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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reel Magic’

A biography of Ian McKellen.


Any old stick would do. When you were a child, a stick turned into a makeshift wand is all it took to become a wizard. Add an old towel turned into a cape, and you were ready for serious spell-making. It worked for creative children everywhere, although, as you’ll see in Ian McKellen: A Biography by Garry O’Connor, sometimes “reel” magic helps, too.

On May 25, 1939, mere months before the beginning of World War II, Ian Murray McKellen made his debut into the world. The only son of parents who lived large, passionate lives, young McKellen grew up securely happy despite the war.

Ian McKellen: A Biography
• by Garry O’Connor
• 2019
• St. Martin’s Press (
• 356 pages
• $29.99/$39.99 Canada

Alas, that ended when his beloved mother died of cancer when McKellen was just 12 years old. As the years passed, he always regretted that she never knew he received his “first gay kiss” at age nine, and that he understood even then that he preferred boys to girls.

Though his original plan was to graduate school and work as a journalist, McKellen was denied the chance and instead opted to attend Cambridge. There, others noticed that he had a great aptitude for Shakespearean acting. As his passion for acting was nurtured, a “most extraordinary explosion of talent happened.” His time at Cambridge helped him sharpen his craft, and it was also there that McKellen lost his virginity to another man.

O’Connor says that McKellen is “a slow-progress stickler” and never minded using “modest roles” as stepping-stones; every role he played led to bigger parts on better-known stages in larger venues. In 1964, he landed a small part in a BBC-TV production (his first foray into television) as he continued to eye a career in film—a career that “still eluded [him] until the late 1990s.” At that time, he was able to transition from stage to screen, quickly racking up a Tony, a Golden Globe, a SAG award, and an Oscar nomination.

And then, “a quick perusal of the Marvel Comics caught his fancy.”

For readers who are wild about Shakespeare, Ian McKellen: A Biography will be a delight. Those who are not, however, may find this book quite tedious.

Author Garry O’Connor, who has known McKellen for decades, explains in his first chapter how this book came about, in opening words that are carefully off-the-cuff. That chumminess feels as if you’re eavesdropping in real time on a semi-scripted conversation between two friends.

Get past the account of McKellen’s early life, though, and much of the rest of this book is über-deep into theater, with occasional reminders of McKellen’s gayness in the narrative. Serious followers of British stage performances will find the former to be irresistible, and the latter will make one feel like a backstage insider. Those who prefer McKellen’s later work might find all of this mildly interesting, yet far too detailed until the final section.

And so, there’s the lowdown: theater fans will love Ian McKellen: A Biography. But if you’re just a fan of McKellen’s later movie career, this book is okay if you can stick with it.

This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.


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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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