Gods and Monsters

Isn't this the movie with Ian McKellen playing some old fruit horror director who tries to fuck George of the Jungle?

That's one way — the wrong way — of looking at Bill Condon's elegantly witty and haunting Gods and Monsters, in which McKellen gives the performance of his film career as the gay British director James Whale — the man who made Frankenstein — and Brendan Fraser excels as Clayton Boone, the straight gardener who encourages Whale as a painter by posing nude.

When Whale died, a suicide, in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1957, his heyday as the director of the 1931 Frankenstein and its even better 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, had long passed. Though Whale hadn't directed a film for more than a decade and a recent stroke had slowed him down, he was openly gay in a closeted film town. Since Whale's death, revisionists have combed the Frankenstein films for gay subtext, with the monster representing the social pariah.

Director Condon, who adapted his astutely speculative script from Christopher Bram's book Father of Frankenstein, works in a human context that transcends gay agenda. Clayton, an ex-Marine, is a fictional character meant to show Whale's longing in his isolated final days. And Fraser, in a Fifties crew cut, looks like the hunk version of Dr. Frankenstein's incredible hulk. Whale enjoys teasing the homophobic Clayton. At a party for Princess Margaret, Whale snipes: "Clay's never met a princess — only queens."

Interest in two other party guests — Boris Karloff (Jack Betts) and Elsa Lanchester (Rosalind Ayres), the monster and his mate in Bride — doesn't help Whale's mood. Once acclaimed for films as diverse as Waterloo Bridge and Show Boat, Whale now sees himself as just a footnote in horror history. Later, at home, Whale watches Bride on TV with his Hungarian housekeeper, Hannah (Lynn Redgrave is fantastic in a role that combines high comedy with aching tenderness). Clay watches, too, at a bar run by his girlfriend, Betty (Lolita Davidovich). At first, the bar patrons laugh off Bride — then Whale's magic begins to work on them. It will work on you, too, since Condon and his wondrous tech team craft flashbacks that stunningly re-create the Bride set and pay tribute to Whale's neglected artistry.

Condon's remarkable achievement is matched by McKellen. He etches a mesmerizing portrait of Whale, a piss-poor mining-town boy with the vision to create himself as a figure of urbane wit, the better to help him cope with a POW camp during World War land the torments of being a has-been in Hollywood. It's Whale's loneliness and the courage of his art that Clayton responds to. "Alone bad — friend good," said Karloff's monster in Bride. On a photo to Clay, Whale inscribes: "Friend?" The film's most indelible image is of Clay walking in the rain, his body swaying stiffly in a sort of Frankenstein dance, his spirit catching what Whale, the faded god, and his monster had caught only fleetingly: pure joy.

From The Archives Issue 509: September 24, 1987