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Gods and Monsters

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Gods and Monsters

Starring: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser
Director: Bill Condon
Rated: R
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: November 1998
Genres: Drama, Independent, Gay/Lesbian

*Also starring: Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, Kevin J. O'Connor, David Dukes, Brandon Kleyla, Rosalind Ayres

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Irving Berlin knew that there's no business like show business and Bill Condon does his bit to prove it. In one scene of "Gods and Monsters," Condon's fanciful and splendidly realized adaptation about the last days of "Frankenstein" director James Whale, the impresario of horror insists that there's no joy in the world that compares to that of directing films. Condon creates an inventive tale of this important figure's views, work and memories. And why not? In 1957 his subject was found dead in his pool like "Sunset Boulevard"'s Norma Desmond. His departure was listed as "under mysterious circumstances." Since Whale was a practicing gay in a Hollywood that looked askance at such behavior, the old man is indeed a subject worthy of biographical inquiry. Christopher Bram covered his life story in his book "Father of Frankenstein," which forms the basis of Condon's screenplay.

Unlike the conventional biopic "Without Limits" about track athlete Steve Prefontaine, "Gods and Monsters" does not play to the grandstands. It unfolds instead as a mostly serene probing of the director's mind in his final days, a period highlighted by his recollections of a better time and by an unusual friendship between him and the young man he hires to mow his lawn. The victim of a stroke which left his motor ability untouched but which caused neurological electrical storms in his brain, Whale was confronted daily with the choice of taking a prescribed drug which zonked him out or of avoiding the medicine, which caused his mind to go off in a hundred directions. Like the stroke-afflicted character Emily Stilson in Arthur Kopit's play "Wings," Whale endures an ailment which causes memories, both pleasurable and distressing, to flood his faculties. Through a brief, unusual friendship with a working-class stiff, he recalls his direction of Elsa Lanchester as the "Bride of Frankenstein" while Condon frequently breaks away from the narrative to offer up snippets of scenes from that accomplishment.

The film is superbly acted by Ian McKellen, one of the world's foremost thesps, who is encased in a large home on California's Pacific Palisades but has lost his capacity to enjoy. He looks in the mirror at his old but distinguished features, runs a comb slowly and lovingly through his silky white hair, and for the most part appears to us as a mellowed-out venerable chap. His calm makes his bursts of rage all the more alarming, as in Condon's imaginative view he taunts a robust young man, begging to be killed. Such moments of privacy are rare as he is under the watchful eye of his servant of fifteen years, the Hungarian-born Hanna-- who is portrayed as woman with unconsciously comic repartee by Lynn Redgrave, made over to look about seventy years of age and wearing a perpetual scowl.

In an unusual and marginally dangerous bit of casting, Brendan Fraser, known to a large audience as a sweet, comic personality in "George of the Jungle" and "Encino Man," provides the catalyst for the older man's reveries. Handsome and muscular, Clayton Boone (Fraser), a drifter who accepts odd jobs in tony California neighborhoods, could not help reviving Whale's dormant sexuality, belying a popular view that senior citizens do not think of sex. Rather, as one knowing person suggests, they think of nothing BUT sex. Boone poses for Whale's sketches, at first seeming to tolerate his new employer's homosexual background ("live and let live") but soon becomes enraged when the man makes ribald suggestions about the armies of folks who'd cavort naked under his roof and at his swimming pool.

Director Bill Condon seamlessly weaves visions of the old man's fancy into his drama of his subject's deterioration, following clips from "Bride of Frankenstein" with a reenactment of Whale's direction of the movie. He creates a mood that lets us imagine what it might be like to be going through a neurological crisis, blending 1950s reality with the moviemaking of the 1930s. It does not take long to realize that the muscular Brendan Fraser is pictured by Whale as the Frankenstein monster, a creature who is treated sympathetically and with a great dry wit in Whale's movies. The monster is the lonely outsider in a world he can scarcely understand. In Condon's most comical scene, Whale embarrasses gay director George Cukor and Princess Margaret at a house party by introducing his gardener--like the monster, an outsider to this milieu--which we see as one of Whale's futile attempts to break through his own vulnerability.

Money isn't everything. Like "Sunset Boulevard"'s Norman Desmond, Whale is shown to lack nothing in material comforts. But he no longer uses the pool, which was the locus of so much of his enjoyment in his earlier days. His career junked two decades back with the failure of his movie "The Road Back," Whale might as well be living in the England of his childhood, a youth of poverty whose diet consisted of drippings. Ian McKellen, who cannot turn in a bad performance, is quietly riveting throughout, no longer the misanthrope of Christopher Bram's novel but a sympathetic soul who justifiably captivates our compassion.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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