I should start out by saying my background was almost exclusively as a stage actor, which is (in my opinion) rather different from film acting. Personally, I never cared for the latter: all the repeated takes, eons of waiting for the lighting to be just so, infinitely more complicated costumes and makeup due to the close proximity of the audience (i.e., the camera), and hordes of other factors conspired to make the process unbearable to me. Then there's also the fact that, while stage actors still have to account for changes in time and location in their plays, film actors also have to account for a lot of incredible things that aren't there (think green-screening) and they frequently have to perform their scenes well out of chronological order. Some plays incorporate that as a specific mode of storytelling, but in film it happens because the crew is already on location or the set is going into the dumpster tomorrow so they need to shoot the last scene first as a logistical issue. It's mind-boggling to me, so please understand I can at least somewhat appreciate all of this as I make my comments. Besides, anyone who seriously thought about making a film out of Tolkien's work had to be slightly off-balance to begin with (sorry, Sir Peter). This series of posts will concentrate on the performances of specific actors in their roles and my own humble opinions about them.
Gandalf: Like Morgan Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen seems to be one of those people who's always been old. Are there any clips of a young Ian anywhere? Or was that all prior to the invention of moving pictures? Anyway, he brings all of those years of experience to bear masterfully in this role. We have all heard the pundits punditing about the difficulty of playing Jesus (think James Caveziel or all of the Gospel movies from the 60s and 70s) -- how to portray a divine or "otherworldly" character on Earth in film, and there's quite a bit of truth to that. Acting is all about replicating and interpreting human experiences, so portraying non-human experiences is a unique challenge: the actor must bring to the set their own understanding of the world from which they came and communicate that (usually non-verbally, which is where all the best acting happens) in the role. McKellen does this in regal fashion: look closely and you can see how, as an angel sent to Earth with a specific mission, he considers and decides his courses of action based on his knowledge of the greater Truth.
Gandalf knows the important thing is to do what is right, not what is prudent ("I do not counsel prudence"), and who does what is right is unimportant so long as they do it willingly. Gandalf knows these acts of faith will be rewarded, but he is also forbidden from coercing anyone into action. McKellen succeeds in delivering sagely wisdom without sounding cheesy and expertly manages the character's eventual subjugation as the driving force for the good guys to Aragorn (in the films, of course: this doesn't occur in the book). This creates a nice arc for the character to follow and allows for a certain level of "maturity," if I can use that word. It can be very difficult for characters like Gandalf to evolve since they aren't of this world anyway and what we consider big problems (death, for instance) are not as much of a concern to them. If the actor is not careful this can stop the character from developing because it can come across as a devil-may-care "chill out man, everything's gonna be fine" mentality which can blunt the drama. McKellen mitigates this problem by focusing instead on his concern for Gandalf's friends, by never conceding that things are going to work out in the end (plenty of people do die along the way, after all, himself included), and (with help from the director and screenwriters) by moving him into a secondary role behind Aragorn.
We saw this arc begin in Rohan at the victory celebration following the return from Isengard where Aragorn asks Gandalf, "What does your heart tell you?" McKellen's facial reaction is priceless: you can see the character surprised at the question from his pupil, then almost embarrassed at having not thought of it himself, then relief as he considers the wisdom in the words. This is the beginning of the whole "the student becomes the teacher" process. Next, the breaking of Gandalf's staff in Minas Tirith, although never occurring in the book, is a way of continuing this development: Gandalf is robbed of his angelic powers and left nothing but an old man (albeit one with some pretty mean fencing tricks). Finally, Gandalf speaks in despair after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and it is Aragorn who puts forward the idea of self-sacrifice, in response to which Gandalf first speaks against then submits. Again, these things don't happen in the book, but they are an important part of character development so that Gandalf doesn't become stale or immobile. Naturally, this has the reciprocal effect of maturing Aragorn, something Jackson obviously wished to see more clearly in his interpretation of the story.
McKellen understands these implications and delivers even the smallest moments with magnificent precision. There has been much commentary over the decades about Frodo as a "Christ-like" character who sacrifices himself for the salvation of others. This is rather misguided because, unlike Christ, Frodo a) does not accomplish his mission without considerable help from others, and b) never actually accomplishes his mission at all, really. A much more accurate comparison should be made between Christ and Gandalf, both of which were figures sent from the spiritual world to combat evil, neither of which drew fully on their own native powers to alter human existence, both of whom had Pity as their defining characteristic, and both of whom willingly sacrificed themselves for the sake of others. Was it coincidence that, in the FOTR film, Gandalf fell into the abyss with his arms stretched out in what appears to be the form of a cross? I don't know, but consider what it would mean visually if the body had been limp as it fell, signifying defeat? Or if he had dove in head-first (as indeed we see in the opening sequence of TTT)? Instead we see a form implying, at the very minimum, submission to and acceptance of the fate bestowed upon the character, an action for which he is later rewarded. This is an extremely powerful theme throughout Tolkien's work, and it's also something we should expect from an angelic being -- someone who understands their own passing is less important than the furtherance of the Quest and, thereby, a chance at the salvation of the entire mortal world.
At every turn, McKellen's performance is more than worthy of the Oscar nomination it received for FOTR, and his work throughout all six of Jackson's films has been nothing short of divine.
Up next, Frodo Baggins.
Master of Toons