama about the Profumo affair that crippled the British government in the 1960s.

I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, first when he took his shot at putting his Fascist “Richard III” on screen, something of a breakthrough for him — finally a film star in his ’50s. We bickered over the “virtuouso villainy” of rhe character.

O’Connor’s more intimate acquaintance makes him a fine choice for charting the rise of the Master Thespian, the frustrations of not equaling Olivier on the big screen — never winning an Oscar still gripes him — and the late life glories that have consumed the last twenty years.

He kept up a friendly rivalry with his contemporary Derek Jacobi, was stalked (successfully, ahem), by the young Rupert Everett and with his “X-Men” and later “Waiting for Godot” co-star and chum Patrick Stewart teamed-up to become the great chat show/public appearance and occasional shared acting gig “bromance” of our day.

Just adorable, the both of them.

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O’Connor’s book is awfully inside baseball, as we say on this side of the pond, when it comes to theatrical name dropping through McKellen’s pre-film-fame decades. If you don’t know that “Cambridge Mafia” of actors, directors and playwrights who came up with McKellen you may need to hit Wikipedia every page or two.

But it’s insightful in capturing McKellen’s strange accent, the swallowed, plummy locutions that seem to stem from geography, childhood illness and perhaps a recognition that he could be the baritone to Olivier’s tenor.

McKellen’s “coming out,” putting himself in the middle of the public debate over British conservative efforts to revive versions of the country’s anti-gay statues, and doing it at a time when few of his stature dared speak up, plays as heroic and decisive. He was a formidable debater against the forces of repression. He didn’t make his sexuality his identity, and thrived after letting that side of himself into the limelight.

One time I interviewed McKellen was for a story on Magneto, a “villain with a legitimate beef with the world.” The Marvel villain is a Holocaust survivor, remember. O’Connor so discounts the character (monosyllabic words, dull dialogue save for his scenes with Stewart) that he misses the impact that franchise-impacting character had. Sure, these were Wolverine movies. But Magneto was defined for all time by McKellen.

O’Connor shares Tolkien film anecdotes (not many), and seems on less sure footing in these chapters. He found a few anecdotes shared between McKellen and screen legend Christopher Lee — but botches Old Dracula’s age by ten years and rather misses the boat in the glories of McKellen’s read on the much-traveled, intrepid wizard.

The hat, the pipe, the beard, the quizzical voice, the staff all were mere props. Three perfectly-played words made his take on Gandolf sing, and made him a screen immortal.

“FLY, you fools!”

Ian McKellen: A Biography, by Garry O’Connor. St. Martin’s Press. 356 pages, $29.95.

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