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Gods and Monsters
Bill Condon (Novel: Christopher Bram)
Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Kevin J. O’Connor, Mark Kiely, Jack Plotnick, Rosalind Ayres, Jack Betts, Matt McKenzie, Todd Babcock, Cornelia Hayes O’Herily
The story of the last days of film director James Whale.
Horror has long been a popular genre in Hollywood. From atomic testing mutants to slasher pics, horror has long been a large moneymaker. However, it was Universal’s horror film series featuring legends from Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi to Boris Karloff that truly boosted the genre into the public pocketbooks.
One of the first of these features was “Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff and directed by legendary director James Whale, an immigrant who came to America after the war. While his films range from “Show Boat” to “The Invisible Man,” he is most recognized as the director of “Frankenstein” and its sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein.”
“Gods and Monsters” is based on Christopher Bram’s novel “Father of Frankenstein.” It is the story of the last days of director James Whale. The first time we meet Whale (Ian McKellen), he is busy ogling his new gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), who doesn’t even recognize Whale. Disappointed that Boone won’t take up his invitation to use his swimming pool, he goes back inside where he awaits a young college student who is writing an article on him.
Whale decides it would be better to hold the interview poolside and that’s where they end up. Before they even start, Whale says of the young man “I will answer truthfully any question in exchange for the removal of one article of clothing.” At first, the interviewer thinks it’s a joke, but after examining Whale’s facial expression, he realizes that he’s not kidding and finally agrees to do it.
After each question, he removes a different article of clothing, but after he’s all the way down to his underpants, Whale’s physical malady catches up with him and must be given a drug that will help him suppress all the memories that are flooding into his mind. At this moment we realize, he won’t have much time to live.
When he finally convinces Clayton to come down to the pool house, he starts out by saying he wants to do Clayton’s drawing. Boone is quite modest and refuses to remove his shirt for the portrait…an idea that Whale takes slight offense too. After a clever “accident,” Clayton is sitting before him shirtless and Whale starts his drawing. He makes a few mistakes before finally getting tired and Clayton leaves.
Boone finally realizes that Whale is openly gay and that he might want him for more than he’s letting on. He’s not terribly offended because he feel sorry for the old man, but can’t help but feel nervous around him. At one point, he gets so upset that he almost kills Whale for making a pass at him and then leaves. That night, while watching “The Bride of Frankenstein” with his fellow bar patrons, he realizes what is going on and decides to take a little pity on Whale.
Whale’s servant, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave) takes displeasure in this man who sins against God, but cannot help but feel for him in more ways than as just a caring mother or a reclusive lover. She has the wisdom of years on her face and cares greatly for this man who she considers will not be going to heaven.
Whale is constantly bothered by flashbacks of a lover he lost during the war. It is more about one man’s struggle with his own past than it is about a man dealing with being openly gay in the celluloid closet of Hollywood. He cannot even remember the past with collapsing in pain at the horrendous thoughts that plague him.
“Gods and Monsters” plays heavily like the film “Frankenstein.” Whale is Dr. Frankenstein and Boone is his monster. There are many visual cues as well as melodic and thematic ones. “Gods and Monsters” is one of those rare motion pictures that not only examines a darker side of Hollywood, but it also examines the darker side of human emotion. It tells us that not everything is black or white and even the most self-assured people often find themselves facing inner turmoil when introduced to certain stimuli.
Fraser finally gets to show the world that he is not just a pretty face and body in a loincloth, but that he is a gifted actor who can play a sympathetic and conflicted character without a problem. Redgrave is stunning as Whale’s Germanic housekeeper. While some might consider part of the scenery she’s chewing, is offbeat and cynical yet wise and compassionate. She gives one of the best supporting performances of the year.
However, the real treat here is the brilliant Sir Ian McKellen. A veteran stage actor, McKellen is one of those great actors who plays the smallest of roles in the tiniest of films yet gives the largest and best of performances. In “Gods and Monsters,” he doesn’t disappoint. His Whale is a godsend to acting and is easily of the finest male performances of the year and even in cinematic history.
“Gods and Monsters” is a brilliant motion picture that honestly defies explanation without giving away great details of the majority of the film and its plot. It is a refreshingly comedic yet heartfelt film. It transcends itself in its pursuit to examine one man’s experience while we examine our own while viewing it.
“Gods and Monsters” is easily one of the best films of the year. It is a real treat for any movie lover and will easily span the test of time like the films of the man it portrayed.
One of the best film of the year, but will be almost shut out because of its limited release.
April 15, 1999