Gods and Monsters
1998, R, 105 min. Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, David Dukes, Lolita Davidovich.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 1, 1999
In 1957, Golden Age of Hollywood director James Whale was found dead – a suicide – in the swimming pool of his Pacific Palisades home. By that point, the English émigré director of some 21 feature films had not made a movie since he retired from filmmaking to live the life of a gentleman painter in the early Forties. Whale, who was an openly gay man in the urbane but closeted world of Hollywood in the Thirties, is generally assumed to have been blackballed by the studios for his sexual/professional imprudence. Although his roots were in the British stage, Whale is best remembered for his stylish American horror gems Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House,and The Invisible Man. But like the good doctor who created the Frankenstein monster, Whale's creative reputation was overtaken by the iconic magnitude of the creature he had spawned. Indeed, Bill Condon based his Gods and Monsters screenplay on Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein.
The story is a speculative account of the final days in the life of James Whale, whose debilitating health due to a recent stroke is presumed to be the cause of his suicide. The story invents the character of Clayton Boone (Fraser), a buff, none-too-swift, ex-marine gardener to whom Whale (McKellen) takes a fancy. The decidedly straight Boone is slow to catch on when Whale invites him to pose for one of his paintings and to avail himself of the pool (one of Whale's primary seduction aids). Yet the crux of the story emerges from the unlikely bonds of friendship that grow between the two men. Boone stimulates memories long dormant in Whale - of such things as his impoverished childhood in England, the horror of life in the trenches during WWI and the horrific death of his young soldier lover, and the buzz of activity and petty drama that typified life on a movie set. Boone delights in the warmth exhibited toward him by this new friend - a famous person and the father of Frankenstein, no less - and responds to these overtures of friendship with a newfound compassion and surprising sensitivity.
Condon's film also shows great sensitivity to the characters and events depicted here; it never tramples on the privacy and dignity of the subject in question while using the film's speculative structure as a source of biographical illumination -- what it lacks in historical fact it makes up for with emotional realism. So much of the credit must be laid at the feet of Ian McKellen, whose portrait of Whale is a study in acting excellence. The character displays a range that goes from coy to pained, somber to peckish, dapper to dilapidated, and tart to tortured. It is a performance that richly deserves all the end-of-the-year kudos many of the critics groups have awarded it. Against McKellen, Fraser's acting limitations become more noticeable; it seems like another actor might have found dimensions to the character other than his ability to bare his biceps and smile affably. As Whale's disapproving but lovingly attentive uptight Teutonic housemaid, Lynn Redgrave is practically unrecognizable and gives one of the great performances of her career.
Though Gods and Monsters is full of scenes and moments that are unforgettable (George Cukor's garden party is a real time-capsule standout), there is an overly romantic quality to the film that makes a narrative parallel between Whale's quest for the young man and the Frankenstein monster's longing for a friend … or bride. It's a resonant idea but one that reduces the director to the same typecasting he fought all his career. A wonderful companion piece for Gods and Monsters would be Richard Kwietniowski's Love and Death on Long Island, another intriguing film that came out in 1998 that concerns an older, heterosexual British man's sudden, inexplicable yearning for a young, American, male pop star. In that film, John Hurt and Jason Priestley perform an unpredictable pas de deux, motivated by mysteriously compulsive needs that are never fully explained or rationalized. Gods and Monsters instead seeks to make sense of a life hidden by the self-imposed shadows of the lavender curtain and the inscrutabilities of suicide. It's most revealing but ultimately conjecture.