Monday, July 24, 2006

champagne supernova

sir ian mckellen is a celebrated actor of amazing resume, a man who can take on anything from shakespeare to stan lee with absolute commitment and conviction. but i will just admit right now that i adore him b/c he made the character i loved the most, gandalf the wizard, from the book i loved the best, j.r.r. tolkien's the lord of the rings, into the most perfect movie creation i ever could've wanted. the gandalf who had been in my head since i first met him -- when my older sister deborah read the hobbit to my younger sister samantha and me when we were quite small -- and through all the many times i read and reread the trilogy, somehow came alive in the personage of sir ian, whose portrayal had nary a whisker nor a heartbeat out of place. although the hobbits were the true heroes of the story, gandalf was the benevolent power who helped them realize their own place in the tale, at times tempted to take the reins of destiny, but only stepping in when he knew it was his role to turn the tide. he was a priest without a religion, a guru whose ways were completely known only to him, a mysterious being cloaked in human form but devoid of almost all human foibles.

i could go on, but that would be gushing.

anyway, so last night it was a rare treat indeed for the lovely and amazing coiledsoul and i to see sir ian mckellen perform a unique version of his solo show, a knight out, at ucla's freud playhouse. i was invited b/c i interviewed him for my column this week.

the beast carried us westward along sunset with no complaints; we parked in a garage and walked a circuitous route to the theater, emerging from an alley-like hall (or was it a hall-like alley?) onto the plaza in front of the venue, where people lingered in the evening cool ... well, not exactly cool, but cooler. we were slightly bummed to find only water and coffee for sale, no wine, but what can you do? we got in line at the box office and indulged in one of my favorite pastimes, eavesdropping on the people around us. as the line crept forward, it seemed every other party had some extra tickets they wanted to unload ... and they proceeded to attempt to do so by boldly informing others in line that they had tickets for sale! when we were next in line, a man who was picking up his tickets at the first of two windows actually told the poor kid behind the counter that he was going to try to sell his extra tickets; he asked the kid if it was ok for him to stand in front of the box office and hawk them!! the young man politely replied, "sir, that's scalping, and i don't want to know about it." the guy said, "what, can i get into trouble or something?" kid, somewhat incredulously but working very hard to stay polite, goes, "well, it's illegal, sir, and ... ." i didn't hear the rest b/c we were next at the second window. it was about 20 minutes before show time at this point. as i checked the envelope before stepping away from the window, i heard a guy say he had $100 tickets for sale, and someone asked him how much. (variations on this theme happened a few times.) the man with the tickets said face value, seeming somewhat annoyed that the person would want to pay otherwise, to which the inquirer responded that he could get rush tickets for less in just a few minutes. "oh," said the man, as though that hadn't even occurred to him.

i must admit i was wondering why so many people, at least so many people in line at that moment, seemed to have extra tickets. in any event, the room was full save for a couple of empty seats in the $100 area, so most of the people must have unloaded them one way or another. i was thinking, however, that the authorities who make such sport of busting hapless people for scalping at rock shows ought to take a visit to theater venues more often.

anyway. it was mofuggin' HOT in that theater; i don't know how ian mckellen stood it. we were merely sitting in our (awesome third-row) seats and practically expiring. he was actually dashing about and acting and whatnot, occasionally mopping his brow and glugging from a bottle of spring water. he made his entrance as leigh teabing from the da vinci code, using the swinging, somehow gracefully ungainly gait of a man who uses two canes to help him walk. that alone earned applause and cheers -- clearly, he was among friends (and admirers). what ensued was about 90 minutes of anecdotes, audience participation, and, well ... acting. really really fine acting, the sort that, once he settled into a character -- whether richard III, james whale from gods and monsters, or the preacher from cold comfort farm -- took you to the place of that character, so much so that, when the bit was done, i would shake my head a little and feel dislocated, having fallen into the groove and expecting him to just go on and on in character, with me hanging on his every word and gesture.

