Gods and Monsters (1998, Bill Condon)
Gods and Monsters isn’t exactly a biopic. To start with, it’s based on an unabashedly fictitious work (Christopher Bram’s Father of Frankenstein) and moreover, it limits its concern to a very specific period in the life of its subject, filmmaker James Whale: that is, the very end, the declining days. Whale was coping with chronic pain and stress that led to his suicide; he drowned himself in his pool, assuring family members that it was done only to escape his physical agony. An openly gay onetime member of the Hollywood elite, Whale led a fascinating life and can possibly lay claim to having made the most universally beloved American films of all, to making the most indisputable mark on the culture we now live in with his creation of the classic iconography of Frankenstein’s monster in his immortal films Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, two of the wittiest and greatest horror films ever made. A movie about Whale presents the opportunity for a meditation on the power of cinema and the nature of the artistry that can emanate from a seemingly very well-adjusted man. Bill Condon’s effort here barely touches such concerns, instead attempting to home in on the realities of a man reaching out to someone kind in the midst of a rapid decline.
Ian McKellen presents Whale in a passionate, magical manner worthy of unreserved praise. His treatment of the famous director is wonderfully vivid but just mysterious enough to make a serious mark; indeed, the film’s thinly veiled thesis that the Great War was the defining event in Whale’s life is handled ham-handedly by the script but so elegantly by McKellen that one barely notices. In the year that Roberto Benigni received the Oscar for his non-acting, this powerhouse performance went ignored. In terms of characterization, though, McKellen is given little to work with — Gods and Monsters displays a tiresome tendency toward gay stereotyping and gay panic, which is a disappointment, especially in a film directed by a gay man. Like so many American films, it casts “good gay” as the dignified McKellen, neutered except his hitting on and gradually disrobing young interviewers and going on about the “pricks” at George Cukor’s famed parties; and “bad gay” as said young interviewer, Cukor himself, and a general shorthanded “prissiness” that smacks of old-world sensibilities. That’s not simply because of the period depicted; the portrayal of the student interviewer played by Jack Plotnick is, unnecessarily, quite nasty and aggressive. If we allow ourselves for just a moment, however, to accept the somewhat simplistic vision of James Whale as a man broadly haunted by the war he fought in and the violence he saw, as a man who bristled at his wide-ranging, eclectic work being reduced to just the Universal horror films that remain his greatest legacy, McKellen’s portrayal is haunting and human — it rises far above the material.
Condon cops out on many potentially fascinating dimensions of the story, starting with the long-standing rumor that Whale was assisted in his suicide, and shadowed wholly by the creation of a young man, a gardener, who becomes the director’s close friend shortly before his death — but of course, the relationship is platonic and the boy, Clayton Boone, is a fictitous creation: buff, youthful, all-American, completely straight! In this role, Brendan Fraser too rises above the somewhat hollow, fantastic and far too cookie-cutter creation he’s meant to embody, though it’s rather jarring these days to see Fraser in such a serious role after his career has taken such a dramatic nosedive. There’s something strikingly affecting about his presence here, how it springs with hope for the future, which in a superficial Hallmark way is precisely what Whale seems to see in his character — or at least it must be, for we’re offered little else for Whale to latch on to. But for whatever reason, Condon finally seems to design this as a character study of Clayton as much as of James Whale — it’s Clayton who seems to Learn Something that causes him to grow up and, we’re shown, ultimately raise a family and become mature and all that shit.
There are moments here, particularly toward the finale, that are moving in an entirely unforced manner. The problem is: that’s because they are clips from Whale’s film Bride of Frankenstein. Indeed, the primary effect of seeing Gods and Monsters is a nearly insatiable desire to see that masterful effort again. The excerpts here remind us of how full of life and vigor and multifaceted humor and pathos that film is — and not only that, the movie nails the appeal of the film in the expressions and dialogue of those shown to be watching it: the creeped-out housemaid, the skeptical barflies, the enchanted Fraser, the sentimental father and son at the conclusion. When we briefly flash back to the shooting of the scene in the film that reveals the creation of the Bride herself, it’s as warm and inviting and beautiful as Condon’s work has ever been — and as with Martin Scorsese’s recent Hugo, you end up wishing more than anything for more sequences like it. We don’t get them.
So despite eschewing the traditional structure of a biopic, Gods and Monsters ends up preserving the patness of characterization that mars so many of them — but it’s still an ultimately fascinating, if troubling, film with many gently knowing elements. And the amount of time that’s passed since its creation has made it more affecting and has certainly underlined its larger points about aging and memory — fourteen years later, we look back and see in our own broader context, similar to that with which Bride is approached in the film, how young Fraser looks, how muddied up the conflation of past and present becomes, how the slightly anachronistic tone has squarely placed the film in the strange ghostly period between the rise of independent cinema and the rise of cell phones and the Internet. At this moment, films from this time are not yet old enough to seem far apart from us but still are beginning to ache with loss as they pass into history, which only makes the reverent treatment of movie history in this one more truthful and telling. It also serves to make more painful the unavailability of the bulk of Whale’s body of work, which mostly languishes in film archives these days; that something openly lamented in this 1998 film has yet to be addressed or changed in today’s market is more than a little depressing, but kudos for the effort.
And frankly, the last scene got me — it flashes forward years after Whale’s death, after a final confirmation of the mutual loyalty and friendship he shares with Clayton, when the latter has evidently overcome his issues with women and has a wife and son, with whom he watches Bride of Frankenstein. After the credits roll, he shares the story of how he once knew the man who made the movie. The boy is incredulous at first, asking if this is another one of his dad’s “stories,” a particularly delightful and subtle note of Whale’s influence on the man. Clayton shares a souvenir with his son, the original sketch of the monster that Whale gave to him on the night of his death. He then takes the garbage out and begins not — as your classic growing-up and sucking-it-up movie would have it — dancing in the rain, but aping the lurching movements of Frankenstein’s movements in the rain. And the credits roll.