|Gods and Monsters|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 17 June 2003|
When Dr. Pretorious finally convinces Henry Frankenstein to join him in bringing to life a female creature in James Whale's great Bride of Frankenstein, he offers a toast: "To new worlds of gods and monsters!" That wonderfully extravagant line, typical of Whale, provides the title for this fictional study of Whale in the last week of his life.
Directed by Bill Condon and adapted by him from the novel The Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, Gods and Monsters is honest, tender and insightful, one of the best movies of 1998. It's gorgeously, sensuously photographed by Stephen M. Katz, with perfect production design by Richard Sherman, but the real heart of the movie, its greatest asset, is Ian McKellen's haunting performance.
Condon's Oscar-winning screenplay is a fascinating mix of present-day scenes (the present being 1957), flashbacks to various periods of Whale's younger life, and some fantasies in which his movies, his desires and his memories become entangled. Long since retired to the life of a genteel but very gay British expatriate, Whale lives alone at his well-appointed home in Pacific Palisades.
As in reality, a serious stroke has caused an unusual brain problem: memories flood back unbidden, and at times, Whale can't tell reality from dreams of the past. And the doctor says it's going to get worse. His affectionate, long-suffering housekeeper Hannah (a nearly unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave) worries about "Mr. Jimmy," though he keeps almost everything about his condition from her. She has recently hired Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser), a handsome young hunk, to do some gardening around Whale's attractive grounds.
Whale is intrigued by Boone, and asks him to pose for a portrait (some of the real Whale's paintings are seen); puzzled but interested, Boone agrees, even when he learns that Whale is homosexual. The sly, witty Whale insists, "I have no interest in your body, Mr. Boone -- I can assure you of that." But Whale clearly does have other things in mind. Whale is fond of Clay, but he's also using him as means to an end -- an end which would possibly destroy Clay's life. Whale is both too desperate and too selfish to see this possibility, however, until it's almost too late.
Even though Whale was gay, as are Ian McKellen and several of the filmmakers, Gods and Monsters is not a "gay movie." It's a movie about a fascinating man who happened to be gay; his sexuality is relevant to the story, but no more relevant than Clay Boone's heterosexuality. And even though James Whale was a wonderful movie director, it's not a "Hollywood story," either.
The story is fictional regarding Hannah and Clay Boone, but the broad strokes of the last week of Whale's life are accurately depicted; there's even a remarkable scene on the set of Bride of Frankenstein, with actors looking so much like Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger that it's creepy. But still, the goal of the film is to show us the heart of James Whale, not his life -- nor his death, though that's in the film as well.
McKellen's Whale is sarcastic, sentimental, bitter, impish, romantic and occasionally religious; the actor was nominated for an Oscar. Whale's feelings about Clay are complex; his two most famous movies, of course, are about a scientist who creates an "offspring" without sex being involved, and on one of many levels, Whale does feel paternal toward Clay. But he also sees in him something of the young lover he had while serving as an officer in the trenches of World War I, and he sees him alternatively as Frankenstein's Monster and as Dr. Frankenstein creating Whale. McKellen is also physically quite like Whale, including the director's trademark mane of snow-white hair.
Fraser is also excellent, and it's a part that's far more difficult than most might think: he's an ordinary guy. Movies have rarely been able to present ordinary guys without either elevating them or condescending to them, but the is well-written, and Fraser holds his own in the scenes with McKellen. In the excellent, if too-brief documentary on Whale and the making of Gods and Monsters that's included on the DVD, McKellen points out how good Fraser is even in scenes where all he's doing is listening, which isn't easy.
Hanna, the housekeeper, isn't very convincing, though that's more of a conceptual misstep, because Redgrave is terrific as this crotchety old lady who's devoted to this cranky old man. She well deserved her supporting actress Oscar nomination. I loved the fact that Condon encouraged Redgrave to make Hanna reminiscent of the great character actress Una O'Connor, whom Whale simply adored.
The only significant weakness of the movie is that it doesn't make clear enough just what Clay ultimately got from his relationship with Whale -- if anything other than an appreciation of the director's movies and a drawing of the Monster. And this has a tendency to make the movie seem oddly pointless -- an interesting character study, well-written and splendidly acted, but finally rather hollow. It is essentially about how a dignified, proud man tries to face a very nasty end to his life.
Condon is clearly deeply fond of Whale's films; an earlier draft of his script contained even more echoes, and more shots of the Frankenstein Monster, but he's even more fond of this exasperating, endearing, poetic and self-centered old man. Thanks to McKellen's superb performance and an understanding script, by the end of Gods and Monsters, we're also very fond of James Whale. Condon won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay; at the moment of the announcement, he was in the audience being embraced by McKellen and Redgrave.
The DVD is one of the best of 1999; the bonus features are well-chosen, with good production notes and cast biographies, but the real highlight is a documentary by David J. Skal and Sam Irvin and hosted by Clive Barker on the making of Gods and Monsters. The cast and filmmakers are interviewed, as well as Curtis Harrington, a good friend of Whale's. It's a shame that clips from Whale's great movies could not have been included, but this handsome little documentary succeeds on its own terms -- as does Gods and Monsters itself.