he did bring glamdring (gandalf's sword), as he told me he hoped to in the interview, and his turn at the lord of the rings was satisfying, though not strictly just him doing gandalf in character. (i would have loved to have heard him do the speech he gives to pippin about what happens when you die, all that heartbreakingly kind stuff about "a far green country" and such, but, OTOH, perhaps it's just as well, b/c i would doubtless have started blubbering.) it was more like a dramatized reading of the part in the first book where the fellowship escapes the mines of moria, the price being gandalf's seeming demise at the hands (or really the whip) of the balrog. it was still quite thrilling, especially as sir ian came to the edge of the stage for the part where the wizard is dragged into the depths, and his blue eyes blazed with an icy fire. for the record, he told me in the interview that he planned to correct a mistake he'd made by saying, as gandalf, "you shall not pass" to the balrog. that, he informed me, was wrong; he'd gotten the line wrong. well, yeah ... gandalf actually says "you CANNOT pass." and so the universe was slightly less off-kilter once that wrong had been righted.

mckellen was quite the wry comedian, gently mocking dan "da vinci code" brown's writing and, after reading a description of his character in the book that sounded absolutely nothing like him, wondering aloud how he ever got the part. he did a bit where he asked us to name all of shakespeare's plays -- he said there were 37, and i had no reason to doubt him. "ready?" he asked. "go!" and the entire room of 500+ people started shouting at once. a cacophony of titles; it was giddy but fun, like some sort of brainy-chaotic performance art.

he told great anecdotes about his movie experiences, from his early days to more recent tales. he read/recited poetry, at one point losing his place and dashing to his nearby podium for the text, which he calmly paged through, found his place, and continued without seeming ruffled. (who knows how he was feeling inside, but he didn't look at all disturbed.) i would've just cried and run away. but then, i'm not gandalf. or magneto.

for magneto, the wonderful x-men villain, he just camped it up with the gesturing, which got a great laugh. he also told us about his experience being knighted by the queen, who at the time was dressed entirely in lime green (which seemed especially horrifying to him ... understandably) and using the throne of england as a place to stash her handbag. (hmmmm, it is good to be the queen ... .) and she asked him if he was currently working, which seemed a hilarious thing to say ... although i don't think her majesty was trying to be funny. but who knows?

anyway, we were invited to the after party at a westwood restaurant, so we strolled the sculpture garden outside the freud and chatted for about a half hour before going back to the car to find our way into the village. i decided to park in the structure next door rather than valeting it, which turned out to be the right choice (more on that later). it was around 9 p.m. and still very warm. i had brought a shirt with me into the theater, expecting to be chilly in just my lace tank top and skirt. didn't need it, and wisely left it in the car for the party.

we rounded the corner just as a gaggle of other partygoers arrived, so we just flowed to the back patio with them. nobody checked our invitations or anything; it was very mellow. as we were standing in line to get a drink, a man behind me informed a younger man that "gore vidal is sitting over there; go and say hello." after a moment i swiveled my head around, and sure enough, the legendary writer was sitting at a nearby table, crisp in navy jacket and striped dress shirt, a brass-topped wooden cane at the ready near his left hand. there is something they say about old people, that they look "well-preserved." it's never seemed quite like a compliment, but there was something in the man's slightly carved-in-stone look that made me think of that phrase. he is 80, but i no longer know if people do or don't look that age. my dad is 80, and i can scarcely even get my mind around that fact. he was alert and seemed approachable, although i didn't dare to speak to him. i couldn't have thought of a thing to say, which is always a problem for me in meeting people. especially legendary ones.

anyway, we got our drinks, and coiledsoul scoped out the food. i had had a giant steak dinner not too long before, so i just nibbled a couple of delicious dessert bites, and we stationed ourselves in the middle of the patio next to the (thankfully not burning) fire pit, where we could see and hear just about everything. and yet we remained virtually invisible, for we knew no one, and no one knew us, and nobody cared to know us, which was just perfect. the scene was somewhat surreal. it was probably the best hollywood party i have ever been to, with no impossibly pneumatic starlet wannabes competing for the cameras' attention -- after all, the cameras were focused on all the well-preserved queens who were pals of sir ian's, along with the younger, prettier ones who were probably also his friends, and at times the even younger ones who perhaps were part of the young actors group that was the evening's beneficiary. there were also no less than three well-preserved ladies in motorized wheelchairs, probably famous, but i am terrible at recognizing people. (we saw michael york and annie lennox; i am sure there were other stars there, but you'll have to read CS's account to find out more.)

