Ian McKellen has spent the two decades as the most famous openly gay actor on our pretty planet, and he has spoke out on the film industry’s timidity in depicting minorities onscreen.
McKellen commented to Time Out magazine on the controversy surrounding the decision not to show the young Dumbledore as “explicitly gay” in the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and its sequel Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald.
Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is a fictional character in J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series of books. For most of the series, he is the headmaster of the wizarding school “Hogwarts”. As part of his backstory, it is revealed that he is the founder and leader of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization dedicated to fighting Lord Voldemort. I have no idea what any of that means. Having never read the books or seen the films. But, I am all in favor of queer characters in children’s literature. It’s a tradition that goes back at least a century.
I do know that McKellen was offered the role, but he turned it down, having played the similar wizard character Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, which I also somehow managed to miss.
McKellen said that he also felt it would have been inappropriate to take the role originated by Richard Harris, since Harris had called McKellen a “dreadful actor”. Harris’s family had wanted Peter O’Toole to be his replacement. Michael Gambon finally got the role and played Dumbledore in the remaining Harry Potter films. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (2016) is a spin-off or prequel, I can’t figure it out, to the Harry Potter films.
Rowling’s casual 2007 statement that Dumbledore was gay turned fans of the books and films upside-down and inside-out. The stars and directors of the Harry Potter films were supportive of Rowling’s revelation. ButNew York Times columnist Edward Rothstein wrote:
Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay; however, there is no reason why anyone else should.
Other critics stated that Rowling’s claim had no weight, since there is no indication of Dumbledore’s sexuality in the novels. Others said that Dumbledore was gay from the beginning, and some noted the skill Rowling displayed in writing a gay character without having to put a gay label on him.
Rowling’s statement had Christian groups with panties all in a bunch, groups such as The Christian Coalition of America and the Family Research Council just were not having it.
McKellen, the subject of the documentary McKellen: Playing The Part (2018), took issue with the controversy around Jude Law‘s Dumbledore in the Fantastic Beasts films. McKellen:
Well, nobody looks to Hollywood for social commentary, do they? They only recently discovered that there were black people in the world. Hollywood has mistreated women in every possible way throughout its history. Gay men don’t exist.
McKellen wrote that his film Gods And Monsters (1998), in which he plays gay director James Whale, was:
…the beginning of Hollywood admitting that there were gay people knocking around, even though half of Hollywood is gay.
A report from advocacy group GLAAD found that only 12% of mainstream films feature LGBTQ characters.
McKellen came out publicly in 1988 and has been a staunch fighter for LGBTQ ever since. In a 1990s appearance on The Tonight Show, he declared himself: The first openly gay man to be knighted.
McKellen said that when he came out to producer Sam Spiegel, it cost him a role in the 1983 film Betrayal. McKellen:
I think it was the first time I came out to anyone. Well, I was out of that office in two minutes. It took writer Harold Pinter 25 years to apologize for not sticking up for me. But, young actors in London now have all been out for years. That’s the future.
McKellen has won six Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, four Drama Desk Awards, and two Critics’ Choice Awards. He has also received two Academy Award nominations, four BAFTA nominations and five Emmy Award nominations. In my humble opinion, he was robbed of an Oscar for Gods And Monsters, losing to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful.
In a 1998 interview that discusses the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, McKellen commented:
I have many regrets about not having come out earlier, but one of them might be that I didn’t engage myself in the politicking.
McKellen currently stars in All Is True directed by Kenneth Branagh, where Branagh plays William Shakespeare and McKellen is Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, the object of Shakespeare’s affections.
This winter McKellen will be seen as a con man in The Good Liar, directed and co-produced by Bill Condon, co-starring with his friend Helen Mirren; plus as “Gus the Theatre Cat” in the film version of the musical Cats with Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, and Judi Dench.
Tomorrow, McKellen celebrates his 80th birthday!
Photo from McKellen: Playing The Part, B Good Pictures via YouTube