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Grade: AGods and Monsters (1998)

Director: Bill Condon

Stars: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave

Release Company: Universal Studios

MPAA Rating: R

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Bill Condon: Gods and Monsters

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Affliction/Gods and Monsters (Video Release)
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Based on Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein, about the ambiguous last days of director James Whale, Gods and Monsters delves into the characters of two outsiders, providing fertile ground for one of the top acting tour de forces in the 90's with Ian McKellen's brilliant portrayal of the legendary director. Using Whale's strokes and resulting disorientation to great effect, director/writer Bill Condon flashes back briefly and often abstractly to significant moments from Whale's past for ample back story--his English mining town childhood from the wrong side of the tracks, a disapproving father, WWI experience directing plays in a German prison camp, move to Hollywood to direct classic Universal monster movies and others like Showboat, and his private all-male pool parties.

Initially introducing Whale as a lonely retired director, living comfortably at home under medication and under the watchful eye of his Teutonic housekeeper, Hanna (wonderfully portrayed by Lynn Redgrave), Condon drops obvious cues about Whale's homosexuality. Unlike George Cukor and other prominent closeted Hollywood icons, Whale never keeps his sexuality a complete secret. But he doesn't flaunt it either, except for humorous effect. This is 1957, a paranoid era where an openly gay filmmaker risked ostracism and unofficial black listing, along with the suspected Commies. Of course Whale currently contemplates death and could care less what Hollywood thinks at this point--his directing career had reached its zenith twenty years previously where any references to homosexuality had to be cleverly hidden. When an effeminate journalist seeks to delve into rumors of Whale's sexuality, why he stopped directing films, and details about his monster movies, Whale immediately “outs” himself and tells the young man to strip down to his skivvies in exchange for answers.

Whale isn't so direct with strapping gardener Clayton Boone (Brendon Fraser), whose athletic build contrasts with that of his two former lovers. Boone isn't the swiftest on picking up Whale's semi-oblique signals, and doesn't realize the old director is gay until Hanna discloses Whale's unspeakable "sin" of "buggering" other men. Even then, Boone continues doubt her charges, proceeding to ask the old man about marriage and the usual exploratory questions before settling the "boundaries." They are an unlikely couple, yet both fulfill fantasies and needs for the other, which all come together in a complex climax on a rainy night, paralleling the electrically charged scenes of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Ian McKellen was born to play James Whale, and it's uncanny how he becomes the legendary director, not only physically resembling him but taking on his mannerisms and artistic sensibility. A longtime veteran of Shakespearean stage, McKellen perfectly matches Whale's outcast and creative nature. The legendary actor had remained closeted until 1988, when Margaret Thatcher attempted to push through legislation against homosexuality, and McKellen has actively promoted gay rights ever since. No doubt, that inspired him for this role, and he eagerly immerses himself into the director's soul to the point that his heartfelt pleas seem to come directly from the deceased Whale. Although he lost out to that crazy chair-hopping Italian, McKellen's Oscar™ nomination gained him great notoriety among the Hollywood establishment that he's subsequently cashed in on as crafty elders in both the X-Men and Lord of the Rings film franchises. The days of secretly blacklisting openly gay actors are over--as long as the acting talent is as powerful as McKellen's.

Far less established, Brendan Fraser gives his best ever performance as Whale's friendly gardener. Living alone in a dump of a trailer and going nowhere real fast, Clay treats the local women at the bar with even less sensitivity than Stanley Kowalski, but a telling scene after a typical quickie demonstrates his loneliness. Reminiscent of penitent Frankenstein monster, he peers into his basin with similar expression. Of course, initially drawing the attention of Whale by his large muscular build and the particular shape of his head and haircut that recalls the monster, Clay demonstrates great affinity with the monster's psyche. When viewing Whale's masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein, Hanna simplistically experiences a horror film and Clay's peers see it merely as a campy 30's period piece. On the other hand, Clay responds to its underlying melancholy and intuitively senses the greater depths that Frankenstein's director strives for. Fraser captures this complexity to great effect with rarely found sensitivity and intensity.

Contrasting with the great majority of bio-pics, Gods and Monsters travels far beyond the usual chronological re-telling of highlights, leaving viewers with a profound inside view of the complex director. Filmed on a relatively small three million dollar budget, the intelligently crafted dialogue and structure propel the script forward, always fueled by two of the best acting performances to come out of the nineties. The artistry of Condon's film inevitably will increase interest in James Whale's body of work, amplifying the powerful nature of this film.
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