Ian McKellen aims for an Oscar
Ian McKellen doesn’t want to be feared. ”Look, I’m a nice person,” he insists. ”But people think I’m a ‘classical actor.’ They probably think I speak blank verse all day.”
It’s his own fault. The guy has played 12 Shakespearean roles. He won a Tony as the obsessively jealous Salieri in Amadeus and a Golden Globe as the despotic Czar Nicholas II in HBO’s Rasputin. He’s even been knighted, for Pete’s sake. But with two simultaneous (and vastly dissimilar) big-screen roles — 77-year-old Nazi-in-hiding Kurt Dussander in Apt Pupil and 67-year-old gay director James Whale in Gods and Monsters — the actor who spent more than half of his 59 years working mostly on stage is gunning for a new prize: mainstream American success and long-overdue Oscar recognition.
But don’t expect him to let all that good buzz go to his head. ”I haven’t ever made a film in America when the word Oscar wasn’t used within the first week of shooting,” says McKellen. ”’This is an Oscar-winning part.’ A number of people have said that. They’re right to the extent that it is parts that win Oscars, rather than actors. No disrespect to Anthony Hopkins, but whoever had played Hannibal Lecter would have been a serious contender for the Oscar.”
Perhaps his thesis springs from watching F. Murray Abraham — who snatched the Salieri role in Milos Forman’s 1984 film version of Amadeus — walk away with Best Actor. His ferocious work in 1995’s Richard III should have done the trick — but again he came up short: McKellen says he was told two days before that year’s nominations were announced that he had missed a Best Actor nod by just two votes. (”Price Waterhouse has been counting the Oscar ballots since 1935 and there has never been a breach of security procedures in all that time,” responds Peter Horowitz, global public relations director for a division of the firm. ”It’s inconceivable that he would have had that information when he did.”)
McKellen’s current directors feel his moment has arrived. ”I feel a lot of similarities between him and Kevin Spacey,” says Pupil director Bryan Singer, who shepherded Spacey to an Oscar with The Usual Suspects. Since McKellen’s Pupil performance garnered warmer reviews than the film did, his run for the gold will likely be with Gods and Monsters. New York Times critic Janet Maslin has already said his somber turn ”richly deserves to be remembered at the end of the year.” But Hollywood politics may turn even that into a tough sell. ”I showed the movie to a publicist who handles a lot of Academy campaigns,” says Gods director Bill Condon. ”She said, ‘The only problem is, there’s never been a gay man who’s been nominated for a gay role.’ She said it right before the  nominations came out, and indeed Rupert Everett didn’t get nominated [for My Best Friend’s Wedding] and Greg Kinnear did [for As Good as It Gets].”
It’s therefore ironic that McKellen attributes his recent award-caliber work to his decision to reveal his own homosexuality, which he kept hidden until a decade ago. ”I was just embarrassed by it,” says the Cambridge graduate, who grew up in Burnley, England. ”I think I bought the idea that if people knew I was gay, I wouldn’t be able to play certain parts, or if I did, that an audience might find it less easy to accept me in them.” After coming out during a BBC radio program in 1988 (he received his knighthood in ’91), he debunked that theory by playing the womanizing politician John Profumo in 1989’s Scandal — quite a different MO from that of Everett, who says he doesn’t feel the need to play straight roles. ”If he doesn’t want to play Macbeth or Hamlet, fair enough,” sniffs McKellen, who lives in London. ”Each actor has his place.”