Gods and Monsters (1998): Bill Condon’s Biopic of James Whale, Starring Ian McKellen in Oscar Nominated Performance

British actor Ian McKellen gives an astonishing performance in Gods and Monsters, as James Whale, the openly gay Hollywood director, best known for his 1930s horror films, “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.”

This low-budget indie, sharply scripted and directed by Bill Condon, focuses on last months of Whale, who died rather young in mysterious circumstances.

A moving biopicture (of sorts), laced with humor, wit, and irony, the tale conveys vividly the caustic filmmaker who lived a life of loneliness and rejection, both personally and professionally.

The film is very much au courant in terms of gay and sexual politics. Star McKellen went public as a gay man in 1988, which didn’t damage his career. Whale was a fascinating figure for his times: He lived an openly homosexual life before the gay movement, and gave up on the Hollywood studio system, which he perceived as too narrow to fully exploit his visionary talent.

In several significant respects, McKellen shares some biographical elements with the character he plays so well. Like McKellen, Whale was from the north of England, worked in the film industry, and, by the standards of the time, was more frank about his homosexuality than other gay directors, such as George Cukor or Vincente Minnelli. (Both of these directors feature in a brief, rather fake scene, in which they are seen vying for the attention of young men, something that would never have happened in real lifenot in public)

Whale made Boris Karloff’s star vehicles “Frankenstein,” on which he also helped design the monster’s look. The title of Condon’s movie is taken from an optimistic toast to “a new age of gods and monsters” in the celebrated sequel, “The Bride of Frankenstein,” directed by Whale in 1935 (and considered by some critics to be an even better picture than the original).

Defying chronological conventions of the biopicture genre, “Gods and Monsters” starts in 1957, when Whale is an unemployed and unemployable director, who hasn’t worked in film for some time. Instead he channels his creative energies into painting.

McKellen’s performance is subtle and yet wickedly delicious, one that deservedly received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. (Inexplicably, the winner was Roberto Benigni for “Life Is Beautiful”). McKellen’s Whale faces the world with a knowing air and a mischievous quality. The film doesn’t deal with his screen frustrations, but through McKellen’s turn we get the sense what he is a man who had maintained his dignity and is both proud and imperious. Tormented with regrets, he has not lost his passion for life, wistfully yearning for one more adventurous chapter in his declining life.

Shrewdly, Condon the writer has given McKellen some witty lines, which the actor, known for his rich, musical voice, handles astutely with charisma and bravura technical skill.

The film’s plot is rather slender: Gods and Monsters is concerned mainly with the awkward friendship that develops between Whale and his nave, hunky gardener Clayton Boone (well-played by Brandon Fraser). At first, the two men seem to stand at the opposite ends of the sexual spectrum, Fraser just finding his way as an adult, while Whale confronting the waning of his powers and end of what was for a brief time a glorious career.

Scenes between Boone and his girlfriend (Lolita Davidovich) are weak, and we can’t wait to go back to Whale and McKellen. It’s also too bad that a confrontation, both emotional and physical, between Whale and Boone, is not particularly well-staged, shifting the text to another realm. That said, Like Whale’s “Frankenstein” films, “Gods and Monsters” mixes with, humor, irony, and even pathos, through flashbacks to Whale’s personal past and the shooting of his legendary classics.

Condon’s narrative (or mise-en-scene) seldom rise to the levels of subtlety and skillfulness that McKellen’s performance. His writing and directing are more alive and involving when Whale is center-stage, but the film loses momentum when it switches to Boone or to Whale’s Hungarian housekeeper Hannah (played by Lynn Redgrave).

“Gods and Monsters” is adapted from a novel, Christopher Bram’s Father of Frankenstein,” not a biography or autobiography, so the details are not necessarily historically accurate or authentic. But this doesnt pose a major problem for the movie’s emotional impact, which ultimately depended on a psychologically sharp and poignant portrait of a singular man, who was ahead of his times, and is now at a crossroads in his life.

It’s hard to imagine the film with another actor but McKellen, who renders an elegant, spellbinding, emotionally intricate performance.

The tale is both touching and haunting, suggesting the interfacing of aging and desire, and how personal pains can be channeled into art and creativity.

A brief epilogue, showing Fraser’s gardener several years later, offers a lovely coda about remembrance and reconciliation.

Credits

Lions Gate Release
Running Time: 105 minutes

Production: Regent Entertainment
Producers: Clive Barker, Stephen Jarchow
Director-writer: Bill Condon
Camera: Stephen M. Katz
Editing: Virginia Katz
Costume: Bruce Finlayson
Music: Carter Burwell
Design: Richard Sherman

Cast:

James Whale (Ian McKellen)
Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser)
Hanna (Lynn Redgrave)
Betty (Lolita Davidovich)
Harry (Kevin J. O’Connor)