Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Lying at the Feet of a Good Liar

 I don’t mean to brag (yeah, right!), but I once shared the stage with Sir Ian McKellen. Touring the world in a one-man show, McKellen stopped off in L.A. for a stint at the Westwood Playhouse. The evening was called Acting Shakespeare, and he alternately emoted and conversed with the audience, discoursing on how he prepared himself for the great Shakespearean roles that crowned his brilliant stage career. At one point, he announced that he needed volunteers from the audience, the more the better. As we all turned shy, he reminded us that this was probably our only chance to serve as his acting partners. Surely the bragging rights were worth a little embarrassment? That broke the ice: about twenty of us slowly got to our feet and came down the aisles to mount the stage. 

McKellen proceeded to have the curtain lowered, cutting off the view of those still in their seats, and then privately told us what this was all about. He was going to do one of Shakespeare’s great battlefield orations, in which a king (was it a Richard or a Henry?) laments the death and destruction he’s just witnessed We, his newly minted entourage, would stand quietly behind him.  A certain line would be our cue. When it came, we were all to slump to the floor, dead. And there we’d lie, not moving, not breathing if we could help it, until his powerful oration came to an end.

 Though McKellen is renowned for his stage work, he’s also done his share of films. And what an eclectic lot they are! He’s played classical roles, of course, and nabbed a well-deserved Oscar nomination for portraying openly-gay Hollywood director James Whale in 1998’s Gods and Monsters. (McKellen has long been an “out” actor who takes pride in his activism on behalf of gender equality.)  Another Oscar nod honored his portrayal of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. He was featured as Magneto in the X-Men films, played the alarm clock, Cogsworth, in Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, and was Gus the Theatre Cat in the much-lambasted film version of the stage perennial, Cats.

 Last year, at the impressive age of 80, he took a major role that didn’t require fancy makeup. The film was The Good Liar, a thriller based on a popular novel, in which he played opposite the redoubtable Helen Mirren. Though McKellen’s character, Roy Courtnay, does not resort to screen-worthy disguises to hide his true identity, he’s in fact a nefarious con man masquerading as a pleasant but feeble old codger. Feigning a bad leg, he insinuates himself into the home (and apparently the heart) of a retired college professor named Betty. She seems surprisingly naïve, but is she? His goal is to siphon off all of her money. Her goal – well, it’s complicated, but we sense from the start that any character played by Mirren is no pushover. Best-known by moviegoers for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen, she gravitates toward parts that suggest a gracious but steely intelligence.

 The Good Liar’s big reveal, which follows an apparently light-hearted trip à deux to Berlin, might read well on the page. But the long flashback that explains a previously concealed past history comes off on screen as highly unlikely, leaving viewers like me to feel manipulated. Which is perhaps why this film, despite its starry pedigree, did not wow ticket-buyers. Still, watching two of England’s greatest thespians battle for supremacy is definitely a treat. And if acting is simply an elaborate form of lying, play on! 



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