Biopic Theater gets a shot of class this week with the Academy Award nominated film, Gods and Monsters. I figured it was an appropriate choice since we came to the end of my series of reviews from my American Horror class. Gods and Monsters resulted in an Oscar for Best Screenplay, as well as nominations in Best Actor and Supporting Actress. It’s an elegant film that, while exploring a director recognized for creating monstrosity, felt attacked by the personal demons within. A thought-provoking story of friendship and Hollywood abandonment with a strong script and a director who adores his character.
Frankenstein director James Whale (Ian McKellan) is washed-up and only remembered for his two horror pictures. When he meets gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a relationship originally founded on lust, soon turns to friendship.
My film teacher recommended this to our class and I’d heard only good things about it previously. It’s a movie where the audience gets maximum enjoyment if you’ve seen Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein as director/screenwriter Bill Condon peppers his frames with allusions to them. Gods and Monsters is a character piece staged in a way that’s reminiscent of a Broadway show, emphasizing character discussions. Therefore, it’s necessary to get actors who are capable of bearing the weight of the story on their shoulders and McKellan, Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave as the flustered maid Hanna, are all up to the task. Each character has clearly defined motivations and personality that is predicated on the story, not showing or telling you, but letting on to what the character is like through a broad panoply of emotions. Case in point, Hanna is in love with Whale through her continual need to mother him and act like his wife, without him even acknowledging her presence. Boone obviously grapples with maturity, the belief that he’s stuck in a rut, and possibly his sexuality, without having to explain those things out loud. Whale is the colorful character in the bunch, rife with complexity that peels over like an onion over the length of the run-time.
Ian McKellan is spellbinding here, wrapping you up in the world that’s created and giving you a reason to invest in the character, and man, that was James Whale. Whale strives for a return to his lost youth – he flashes back to his childhood and is called “Jimmy” by Hanna – searching for it with the belief it’ll set things right for him. It’s never explained, nor does it need to be, but we’re aware that Whale is suffering from some type of debilitating disease and has suffered a stroke; a return to youth would fix all that, he believes. He also searches for his fading film character, refusing to be identified as a “horror” director. Unfortunately, as it is with Hollywood today, he understands “it’s the horror movies you’ll be remembered for,” and not the man he was. A fun, albeit telling sequence is the reunion between Whale and his “monsters” Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff. All three have been marginalized to the hideous creations they’ve starred in, and Lanchester sneeringly says to Whale, “don’t you love being famous?” All three have had their careers boiled down to one role and it’s a searing indictment to Hollywood that we don’t do enough to help the stars, no matter how much we love them. I recall my interview with author Robert James who explained the connection of horror movies with WWI, and I was surprised to see Condon examine that in the film. Part of Whale’s obsession with the monstrous comes from losing a loved one in the war, and seeing the monstrosities countries can commit against each other. McKellan’s clipped, vain, and loquacious bearing works for the character, and helps you to love him despite his tendencies to be “a dirty old man” and trick men into getting naked for his enjoyment. The film never condemns Whale for being homosexual, or focuses exclusively on that. If anything, the audience questions Boone’s sexuality as he questions it, himself.
Fraser is the interloper in the group and his acting is dissonant compared to McKellan and Redgrave. The latter two are classical to Fraser’s dirty and off-the-cuff style, but he works for the role that’s created. The Boone character appears to be a combination of fiction and Whale’s last lover, although the latter element is removed from Boone’s characterization. Boone is a big kid who can’t do anything but care about himself. When he meets Whale there’s the prejudicial fear that the old man lusts after him, bringing up unresolved questions about the gardener’s sexuality. His character has the tendency to be too stereotypical, and Fraser acts like a petulant teenager by way of 1990, but it’s marginal to the performance. In fact, this is probably Fraser’s best role because McKellan elevates him to greatness. The two develop an intense friendship founded on mutual experience; both have seen the horrors of war and have father-son issues in their past. (Father-son problems appear to be a recurring trope in Condon’s work. See Kinsey.) Boone comes to gain a greater understanding of people and Whale, being the one person who meets the man away from his work. A scene of Boone analyzing Bride of Frankenstein, and realizing the humor is inherent, is great for anyone whose read up on the dark comic aspects of Whale’s series of horror pictures. In the end, Boone comes full circle and ends up where Whale did; forgotten, normal, and having to make his son believe that he once knew the man who made Frankenstein.
Condon’s love for Frankenstein is evident in every frame, even if it becomes too spot-on. There’s recreations of Frankenstein, both being made (with fantastic attention paid to getting actors who look like the real people, a dying art), as well as dream sequences where Whale believes Boone is the creäture; I also adored the ending credits which recreate the ending titles of Frankenstein. Overall, Gods and Monsters is an extremely well-made and fascinating portrait of a director’s desires to chase his dreams; the dream of another hit or the dream of a second chance. McKellan, Regrave, and yes, Fraser are all fantastic and deserving of praise.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.