Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.
Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks. Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.
Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened. Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.
Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world. Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself. All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”
These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage. Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film. Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief. Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.
For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus. Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor. In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion. It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.
For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film. Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self. In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship. As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released. Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within. It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.
It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel. However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives. It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.