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Gods and Monsters (1998) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

whale boone frankenstein director

Principal social themes: homosexuality, end-of-life issues, suicide/depression

BBC. R rating. Featuring: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Kevin J. O’Connor, Mark Kiely, Jack Plotnick, Jack Betts, Rosalind Ayres, Matt McKenzie, Arthur Dignam, Todd Babcock, Martin Ferrero, Cornelia Hayes O’Herlihy, Amir Aboulela, David Millbern, Brandon Kleyla, Pamela Salem, Michael O’Hagen, Kent George, Jesse Long, Jesse James, Lisa Darr; Written by Bill Condon based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. Cinematography by Stephen M. Katz. Edited by Virginia Katz. Music by Carter Burwell and Franz Waxman. Produced by Paul Colichman, Greg Feinberg, Mark R. Harris, and Clive Barker. Directed by Bill Condon. Color. 106 minutes.

Overview

Gods and Monsters is an obsessive and bittersweet portrayal of the last weeks in the life of director James Whale in 1957, during which time he suffered a series of small stokes that conjured up mental images from his past. It concentrates on the friendship of Whale, a flamboyant homosexual, with Clayton Boone, a heterosexual gardener who agrees to pose as a model for the elderly director. Scenes from Whale’s most famous film, The Bride of Frankenstein , permeate the story, as do reminiscences of World War I. Bill Condon won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for this film.

Synopsis

Returning from the hospital after a stroke, director James Whale (Ian McKellen) is deeply depressed and dislikes having to rely on medication. His housekeeper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), tries her best to care for him. A university student, Edmund Kay (Jack Plotnick), arrives to interview the director, but he seems disinterested when Whale starts to discuss his past. Kay is only interested in Whale’s four famous horror films: Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man , and The Bride of Frankenstein . Becoming bored with the interview, Whale offers to answer each question truthfully only if Kay removes an article of clothing. The director admits his homosexuality and also reveals the sexual proclivities of other Hollywood personalities such as director George Cukor. Whale suffers a seizure before he finishes the interview, and Hanna sends Kay home. Later, Whale becomes interested in the muscular young gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), who is mowing his lawn. He strikes up a conversation with the young man, who is unaware of Whale’s past. His interest grows when he hears that Whale directed Frankenstein . Whale shows Boone some of his paintings and asks if he would pose for him. Hesitant at first, Boone eventually agrees. When The Bride of Frankenstein is broadcast one evening on television, Boone persuades his friends at the local bar to watch the film. They find it funny. At the same time, Whale watches the film at home with Hanna, and his memories of the cast and crew sweep over him. Boone becomes uncomfortable after learning that Whale is a homosexual, and he storms off when the director boasts about the naked, all-male pool parties that he threw back in the 1930s. Boone returns, however, making Whale promise to avoid any locker-room talk, letting the director know unequivocally that he himself is straight. When Whale questions why the gardener returned to pose for him, Boone admits that he finds his stories fascinating, unlike any he had ever heard before. The director becomes increasingly disturbed by his memories of World War I, particularly about a young soldier he befriended in the trenches. Later, his companion was killed, and his body was unable to be retrieved since it was in “No Man’s Land.”

Whale receives an invitation to attend a fancy outdoor reception in honor of Princess Margaret’s visit to Hollywood. He asks Boone to drive him and accompany him to the party. Whale learns that his invitation was arranged by Edmund Kay, now working for George Cukor. Kay wanted to reunite Whale with Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff, who played the monsters in The Bride of Frankenstein . They have a brief gracious meeting and pose for photographs. When a rain shower develops, Whale asks Boone to take him home, commenting that he no longer is able to blend with the Hollywood crowd. The gardener agrees to model for Whale semi-nude. At one point, Whale asks Boone what he thinks of mercy killing, but the gardener gives a noncommittal reply. He reacts furiously, however, when the director embraces him, until he realizes that Whale was hoping to be struck and possibly killed. Whale apologizes, and Boone helps put him to bed. The gardener himself falls asleep on the sofa in the living room. When he is awakened in the morning by Hanna, Boone finds an envelope with his name on it containing Whale’s original sketch of the Frankenstein monster with a handwritten dedication to “Clayton … Friend?” (a reference to the monster’s question to the blind man in The Bride of Frankenstein ). Hanna comes screaming down from the director’s room on finding his suicide note. They find his body floating in the pool. Hanna suggests that Boone leave to avoid any awkward questions from the police.

The scene switches to many years later. Boone is watching The Bride of Frankenstein on TV with his ten-year-old son, who loves the movie. His father shows him the sketch of the monster given him by Whale, and he is impressed that his dad knew him. Boone’s wife asks him to take out the garbage before coming to bed. A thundershower develops, and as he walks in the rain, Boone imitates the lumbering gait of the monster as the end credits roll.

Critique

Gods and Monsters is a truly remarkable effort. Ian McKellen’s interpretation of Whale has been described as fairly accurate. Even the paintings shown in the film are authentic works by Whale. The character of Clayton Boone, however, is largely fictionalized, more of a composite of different true-life personages. The title Gods and Monsters is, of course, a reference to the famous toast delivered by Ernest Thesiger in The Bride of Frankenstein . The Oscar-winning screenplay of the film provides ample material for discussion, particularly on the issue of homosexuality. Actor Ian McKellen, himself a homosexual, avoids clichés in his portrayal of James Whale, who was known for his flamboyance and black humor. The relationship between Whale and Clayton Boone is filled with tension and genuine affection. Whale sees Boone as many things, a sounding board to whom he can confide and perhaps a living counterpart to his famous screen creation, the Frankenstein Monster. Whale respects Boone and finds him attractive, even though he knows his friend is not a homosexual. When Whale meets Edmund Kay (a possible homosexual), he feels no genuine interest in him at all. While Whale enjoys teasing and even shocking Boone, he responds to him and becomes fascinated by the man’s honesty and openness. On his own part, Boone is touched by the aging director, although he has a personal revulsion to homosexuality, and he became more tolerant due to Whale’s friendship. Brendan Fraser brings considerable depth to Boone, not as a person who may be corrupted by Whale but one who develops a genuine understanding of him. Hannah, magnificently played by Lynn Redgrave, loves her employer as well, although she feels repugnance for what she calls his vice “of which no man may speak.” The parallel attitudes of both Hanna and Clayton respond to the warm, sensitive, and tormented personality of Whale despite their rejection of homosexuality. One tenuous message of the film is that homophobia can be breached by coming to know homosexuals as individuals.

The flashbacks to the making of The Bride of Frankenstein are the most fascinating parts of the film, highlighting the homosexuality of the major players, the highly strung Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and the cordial but prissy Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorius. Whale pokes subtle fun at both characters in his famous film, but never at the monster, whom he considers a noble savage (as he does Boone). The complex script of Gods and Monsters can be open to various differing interpretations, particularly in the dream sequences when images of World War I and the monster become entwined. Other important themes in the film include the dignity Whale tries to maintain while he is entering his frightening final days, troubled by visions from his past that he cannot control. His most horrendous moment is when he tries to provoke Boone into killing him, an instant of desperation that he regrets. In this light, his suicide is almost an act of redemption for the burden he almost inflicted on Boone. In real life, Whale’s death, although probably a suicide, was never clearly identified as such.

The technical credits of Gods and Monsters , cinematography, editing, makeup, and so forth, are uniformly excellent. The score by Carter Burwell is brilliant. It both uses and adapts Franz Waxman’s memorable music for The Bride of Frankenstein . The depictions of noted actors such as Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, and Ernest Thesiger are both credible and entertaining.

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