Patrick Stewart has generally been flagged as Ian’s close friend from X-Men onwards, although they had not been close before. The friendship was cemented with the sequel, X-Men 2, again directed by Bryan Singer and filmed in Canada. Stewart celebrated his sixty-second birthday there, with Ian doing George Formby’s ‘I’m leaning on a lamp post’ as a party turn, while Brian Cox, who had joined the cast to play William Stryker, recited Burns’s ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.’ X-Men went on, with McKellen and Stewart appearing in the series, but not in all of them, until the seventh in 2014 when in X-Men: Days of Future Past both appeared together again. By this time the franchise had grossed over two billion dollars. With Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News to mark the release of Days of Future Past, the McKellen–Stewart friendship, or ‘bromance,’ as it was now dubbed, had become legendary, with even academic articles exploring the authenticity of the union. Both actors couldn’t resist the chance to express views about immigration and have a dig at Nigel Farage and Ukip.
Ian has appeared on the Graham Norton chat show many times, and in one instance in 2013, when he was soon to officiate at Patrick Stewart’s wedding, he made the audience respond with uproar and laughter when he declared bluntly, ‘I’m going to marry Patrick.’ It became a jokey headline talking point as ‘McKellen marries Stewart.’ As if to reinforce the tongue-in- cheek game, both friends mouth-to-mouth kissed on the red carpet at the premier of Mr. Holmes in May 2014.
Gay banter with sexual innuendo on chat shows had become almost obligatory. Presided over by dapple-whiskered Graham Norton, in a further show both knights appeared, with Hugh Jackman (who plays Logan/Wolverine in X-Men). ‘Sir Patrick’ – ‘call me Beef-Stew’ – revealed how moving it was for him that Ian now called him ‘my brother.’ McKellen told a tale of the Oscar ceremony when prior to it he was carrying a Pounamu, a New Zealand charm, visibly round his neck, and encountered Maggie Smith, who asked him what it was for. He imitated her cynical accent. He said it would bring him luck when the Oscars are announced. After, and when he hadn’t won it, he met her again as he left: ‘It didn’t do you much good!!’ – sending up Maggie Smith’s voice. Again loud laughter greeted this self-put-down. As ever Ian’s face creased, and he laughed and his body language exuded many-sided roguishness and charm.
His unforced, natural domination of the media or chat shows has continued into his eightieth year, and he is always good value. On a visit to a Russian literary festival he plied his social activism in favour of gay tolerance in defiance of the anti-homosexual laws there, but then was arrested for smoking outside Koltsovo international airport, which was against the law. Fierce public debate followed locally as to whether, as a well-known foreign celebrity on a visit, he should be put on trial and fined.
In January 2018 he provoked a mixed reaction when in Oxford he commented on the sexual misconduct of celebrities and that ‘some people get wrongly accused – there’s that side as well.’ He illustrated this with an example from the 1960s when the director of the theatre he was working in showed him photographs from women who were wanting jobs. Some had written ‘DRR’ at the bottom of their pictures – directors’ rights respected. In other words, ‘If you give me a job you can have sex with me.’ He pointed out that it was madness. Yet the espousal of his cause meant much to many who suffered the long-lasting effect of being a victim: ‘I get letters from preachers, school-teachers and businessmen who feel it is too late to tell the truth,’ he avouched. ‘A seventy-year-old said he was facing death but had told no one he was gay. I wrote back and said: “Well now you have told me, so it is not too late to start!”’
‘He can wear what he likes,’ wrote the Sunday Telegraph, rainbow-coloured bootlaces or gay ribbons on straw boaters, which can explode suddenly in an utterly unrestrained way and completely captivate in its two extremes – anger and riotous anarchic comedy of mannerism. Unlike Laurence Olivier, who kept to his mission of ‘I want to make everyone in the audiences want to fuck me,’ McKellen wants everyone to laugh with him, cuddle, and revere him. He bounces back, adroit and acute in the self-management of his image. He coasts along easily with persiflage, saying, ‘Don’t take any of this too seriously.’ He shows such a rare status, able to be popular, credible, lauded and loved, yet plays suitor straight-faced, old or young. ‘Rot them for a couple of rogues,’ says Gainsborough on David Garrick and Samuel Foote. He might have been writing of Ian and Patrick. ‘They have everyone’s face but their own.’ Ian would never stop: ‘With the new technology you can look younger! Maybe Patrick and I can play Romeo and Juliet? It could be the end of cosmetic surgery – or the end of the need for it.’
By the time they played in Waiting for Godot in New York the McKellen–Stewart ‘bromance’ had become overplayed. On a fun day off touring the city they posed in Beckett tramp mode wearing shorts and bowler hats, holding hands, munching corn on the cob with Elmo, and on top of the Empire State Building. The photographers had a field day. ‘The world needs more friends like these,’ admirers posted on social media. There was more kissing at the awards ceremony of the British film magazine Empire in May 2017 when Patrick received the Empire Legend Award presented to him by Ian, who said of Patrick, ‘He’s one of my heroes. He’s that actor of my generation people would like to be.’ Ian did mollify the hyperbole somewhat by quoting Nietzsche: ‘Success is an impostor. It conceals the flaw, the wound, the fundamental doubt at the core of the artist’s being,’ but added, ‘I wanted to go down as the only actor in history to quote Nietzsche!’
From IAN MCKELLEN: A BIOGRAPHY by Garry O’Connor. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group