Gods and Monsters

          One of the most fascinating figures of Old Hollywood, the openly
  gay film director James Whale, is at the center of the terrific film
GODS AND MONSTERS. Whale was a master craftsman who left us a
  legacy of great films ranging from the horror classics
  and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN to the first version of WATERLOO BRIDGE
(1931, with Mae Clark) to perhaps the best rendering of SHOW BOAT
  (the 1936 version featuring Paul Robeson). Whale ran afoul of  studios in
  the late 1930s and "retired", living out his life traveling and painting.
  After a series of strokes, Whale committed suicide by drowning in his
  swimming pool in 1957. At the time of his death, there were whispers of
  foul play and rumors dogged his death until one of his biographers
  uncovered the suicide note which Whale's former lover David Lewis kept
  out of the press. Thanks to that book and others, his reputation as a
  filmmaker has been enhanced. His life and particularly the last year or so
  also became the basis for a work of fiction,
Father of Frankenstein by
  Christopher Bram, which in turn serves as the basis for

          Writer-director Bill Condon has a track record in the horror genre with
  films like
(1995). He also helmed the flawed but engrossing thriller
SISTER, SISTER (1987). Still, one is hardly prepared for what he
  has managed to accomplish this time out.
  essentially gets into the mind of James Whale (deftly impersonated by
  Ian McKellen) after he has suffered a small stroke. Childhood and early
  adult reminiscences flood him at odd times. He is frequently in pain and
  contents himself with painting. Condon manages to create telling and
  powerful flashbacks to the director's childhood in Dudley, England as well
  as to the horror of the battlefields. (The latter scenes recall Whale's own
   THE ROAD BACK from 1937; Whale spent several months as a POW
  during the First World War.)

          During the course of the film, the director is first visited by an
  overeager college student posing as a journalist (the actor playing the
  role, Jack Plotnick, strikes the only wrong note in the film) and later
  becomes interested in Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), his muscular
  new gardener with the square jaw and somewhat box-like head. To the
  consternation of his overprotective Eastern European housekeeper (an
  unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave), Whale begins to engage the new employee,
  learning he is more or less a drifter, a former Marine who makes ends meet
  doing odd jobs. The pair establish a kinship of sorts when Whale asks if
  may sketch the young man. During their time, the director recounts events
  from his life and the pair engage in a weird courtship of sorts. It is clear
  that Boone is heterosexual (Lolita Davidovich appears briefly as his latest
  conquest) but he finds himself drawn to Whale. There is a marvelous set
  piece during which each watches
  clearly drawn up into the tale, Davidovich's bartender teases him that he
  is merely the object of "an old fruit," while Redgrave's housekeeper sees
  the romance, and Whale himself recalls the actual filming (a scene
  Condon brilliantly recreates). Over the course of the film, it begins
  to become clear that Whale is baiting Boone, trying to turn him into a
  Creature of his making.

          Condon's screenplay and direction make this movie a fabulous
  recreation of a period in Hollywood and American history. The film captures
  the mind and heart of Whale, paying homage to him along the way. Not
  only does he recreate scenes from Whale's film in splendid detail, but he
  also stages a garden party at the home of George Cukor given in honor
  of Princess Margaret of England. (In the receiving line, Whale gets
  to utter one of my favorite lines when introducing Boone to the princess,
  "he's used to queens." It's a gentle barb aimed at Cukor, who like Whale
  was openly gay.) At the party, Whale has a mini-reunion with Boris Karloff
  (Jack Betts) and Elsa Lanchester (Rosalind Ayres) which upsets him. A wild
  rainstorm sweeps the area and Boone gets Whale home and after some
  dithering, agrees to finally pose nude. Whale makes a clumsy pass in
  the hopes of causing the younger man to kill him. It is his attempt
  to turn Boone into a monster.

          I cannot image three better performances than those of the principal
  actors in this film. Ian McKellen has been noted more for his stage work
  but time and again he has proven to be a canny and marvelous screen
  player as anyone who saw him portray D. H. Lawrence in
could attest. Somehow, though, he never found that one role to propel him
  as a movie star. Ironically, as he approaches his 60s, he is now delivering
  a one-two punch as an elderly Nazi in Bryan Singer's
APT PUPIL and as
  James Whale in this film. Whale is a role he seemed born to play. Both
  come from the same area of England and Whale also began his career
  as an actor. That McKellen is one of the few openly homosexual actors
  also factors into the equation. He imbues his characterization with
  sympathy and power and I hate to get hyperbolic but one of the five
  Best Actor Oscar nominations simply must go to him. (For my money,
  he should get the prize itself, but Hollywood's xenophobia has gone
  against deserving foreign actors in recent years.)

          Brendan Fraser has a role in which he can truly excel as well.
  Matching McKellen scene for scene, he combines the intriguing blend of
  scared child, macho tough guy and open- minded humanist. Still in perfect
  shape (see
GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE), one can easily see why Whale
  might be interested in him. But for me, the surprise was Lynn Redgrave's
  turn as Hanna, the housekeeper. Stooped, with a guttural accent and
  holding her face in a stiff mask of disdain, she is mesmerizing as she
  attends to her "Meester Jeemie". She also has a marvelously well-acted
  scene with Fraser wherein she ferrets out the relationship between Boone
  and Whale. Redgrave's performance adds a vitality to the proceedings.

          I cannot say enough good things about this film. It is so well-crafted
  (special cheers for executive producer Clive Barker) by Condon who carefully
  guided his cast to the performances of their careers.
easily found a spot on my list as one of 1998's best films.

                                                    Rating:         A
© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.