Cast to perfection, "Gods and Monsters" is as much an investigation into the esthetic values of the man who gave us the best horror films ever made, "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein," as it is a glimpse of Hollywood in that strange transition era from its glorious golden age to modern neurosis, where everybody's psyche is potentially psycho. (That sentence is no less complex than the film.)
The change in the title of the book, Father of Frankenstein, is an indication of the shift from the novel: James Whale is made more human, as he is measured against the all too human dimensions of his gardener, a beautiful young man who knows very little of the world and even less of the homosexual world and its pleasures. By the end of the film, we see both characters as gods, both as monsters, and the great talent of Bill Condon is in knowing when to push the esthetic toward humorous self-parody and when to bend it toward tragedy. The balancing act of hetero- and homosexual values is brilliant.
As Whale's housekeeper, Lynn Redgrave hovers in the shadows, almost like a character from a Whale film, but modernized enough to make her maternal concern about Whale, as well as her Catholic disapproval, recognizable as a modern American sentiment. Brendan Fraser lends enough no-neck brutality to the figure of the gardener to keep us fascinated at the attraction of these two lonely people. To round out their relationship, Condon made a directorial choice to add a scene at the end of the film, bringing us forward several decades to see our hero the gardener watching "Frankenstein" on the tube with his own son - to show us how deeply affected he was by the friendship and confidence James Whale had invested in him.
Ian McKellan is one of those British actors who gets more and more dignified with age and roles, until, if he's not careful, he gets a knighthood and a trip to the taxidermist. Fortunately, we're not there yet. As James Whale, McKellan lends a taut dignity to a character branded by homophobic gossip. Melancholy but astutely self-aware, McKellan doesn't shy from the game-playing that is the temptation of a person in a superior position to his own object of desire. In short, cat and mouse is great, if you're the cat.
Fraser's Clayton Boone is his equal as the dog not smart enough to play with the other animals. Apparently, or so the story goes, Brendan Fraser only agreed to do the film, if the title were changed from Father of Frankenstein - which he thought sounded like a creature feature. Gods and Monsters at least indicates the inclusion of some metaphysical speculation, as the erudite James Whale plays Pygmalion to the gardener.
The singular achievement of Condon's film is to juxtapose the two stark and intolerant positions of homosexual and heterosexual camps. Clayton says, "You seem to think, Mr. Whale, that half the world is queer. Well, it's not!" And Whale raises one eyebrow to indicate how wrong the young man is. And again, in the bar where the gardener spends his off hours with barkeep Lolita Davidovich, the regulars watch an old Frankenstein movie while they chug their beer. With all the smug lop-sided attitudes of heterosexuals, they tease Clayton about Whale sketching him - or finding him beautiful enough to paint his portrait. Clayton can't believe it himself, and it is part vanity, part curiosity that keeps him coming back to befriend Whale.
The frivolous fun of such movies can be had only in a Hollywood party scene. This one is a 1957 soiree for Princess Margaret at the mansion of Georges Cukor, himself a gay blade but a discreet one. The beautiful boys in the swimming pool glitter as much as Liz Taylor in jewels, and the princess is truly the end of a long, inbred line. And Whale has the temerity to take his gardener with him to meet the princess. "Until now, the boy's only met old queens," Whale tells Cukor. If it's not true, it ought to be.
That's also the final judgement on the film: it's very possibly an improvement on fact that achieves that higher thing called truth out of a keenly sensitive portrait of a fascinating man who was as schizophrenic as his creations.
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