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Ian McKellen stars as Richard III

Oscar-nominated film comes to video with Sir Ian playing the lead

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Shakespeare’s Queen Elizabeth says it best: Richard III is a dog. Embodying the Bard’s ruthless king-to-be in the latest screen treatment of Richard III, Ian McKellen — with his droopy cheeks, leathery complexion, and vicious growl — is the wickedest celluloid cur since Cujo.

Richard’s canine characteristics did not go unnoticed by McKellen, who also exec-produced and cowrote the Oscar-nominated film, available on video this week. ”In an early draft of the screenplay, every time Richard appeared, you heard an arf, arf, arf,” laughs the 57-year-old British actor, whose latest film role is as Cold Comfort Farm‘s melodramatic preacher, Amos Starkadder. ”We were going a bit far.” McKellen’s primary goal was to bring Shakespeare’s formidable text down to earth, transporting Richard III‘s narrative to the more accessible 1930s. ”The more believable their world is, the more we’re likely to relate it to our own lives,” reasons McKellen, whose own interest in British politics led him to cofound the gay-rights lobbying organization the Stonewall Group in 1989. ”I hope nobody would come out of Richard III without thinking ‘What is this guy I’m voting for really like?”’

A good question, but futile in the case of the enigmatic Richard. Sir Ian (he was knighted in 1991) has made him at once endearing and repulsive — stuffing his mouth with chocolates, wine, and cigarettes before flashing a dastardly smile. ”I regard Richard III as the most brilliant Shakespearean film ever made,” says John Andrews, president of the Shakespeare Guild, which presented the actor with the Guild’s first Golden Quill award on May 20. ”I think it’s going to have a life of its own.”

That’s in part because of the sneaky asides McKellen delivers throughout the film. Just before accepting his crown — the achievement Richard’s been anticipating his entire life — he glances at us and says with faux arm-twisting hesitation, ”I’m not made of stone.” It’s a performance some critics contend should have been rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Or at least a Milk-Bone.