What's extraordinary about 'Gods and Monsters' is not just the fact that
it's about a director responsible in many ways for setting the stage in
the way horror films would be made for decades to come but the dark side
of them that filtered into his personal life. One man's loneliness, a
sense of dreams never quite fulfilled and wrestling with his own
sexuality make for a truly interesting film with no pretensions and
plenty of rich characterizations.
Director James Whale (1889-1957) was a grand director of horror, having
made 'Frankenstein' (1931), which is #87 on the AFI's list of all time
greatest films. He made 21 films as a director, and some of his other
achievements include 'The Invisible Man' (1933), 'Bride of Frankenstein'
(1935), and his last film in 1949 was entitled 'Hello Out There'. Whale
went into seclusion somewhat until his death eight years later. The
film tells us many things about Whale, where he came from, his family
history and the fact that he was gay.
James Whale is portrayed in 'Gods and Monsters' by Ian McKellen, and he
had better polish up his Oscar speech because he may need it. His work
in this film is brilliant because of the way he UNDER plays the role.
He brings dimensions of the character to the screen but others remain an
enigma. By the end of the picture, you feel sympathy for Whale but you
want to know more about him. The film is simply shot, almost like a
play by director Bill Condon and the screenplay, based on the novel
'Father of Frankenstein' by Christopher Bram is adapted for the screen
by Bill Condon as well.
The film opens in the final days of Whale's life as he lives in his
modest upper-class home in Southern California. He is cared for by his
housekeeper who has worked for him for 15 years (Lynn Redgrave who is
also Oscar worthy). There is a quote in the film that strikes a
memorable chord that says something about the fact that servants who
have worked for you long enough begin to feel as if they're related to
you. Whale spends his time drawing as an artist, sketching on pads
mounted on giant easels and granting the occasional interview to an
eager journalist or fan, relishing in the thought of meeting such a
talented but under rated man.
The story starts to unfold interestingly enough when Whale begins to
fancy a gardener for hire, Brendan Fraser (who holds his own in many
scenes with McKellen). He fancies him for not only for what he feels
are his incredibly good looks but for companionship, someone to talk to
and sketch. He makes a notation that Fraser has the most extraordinary
head and features and that he wants him to sit and have his image
sketched. Fraser, a heterosexual, later learns that Whale is gay and
things take a somewhat unpleasant turn in their relationship towards the
end of the film.
There is one scene in 'Gods and Monsters' that is priceless. A garden
party hosted by the great movie director George Cukor portrayed in the
film by Martin Ferrero. There are actors playing Boris Karloff, Elsa
Lanchester, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Margaret. Seeing all of these
actors portrayed by others is convincing and it is one of the best
scenes where McKellen portrays Whale's emotions as a man longing for the
past at times and wanting to put it behind him at other times.
One thing that haunted Whale ferociously throughout the course of his
life was his experience in World War I. He has constant memories of it
and memories of it along with other scenes from his life seem real to
him in his everyday existence as he sees images from those experiences
right before his own eyes in the present day that aren't real, just
ghostly as an ingredient in Whale's mind as we learn he suffered a
stroke and takes medication and the stroke continues to make certain
functions of his brain deteriorate.
Hopefully, 'Gods and Monsters' will encourage people to take a look at
the work of James Whale with enthusiasm not just for the films he
directed but for the skill he had that has influenced the film industry
to capture his story on film 41 years after his death. Bringing the
story of the final days of this man's life to the screen to audiences
who were perhaps not familiar with him serves as a way for people to be
educated not only about what they're watching but with what they learn
about the past which affects the present. A tired cliché, but it works.
Copyright © 1998 Walter Frith