Happy Birthday, Michael Gambon!

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Oct 19, 2017

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Actor Birthdays, Fandom, Fans, Films, Gambon, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, HP Cast, J.K. Rowling, Movies, News

We at Leaky love celebrating our favorite Harry Potter characters and the actors who portray them, and birthdays are the perfect occasion to do so. The anniversary of Michael Gambon’s birth is no exception!

Gambon assumed the role of Albus Dumbledore after the passing of Richard Harris, and the casting was not without controversy as his particular take on the part struck a more intense and serious note than before. He was a darker Dumbledore for darker times, but this was not comfort to many fans.

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The fact that filmmakers often alter, abridge, or add to beloved scenes and details for the sake of telling the story dynamically onscreen is notwithstanding–many preferred a quieter, gentler Dumbledore and have struggled to appreciate Gambon’s contribution to the films. So, here, we will focus on just that–how Gambon gave us the Dumbledore we needed, even if it wasn’t the Dumbledore we originally wanted. In honor of his birthday and esteemed career, consider the following.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

From the opening moments of the film, we knew everything was going to be different. From the cinematography, which shrouded scenes in blues and blacks, to the introduction of teenage Harry’s plight–forced from his home, such as it was, by the ongoing abuse and unapologetic lack of empathy from the only family he’d known, only to be met by a greater threat, a deranged man out for blood–it was here that Gambon entered stage right.

With a deep, resonant voice, he welcomed the students back to Hogwarts and, for some of us, this was a comfort. There was something about the gravitas Gambon brought, his inflection, his physical presence, that communicated a strength and dependability which Harry desperately needed–and we needed for him. Harry had precious little support in his formative years, and though Harris provided the perfectly-adequate air of grandfatherly kindness that the beloved book Dumbledore possessed, we knew Harry was going to need more than that alone going forward.

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He would also need the Dumbledore who had himself faced down a dark wizard and survived, a Dumbledore who also had a complicated past, as well as complicated responsibilities. Who better, ultimately, to relate to the Boy Who Lived? Gambon stepped to the podium and embodied a powerful, intelligent, and, yes, kind and compassionate wizard.

Before the film was over, he’d proved that sufficiently and beautifully-demonstrated Dumbledore’s penchant for a smart quip or unexpected bit of humor. In the clip from Prisoner of Azkaban below, revisit Gambon’s cryptic conversation with the trio about time travel, a conversation that had to accomplish a lot very quickly, while also bringing some lightness to an earnest situation that seemed to threaten impending doom. He listened attentively, never patronizing Harry, Ron, or Hermione. He showed his hard-won wisdom and experience in being open to their account. Overall, Gambon struck just the right chord in the way he interacted with his younger counterparts. What did you think of this scene?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This is where the opinion of many fans took a swift detour. It was the much-bemoaned moment in which Gambon failed to respond “calmly” to Harry’s shocking appointment as a second Triwizard champion for Hogwarts. Most disappointed fans harp on the lone word without attempting to recognize what Gambon brought to the scene instead.

Whereas J.K. Rowling’s masterful writing had ample time and hundreds of pages to develop the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry and all of the intricate details of the plot as it moved toward Voldemort’s return, the film did not. So Gambon expressed in a matter of seconds what any adult who cares deeply for another might reasonably express when unexpectedly confronted with a threat on their well being, possibly their life, as well as the safety of all others involved.

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Any parent who’s been scared out of their mind by the heart-stopping, breath-quenching fear of danger to their child understands the confusing mixture of anxiety, frustration, helplessness, and fierceness that results. While Dumbledore never claimed an overt parental role in Harry’s life, he most certainly adopted the role of confidant, mentor, and friend, and the reaction, though different from Rowlings’ original vision, showed the audience the depth of Dumbledore’s concern and care for Harry. Given the well-publicized fact that Gambon, like costars Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes, chose not to read the books, it could be viewed as a logical choice among a wealth of possible takes on the scene.

Gambon told the LA Times in a 2009 interview:

“He’s got to be a bit scary…All headmasters should be a bit scary, shouldn’t they? A top wizard like him would be intimidating. And ultimately, he’s protecting Harry. Essentially, I play myself. A little Irish, a little scary. That’s what I’m like in real life.”

He’s actually quite right. So, rather than debating the point further, let’s go back to his best scene from the film, Gambon’s beautifully-delivered speech to the students of Hogwarts following the tragic death of Cedric Diggory. He was properly exhausted, emotionally and physically, and clearly aghast, yet he pulled no punches, declaring with forthright determination what the Ministry of Magic would have quashed–a call to honor the life of their former class mate with a call to face the difficult times to come with the spirit and bravery he embodied. Were you equally moved and inspired? Did this performance in any way redeem the first, if that was an obstacle for you?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Any frustration with Dumbledore over this entry in the story lays squarely with Rowling, not just Steve Knowles and David Yates. For chapters, Dumbledore inexplicably ignored Harry, though Harry desperately sought his counsel and help. These slights fed Harry’s descent into anger, isolation, and confusion, which he barely attempted to fend off at times.

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We could hold it against Gambon, if we so chose, but at the least he struck a purposeful posture in the perceived betrayal, leaving viewers hopeful that there was a method in the seeming madness. And, of course, there was.

In a wonderful exchange between Harry and Dumbledore in the closing scenes of the film, Gambon finally brought that quiet gentleness to the part as he expressed his remorse for the way his well-intentioned avoidance of Harry affected the boy. He acknowledged his fault in all that unfolded and conveyed authentic sincerity, as well as the sense that he now viewed Harry more as a young adult than a child, one to be leveled with as much as possible. How did this film affect your opinion of Gambon’s Dumbledore?

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The Dumbledore of Half-Blood Prince was committed to righting past errors. He promised Harry inclusion and information on the quest to find Voldemort’s weakness by delving into the past. Dangerous and harrowing thought it might be, they would press on–together–and Gambon produced a cool steadiness that allowed us to trust him with Harry’s future.

As the LA Times article put it:

“Gambon has fashioned Dumbledore into a tougher patriarch, an urgent and mysterious force in the midst of impending  war. Less cuddly, this Dumbledore is clearly presented as a formidable opponent to Potter’s snake-faced nemesis, Voldemort.”

And we needed him to be that. We needed to know that he had a plan, that he was not asking these things of Harry, or even Snape, needlessly. In Gambon’s intonation, his self-possession, and his somber yet peaceful demeanor, we felt confidence even as Harry’s world spinned out of control.

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When he empathized with Draco and spoke to him with kindness, we understood why Harry held Dumbledore in such high esteem and respected his entreaty to hide–and not intervene. Gambon spoke with heartfelt commiseration, saying, “Years ago, I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices. Please let me help you.” He could have been speaking of Grindelwald, or himself, or both. And he wanted to spare Draco the pain and regret of following a path dictated by power and faith in the wrong people. Gambon exuded patience and acceptance, qualities Harry himself had seen in him and loved.

Then, when he pleaded with Snape to finish it, to free Draco from the burden of soul-crushing murder and set them on a path to presenting Voldemort with a formidable foe in Harry, uttering the simple “please” with calm determination, we were speechless. Though it was difficult to watch, even knowing the ending by that point, we needed to have that visual of the man who inspired Harry’s trust enough to prompt his own ultimate sacrifice when called upon to do so. Do you agree?

Gambon truly played Dumbledore’s life and death as well, if not better, than anyone could have, and we have more of a gift in the portrayal than many realize. It would be a fitting birthday tribute to acknowledge that with wands held high. So let’s wish the happiest of birthdays to this consummate actor and acknowledge his great contribution to this amazing film series!

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The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.