Ian McKellen did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a Bafta, for portraying the titular character in Richard III.
Well from perhaps Shakespeare's second most famous schemer to arguably his most famous. Richard III was previously adapted by Laurence Olivier in 1955. Olivier's version was in itself a particularly interesting adaptation for him. Unlike his Hamlet, which was cloaked in fog and smoke, or his Henry V with its most unusual way of setting the stage, the artistic license Olivier took with material was perhaps his most subtle, though also his most effective, as I say his Richard III was his most assured example as a director. This version, perhaps knowing that, takes the approach of throwing basically all subtly out of the window in order to tell the story of Shakespeare's most famous villain. McKellen, who also co-wrote this version, seemed to be well aware that successfully bringing something out of the material, without seeming to try to ape Olivier, would be to take the character to a new extreme. Now this is really saying something as Olivier did not exactly soften the nature of the character with his absurd hair, apparently modeled have the same tyrannical theater director that the Big Bad Wolf was modeled after, his blood red costumes, and of course the character itself is written to be be an obvious villain, so where is it that McKellen can go?
Well before we get to that it must be said that McKellen is another master of the language. It comes off his tongue so naturally, and with such ease. McKellen never allows a line to seem laborious or forced no matter how often repeated, Richard's opening line in particular is overused, but McKellen delivery gives it purpose once again. Back to the question of where McKellen can go. Now I would be curious to see a purely subtle approach for the character, that would actually be opposed to the point of the character. McKellen, astonishingly does find somewhere to go though, without going in the opposite direction. This even goes to his other contribution to the film as screenwriter as the film which is considerably shorter than Olivier's version, as well as a simpler telling of the play. In addition though McKellen basically sets the stage for things by having Richard opening action be him crashing a tank through a wall, and personally executing the men who are standing in his brother's way from absolute power. If Oliver's Richard was a 10 out of 10 on the evil scale again where does that leave McKellen to go? well up even more where else? If Olivier's Richard is a 10 level of evil, McKellen takes old Richard all the way to eleven.
McKellen carries himself with purposeful broad strokes in his character from the opening speech which McKellen first delivers all the bluster and proud presentation of a great general promoting his King. Of course this is instantly washed away when he finishes the speech in the bathroom while relieving himself. McKellen brilliantly changes the tone to a biting insult as he makes rapidly evident that Richard has no respect for his brother, and seems him ill fitting for his position as King. In these early scenes we are given Richard's two faces, of sorts, by McKellen particularly in his interactions with his other imprisoned brother as well as sort of with his soon to be wife. What's interesting though about McKellen's performance is that he does not necessarily do a great job of portraying the sides of Richard, but this seems intentional and is extremely effective in creating his version of Richard. McKellen makes it all a bit obvious in terms of the presentation that Richard gives to others as though it is indeed just the act of an evil man trying to look one way or another in order to fulfill whatever purpose that will bring him more power. This probably should not work, but McKellen somehow realizes it in a rather glorious fashion.
McKellen succeeds in just how much he embraces the villainy to the point that he somehow transfers it into such a persuasive personality. With his interactions with his prisoner brother McKellen throws an over audance of warmth, that's a bit too much, though why not buy into since he is giving away so much of it. Then even in his "proposal" to Anne, despite having just murdered her husband, and even making this proposal of his around his corpse McKellen somehow makes it somehow work. Again McKellen would be ridiculous if he wasn't so good in the scene, as the over the top romantic routine that McKellen makes is efficient while being so wholly false. What McKellen does is make Richard a great actor above else since even though you know its fake, he happens to do it so well that they just have to believe it. One of my favorite moments with this is when he rejects then accepts his place of King in a moments notice as McKellen again puts on such an overt show of the quiet and dignified man who will only accept power in the right circumstances, to instantly switch back to his only natural state that of the power hungry mad man using every trick to become King.
McKellen does not use these tricks to define Richard though, because it is evil that McKellen uses to define him. McKellen plays into this as much as he can, even seeming to want his place as King almost just for the suffering he can inflict on others through it. Even before he's become King I love the scenes which he shares with his sister-in-law the queen, since he believes her to hold no threat, McKellen is amazing has he brings such venom to every word as Richard makes it quite plain that he holds her in no regard whatsoever. What McKellen though does with Richard is essentially bring out more and more of Richard's true self the more he gains. It is not that he is being changed by the power, rather McKellen plays it quite bluntly that the more power he gains the more he can simply be himself. Now, like Olivier, Richard's monologues are also addressed to the audience. There's a major difference though where Olivier used them as though Richard was outlining his scheme to us, McKellen does it rather differently. McKellen never focuses a whole scene on this with his performance rather hitting some very specific moments by turning to the audience not unlike the traditional way one breaks the fourth wall in a comedy. This works brilliantly though because McKellen always uses these moments as actual punchlines as though Richard just has to take the moment to tell the audience his disdain for a particular opponent. It must also be said that McKellen also makes them work as punchlines because whenever he does this it is quite hilarious. McKellen, it must be said, is altogether ridiculously entertaining in the role because of his choice to display Richard's evil.
As he rises through the ranks, and is allowed to make himself all the more obvious McKellen let's loose all the more, and only the audience indeed benefits from this as McKellen is so much fun to watch. McKellen plays the completely unabashed evil of the man so well, since he always takes it a measure more. Whether this is just the enjoyment he seems to get from looking at the photos of a dead opponent, his complete lack of concern when his former ally is brutally murdered, or especially his continued mistreatment of the former Queen as he takes some rather uncouth liberties with his farewell kiss only to mockingly laugh at her after she has left. This is a fascinating performance to watch because McKellen proves that a simplification can be a masterstroke when done right. Instead of trying to challenge Olivier with some other reexamination, he places the focus on the character's fiendish nature and runs with it. McKellen never compromises this either even with the two moments in play that potentially give the character some humanity. The first being his nightmare as he is haunted by his victims. McKellen treats this as an unfortunate nuisance, that only acts as a slight bother. Then of course there is his demise, which might be favorite moment out of this entire performance, which is really saying something. That being when this Richard is cornered and certain to face death, McKellen plays it as Richard still refusing to accept any mistakes or blame instead taking just one more chance at villainy by going out his way. That is to fall back into the literal flames of his chaos, and what he has gotten out of this final cheat of sorts is represented through McKellen's absolutely perfect grin as he sinks into the fire. This is a great performance by Ian McKellen as proves taking a character to what might seem like a ludicrous extreme can sometimes turn out beautifully.