GODS AND MONSTERS (1998) *** 1/2
Here's an extremely incomplete roster: Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Basil Rathbone, Robert Morley, Roger Livesey, Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, James Mason, Robert Newton, Richard Burton, Trevor Howard, Laurence Harvey, Noel Coward, Alastair Sim, Michael Caine, Michael Gambon, Richard Harris, Alfred Hitchcock (yes), Stephen Fry --I'll stop here before I drown in nostalgia. Most of them are now dead.
Ian McKellen (b.1939) is alive and well. His voice falls on our ears like heavenly manna. In Gods and Monsters, you almost expect him to address Brendan Fraser as "dear boy", the way so many of the thespians above (and others). I don't think he says it, but it's there alright.
The movie is about the last days of James Whale. James who? Well, this is what separates the men from the boys, the film fanatics from the fans, the connoisseurs from the kibitzers.
Whale (1889-1957) the son of very poor, working-class Britons, started out as newspaper cartoonist then served in the British army during World War I. He discovered theater in a German P.O.W.camp. After the war he began a stage career, was eventually successful as a set designer and director. Hollywood's Universal Studios brought him to America. He hit paydirt with his fourth film, Frankenstein (1931), folllowed by the successful The Old Dark House (with Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas,Charles Laughton), and six more movies, notably The Invisible Man (with Claude Rains, his voice and extraordinary special effects). The apex of his career was Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
In 1936, financial difficulties at Universal added complications. Whale also complained that he, the studio's star director, was ill-treated and that the studio had butchered his The Road Back (1937).This was a sort of sequel to Universal's own classic All Quiet On the Western Front (directed by Lewis Milestone). It was about German ex-soldiers' problems when they return to civilian life.
In spite of interesting movies that included Show Boat, The Great Garrick and the Man in the Iron Mask, by 1941 Whale had had it. He retired totally, to paint and to enjoy his openly gay lifestyle.
Gods and Monsters, based on a novel about Whale is an invention rather than a biopic, yet its essence, well-informed by the real life and character of the man, is true. Whale lives in Pacific Palisades, in a very nice house, not a mansion. His health is rapidly deteriorating after a stroke. His gayness is not. When his eyes land on a twenty-something garderner, the hunk and ex-Marine Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), he makes friendly advances and asks him to pose for drawings.
What Whale's initial intentions were is left beautifully hazy and ambiguous. The young man knows little about movies or about life beyond his working-class milieu. He is properly--for the naive 1950s--shocked to find out that Whale is a homosexual. But the undeniable fascination the older man exerts makes Clay tolerate Whale's otherness, one that goes beyond sex. The former director opens for him a new world of past and present. It's done through a constantly serpentine succession of excellently staged, graduated and never blatant touches.The two men keep their physicalities apart yet bond in odd but believable ways.
For Clay, this is a kind of introduction to another culture, an immense expansion of his horizons, a most original psychological and deviously sentimental education, to paraphrase Flaubert. His relationship to Whale moves along the lines of one step back and two steps forward.
For Whale, Clay fills the need for an audience and a sounding-board, although he is not immune to thoughts of carnality. Through Clay's physical appeal, Whale recaptures not the fact, but the idea of a past where handsome young men would gather au naturel in the director's swimming pool as a prelude to weekend follies.
The film has a complex structure,with real or surreal flashbacks to Whale's destitute youth (that's after he stops posing as a patrician); to scenes of World War I and Whale's love for a comrade. The connections between wartime carnage and horror films are unavoidable.
Excerpts from The Bride of Frankenstein dot the movie. As poignant as any is the meeting of the two pariahs, the Monster and the Blind Man, in a celebration of friendship that prefigures the Whale-Clay rapport.
There is also a reconstruction of filming The Bride. For me, it's the only fly in the ointment, since so many of us have vivid remembrances of the movie. No matter how cleverly and skillfully depicted, the substitute actors remain just that.
The title comes from the Bride, where Dr. Frankenstein's teacher, then collaborator Dr. Praetorious (the unforgettable Ernest Thesiger) exclaims "We have created a new world of gods and monsters!" (There is another Dr. Praetorious in film history. He is the mysterious, generous professor Cary Grant in 1951's People Will Talk).
Subtleties come at a quick pace.Whale sees in Clay a kind of continuity of his Monster. The young man's head shape and flat-top haircut help. Whale sees (deftly and discreetly) his own self as both "creator" of Clay and as a monster, a wronged artist outside the mainstream of Hollywood, doubly so since his unabashed gayness in times of strictly closeted homosexuality had its price.Clay gets no flashbacks. Yet he too has a secret from his days in the Marines. Not a world-shaking secret, but enough to have given him a trauma that Clay will help cure.
McKellen-Whale's sense of irony, humor, wit and the outrageous is succulent. It's one of the picture's pillars, along with remembrance of things past, the growing rapport between the two men, and the sick old fellow's intimations of mortality. There's a "piece de resistance" in which he takes Clay along to a garden party given by crypto-gay director George Cukor in honor of Britain's Princess Margaret, shown as a pre-airhead. Cukor (more than once) is the butt of Whale's acerbic jokes. Other barbs and one-liners fly. "My driver Clay," he tells Margaret, "is impressed. He's never met a Princess before - only queens."
That McKellen is superb comes as no surprise.That Brendan Fraser is so good, does. His impressive debut was in School Ties (1992), as a boy who in the 1950s goes to an exclusive prep school, hides the fact that he is Jewish and comes out of this particular closet as a reaction to bigotry. Perhaps the connection of "being different" between the two movies inspired Fraser who's been in mostly lesser films. Here he does himself proud in all in details in speech, tone, gestures, body English, expressions--from the way he eats new foods, handles drinks other than beer from a bottle, to how he smokes an unfamiliar cigar, sucking at his gauchely. Whale sucks his Freudianly.
A nice supporting role goes to Lynn Redgrave, practically unrecognizable as Whale's stern but sweet, familiar, outspoken but polite (it's Mister Jimmy this, Mister Jimmy that), clear-sighted housekeeper. Her strong accent is a puzzle--a blend of Transylvanian, German, Irish and more. She gets the spotlight near film's end when, on May 29, 1957 she and Clay find Whale, fully clothed, floating in his pool a la Sunset Boulevard. (It was suicide, since the man knew his days were counted). Unexpectedly, this is the moment when a splendid bit of black humor comes in.
G & M was nominated for 3 Oscars: Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay
from previously produced or published material. It won the latter.