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Sir Ian McKellen acted in a film with the great Ava Gardner.
The 1981 film, titled Priest of Love, cast the Mr. Holmes star as author D.H. Lawrence and Gardner as artist Mabel Dodge Luhan. McKellen recalls that while Gardner, then in her 50s, was quite great, her trailer on the Mexico set was not.
“At lunchtime, it was used as the toilet for all the crew. It was appalling and I said so,” he remembers. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, Ian, don’t worry.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to get better accommodations than this. Will you promise me that you will call your agent the minute you get to the hotel?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I will not. I won’t call my agent. I’m going to call Frank.’ It seems that if you’ve been married to Frank Sinatra, you don’t need an agent. Two days later, the biggest fuck-off trailer you’ve ever seen arrived.”
The anecdote had the Thursday night audience inside L.A.’s Fine Arts Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard howling with laughter — and there was plenty more of it during McKellen’s “Women I’ve Filmed With,” his second outing with the monologue retrospective he debuted at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival.
As a nod to the Fine Arts, McKellen started the event with a joke, saying “There’s going to be nothing fine about this evening … and nothing arty.” But there wasn’t anything too mean either, as he recounted tales from a decades-long career that played like a positively dishy gossip session with musings on the business.
In addition to Gardner, the 76-year-old actor recounted on-set experiences with Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Kate Beckinsale, Maggie Smith, Lynn Redgrave, Halle Berry, Stockard Channing, Lily Tomlin, Ellen Page and Rebecca Romijn, among others.
But more interesting than the list of names is what he said, so here’s a sampling.
• McKellen had a blast sneaking cigarettes with Channing (whom he praised for her “inner strength and swagger”) during filming Six Degrees of Separation, because their co-star Donald Sutherland’s contract demanded that no one be allowed to smoke on set.
• Filming the X-Men franchise was a “gay man’s delight” because it was full of the most “amazing divas” like Berry, Famke Janssen, Romijn, Page and producer Lauren Shuler Donner. He called Berry a perfect beauty with an amazing smile, while he remembers that Page spoke “very, very quietly.” He’s not a fan of quiet, because “there’s far too much whispering going on in the movies.” But after she came out as a lesbian, “My God, she has found her voice.” However, he added that because they haven’t worked together again, he has only been able to “admire her” from afar.
• After working with Streep in 1985’s Plenty, he’s been waiting to find a project they could do together on stage. The actress promised she would as soon as her film roles started drying up. “That was in 1985,” he joked.
The full Mill Valley monologue, which is very similar to the L.A. outing, can be found here.
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