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BOOK REVIEW Ian McKellen: A Biography
by Terri Schlichenmeyer
2020-03-17

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Author: Garry O'Connor. $29.99; St. Martin's Press; 356 pages

Any old stick would do.

When you were a child, that's what it took to become a wizard: a stick became a makeshift wand, an old towel turned into a cape, and you were ready for spell-making. It worked for imaginations everywhere although, as you'll see in Ian McKellen: A Biography, by Garry O'Connor, sometimes, reel magic helps, too.

On May 25, 1939, mere months before the beginning of World War II, Ian Murray McKellen made his debut into the world. The only son of parents who lived large, passionate lives, young McKellen grew up securely happy despite the War.

Alas, that ended when his beloved mother died of cancer when McKellen was just twelve years old. As years passed, he always regretted that she never knew about him what he knew about himself: he received his "first gay kiss" at age 9 and understood even then that he preferred boys to girls.

Although his original plan was to graduate school and work as a journalist, McKellen was denied the chance and instead opted to attend Cambridge. There, others noticed that he had a great aptitude for Shakespearean acting; it was nurtured and a "most extraordinary explosion of talent happened." His time at Cambridge helped him sharpen his craft; it was also there that McKellen lost his virginity to another man.

O'Connor says that McKellen is "a slow-progress stickler" and never minded using "modest roles" as stepping stones; every role he played led to bigger parts on better-known stages in larger venues. In 1964, he landed a small part in a BBC-TV production as his first foray into television, and he continued to eye a career in film—a career that "still eluded [him] until the late 1990s." At that time, he was able to transition from stage to screen, scoring a Tony, a Golden Globe, a SAG award and an Oscar nomination.

And then a "quick perusal of the Marvel comics … caught his fancy."

For readers who are wild about Shakespeare, Ian McKellen: A Biography will be a delight. Those who are not to be, however, may find this book quite tedious.

O'Connor, who's known McKellen for decades, explains in his first chapter how this book came about, in opening words that are carefully off-the-cuff. That chumminess feels as if you're real-time eavesdropping on a semi-scripted conversation between two friends.

Get past the account of McKellen's early life, though, and much of the rest of this book is uber-deep into theater, with the occasional reminder of McKellen's gayness in the narrative. Serious followers of British stage performances will find the former to be irresistible and the latter to make one feel like a close backstage insider. Those who prefer McKellen's later work might find this all mildly interesting, but far too extra until toward the end.

And so there's the break-down: Theater fan, yes. You'll love Ian McKellen: A Biography. If you're a fan of McKellen's later movie career only, this book is okay if you can stick with it.

Want more? Then look for Ian McKellen: An Unofficial Biography, by Mark Barratt.


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