by Samantha Campos
Sir Ian McKellen arrived to a legion of fans who’d gathered on the sidewalk alongside a red carpet leading into the Smith Rafael Film Center on Sunday, October 11. Accompanied by an entourage, McKellen walked, beaming, towards the photographers’ pen, stopping short to ensure that a young girl got “a good shot.”
Inside the theater a few minutes later, Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) Director Mark Fishkin ran through McKellen’s illustrious career and awards, then showed a montage of such crowd-pleasers as Gods and Monsters, Lord of the Rings and X-Men. Before presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of MVFF, surprise guest Armistead Maupin, famed author of Tales of the City, regaled attendees with stories about his friend of 35 years, including the time McKellen stayed at his house and left a note on the pillowcase that read, “Gandalf and Magneto slept here—with each other.”
Onstage with Zoe Elton, MVFF’s director of programming, McKellen discussed his thespian origins. “I was brought up in the north of England, in a town where there were three live theaters, and my parents used to take me to them,” he said. “I was so enchanted by what I saw. How do they do it, is what I wanted to find out. What happens behind that curtain? How do they learn their lines? How is it all done? It was because of that, I decided to act.”
At the start of his career, McKellen often performed in very large theaters, with 1,500 people in attendance. “So I was a big actor—at times perhaps thought to be a bit overblown,” he said. Then he did Macbeth in 1976 with Judi Dench at a Stratford-upon-Avon theater of just 100 people.
“You didn’t have to project your performance, you didn’t have to tell the audience what to look at—they were close enough to touch you,” McKellen said. “And I loved it. It was that production that was the preparation that got me ready for the closest audience of all, which is the camera.
“Acting is the same whether you’re in front of a camera or in front of a live, large audience. It’s the degree of
presentation which makes the difference.”
Clips were shown of McKellen’s cinematic roles in Cold Comfort Farm (1995), Richard III (1995), Lord of the Rings (2001-2), Gods and Monsters (1998) and Mr. Holmes (2015), and in between, he charmed the crowd with reenacted lines, behind-the-scenes stories, impressions of other actors and tales of working with Ava Gardner. Then he graciously answered audience questions about his status as an openly gay actor.
“When I came out, some longtime gay activists assumed that I would now turn myself into a ‘queer artist,’” he said, “that I would stop playing the sort of parts I play and just concentrate on gay-related plays and films. And I said, ‘No, I can’t!’ I find that heterosexuality is far too interesting a phenomenon to be ignored.”
McKellen expressed his joy for “telling stories to real people,” whatever the medium. “Sometimes we get it wrong,” he said. “Perhaps the script’s not quite good enough. Perhaps we didn’t work quite hard enough. But when we do and it all comes together, then the magic of the movies is that it’s there for all time, for others to see.”
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On Thursday, October 15, MVFF paid tribute to documentarian Marcel Ophuls. Born in Germany in 1927, Ophuls is considered one of the most important filmmakers of the world, garnering critical acclaim for his work including, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), an Oscar-nominated examination of France under Nazi occupation, which was later featured in the story arc of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall; and Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988), which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Before screening ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Un Voyageur), Ophuls explained how he made the 2013 autobiographical film as a precursor to his memoirs, and quipped that it’s “short” at 106 minutes (The Sorrow and the Pity runs 251 minutes; Hotel Terminus is 267 minutes).
Afterwards, Ophuls conversed on stage with Peter Stein, Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and former executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Ophuls discussed how most of his films were journalistic assignments, and that his best movie was The Memory of Justice.
Peter Stein: [The Memory of Justice (1976)] is a brave film because once again, you turn your attention toward the crimes under Nazism, but through the lens of the Vietnam War. And Algeria.
Marcel Ophuls: That’s the Nuremberg principle. It was supposed to bring justice to the world, and of course, it didn’t. Because there is no justice in the world. There can’t ever be. For a while, we felt it could be possible. No, these things are still with us, and the danger is still here.
Stein: Your films set a certain moral bar for what film can do in the way of exposing some deep national truths, starting with The Sorrow and the Pity. You’re revealing something about French activity during the occupation that was kind of an overturning of “an official version,” as Stanley Kauffmann used to call it. Was that intentional or did you discover that in the making of the film?
Ophuls: Both. The time had come for somebody to—in films, in books—put an end to the godless, Communist mythology about a country having all resist the invader. No country ever does that. In no crisis in life is that ever possible.
Stein: One of your great contributions to cinema is allowing a big story to fill a big space of time.
Ophuls: Actors can give you on the screen their personality in three minutes—great actors, even less. But for real people to stop being just talking heads, you have to give them time so that people can judge for themselves. I’m not the one who invented that. To me, documentaries are all about spontaneity.