the folks around us were nice and polite, smiling and excusing themselves when squeezing past (it got quite crowded at one point). we hadn't intended to stay very long, but it was so pleasant on the patio, and CS and i haven't seen each other in a long time b/c she's been out of town. so we lingered and enjoyed the occasional breeze and tripped out on the atmosphere. sir ian arrived, looking fresh in his silver-paint-coated blue jeans, simple white shirt with cufflinks, black loafers, and cool (i think) hematite necklace. he immediately made a beeline for gore vidal. he asked if anyone was sitting in the empty chair next to gore, who replied "you are!" and so down sir ian sat, for a long conversation of which i heard nothing, but i did notice that, after about 15 minutes, the nebula of the crowd began to orbit a bit around that table, as though people were growing impatient to speak to sir ian, yet not terribly eager to actually interrupt him talking to gore vidal. or maybe that was just my interpretation. it did seem as though it took another little while before anyone was bold enough to interrupt, but once they did the spell was broken, and soon sir ian was working the room, glass of red wine in one hand, easy smile on his lips and hearty laugh in his throat, relaxed and having a grand time, as he should have.

CS and i had more to drink -- she, champagne, me, tanqueray and tonic -- and talked about our own little lives. at one point she was scanning the patio, and apparently gore vidal was looking around too, and they did that thing where you accidentally make eye contact with a total stranger. he winked at her, and she whirled to me, squealing under her breath that "gore vidal just winked at me!!" hee. that was cool.

we chatted with a woman who was involved with the youth group, who introduced us to her son, who had been talking with a playwright who's working on a play about military recruiting on high school campuses. shortly thereafter i introduced myself to ed wilson, head of the youth theater group and pal of sir ian's, who had produced the show that night. he was nice, and when i flumferred that we were on our way out and just wondered if i could say hello to sir ian, he graciously offered to do the honors, rescuing me from my blathering before it really kicked into high gear. (this is why i am a writer, see? i cannot speak intelligently to save my life.)

and so ed wilson did, and of course sir ian was quite kind and receptive, asking if we'd enjoyed the show, etc. he allowed that it had been quite warm on stage; i marveled at how he'd managed. he thanked me for the article, and we said our goodbyes, escaping into the restaurant and then out onto the sidewalk, where stood about a half-dozen young x-men fans, posters and other paraphernalia in hand, knowing, perhaps, that there was only one way outta that place, and eventually magneto was gonna have to take it.

back to the beast. i turned the key. click. nothing. DAMN!!! tried a couple more times, nada. we tried the headlights; there was juice. in the dim recesses of my memory i recalled another '66 mustang, a far-off time, a half-forgotten remedy. i pulled my toolbox out of the trunk and retrieved the biggest, toughest screwdriver i had. opened the hood and -- like gandalf trying to recall how to open the door into the dwarves' abandoned stronghold -- tried to remember how exactly one went about bypassing the solenoid to jump-start the vehicle. after a couple of failed attempts, i got sparkage -- woohoo! CS slid into the driver's seat and gave it gas on my command; the beast roared to life and kept on runnin'. wooooohoooooo!!!!!!! we got the hell out of there, hitting the street just in time to see sir ian surrounded by young magneto fans, with whom he seemed quite engaged. as we waited at the light to make our left, i thought about stirring up some shit by hollering "gandalf is the man!" but thought better of it. instead, we rumbled off back toward hilgard, north to sunset and home to savor all the delights of the night.


Will Hart said...

Sir, what in the hell does this article have to do with the fantastic Oasis song?

I agree, McKellen's Gandalf is on my short list of greatest performances of all time.

hipspinster said...

yes, he was wonderful.

it took me a while to remember why i used that title for this post. (most of the posts on this blog are song titles.) it must have referred to my friend, who was drinking champagne, momentarily locking eyes with gore vidal and him winking at her, which was quite exciting. i also see now that "CS," the abbreviation of her online moniker, could be a shorthand for the oasis song title, but i'm pretty sure i didn't think of that at the time.