One reason I try to avoid watching the Academy Awards is the embarrassment I always feel when people who get paid for reciting lines someone else has written make fools of themselves. I’m just being crotchety, I know, but I do wish I could forget Sacheen Littlefeather in 1973, Laurence Olivier’s gushing encomium over his honorary award in 1978, John Travolta garbling Idina Menzel’s name two years ago, and many similar embarrassments over the years.
A much more valid reason for my dislike of the Oscars, however, is the fact that “they” so often get it wrong. Case in point last year: Sir Ian McKellen’s wonderful performance as the Great Detective of Baker Street in Mr. Holmes. He should have at least been nominated.
Of course, that’s also the case with other actors, writers, directors, films, etc.
My grousing and grumbling about the Academy’s snub of “Mr. Holmes” prompted me to rewatch two earlier films with equally remarkable performances by McKellen. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, a fictional person in fact if not in renown, the two earlier roles had the actor playing real people — writer D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981) and filmmaker James Whale in Gods and Monsters (1998).
By happy coincidence, the films reflect 34 years of McKellen’s career with a span of 17 years between them, the quality in each case undiminished by age.
Produced and directed by Christopher Miles, Priest of Love focuses on the last 13 years of Lawrence’s life, beginning with the expulsion of him and his wife Frieda (Janet Suzman) from Cornwall in 1917 due to suspected sympathies with Germany. Frieda was a distant relative of German war ace Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron.
Continually beset by censorship and financial problems, the Lawrences were constantly on the move, spending time in New Mexico as guests of Mabel Dodge Luhan (Ava Gardner, perfectly cast, in one of her last film roles), and then Mexico before returning to Europe, finally settling in Italy where Lawrence died of tuberculosis at the age of 44.
In his first major film role, McKellen captures both the physical look and complex emotional range of Lawrence, a genius whose cruelty and anger often warred with his creative side. The film is a must-see for fans of Lawrence, Gardner, and McKellen. At the ripe old age of 41, relatively new to film if not the stage, the actor shows abundantly the promise of what was to come.
Nearly 20 films of all types marked McKellen’s career between Priest of Love and Gods and Monsters 17 years later, the film which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Based on a brilliant script which did win writer/director Bill Condon an Oscar, Gods and Monsters details the final days of James Whale, director of Frankenstein,Bride of Frankenstein, and the 1936 version of Show Boat, generally considered the best such treatment of the Edna Ferber/Jerome Kern musical vehicle.
McKellen complements the terrific script with a compelling performance as the aging director, one of Hollywood’s first openly gay personalities, prompted to confront his past in film as well as real-life when a young lawn-worker (Brendan Fraser in one of his best roles ever) enters his employ.
Multileveled, both chronologically and thematically (not unlike Mr. Holmes later), Gods and Monsters is a penetrating look at the creative process in general as well as Hollywood before and after its “golden” age.
Reunited with director Condon for Mr. Holmes, McKellen has lost nothing in the intervening 17 years. You can’t really say he’s gotten better, because he is just as good as ever.
When you see the film, I think you’ll agree that once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences missed the boat by not acknowledging Ian McKellen with a nomination.
The Oscars. Grrrrr!