GODS AND MONSTERS should have won Ian McKellen an Oscar for Best Actor of 1998, but the Academy left aside his career-best work as legendary director James Whale for Roberto Benigni’s charming mugging in Life Is Beautiful. The energized Italian comic was fine, yes, but it was yet another case of the industry reminding the world that Hollywood will never forget the Holocaust. That film, a see-once-and-shelve affair, has been forgotten, and signore Benigni—where’d he go? McKellen, to the contrary, acting professionally since 1961, shortly became universally famous for his flamboyant captures in The Lord of The Rings trilogy and the X-Men franchise, and emerged as a cultural icon. A first-rate gentleman and activist, his acting is always good, but never better than in this tragic semi-fictional biodrama: the last act for one of the Golden Age’s more creative troupers and most needless casualties.
Suffering strokes in the late 50s, retired director James Whale, famed for some early horror classics (now cherished for their artistry, dismissed in the time period of this story as jokey fossils) is kept watch over by his tart but loyal housemaid (Lynn Redgrave). Ignored by former friends in the business, depressed and hungry for companionship, he convinces his hunkish gardener ‘Clay Boone’ (Brendan Fraser) to pose for some portraits. Whale is forthright about his homosexuality, Boone adamant about being straight, but the two, dissimilar in most respects, forge a testy-tender friendship that reveals and maybe heals some of their respective psychic wounds.
In directing, Bill Condon doesn’t strive for much period feel, and the action is confined to a few sets and locations anyway, but his agile screenplay is top rate, and won him an Oscar. Redgrave’s delightful thorn was nominated in the Supporting Actress category. Condon’s script was taken partially from the factual, sad Whale tale (sorry, couldn’t resist) and in large measure from the fanciful novel “Father of Frankenstein”, by Christopher Bram. *
Touching, clever, beautifully acted, the film, much like the later, higher-profile Brokeback Mountain, has become something akin to totemic among segments of the gay community (or at least gay reviewers); closer to home, perhaps, since Whale was open in a time when things stayed closeted and McKellen has been frank about his sexuality for a long time. Like the much more publicized and lucrative range-roving love story, the sexuality angle here is just a tangential ingredient to a greater story of lost possibility and reckoning with acceptance of that loss.
Most of the praise rightfully went to McKellen, who gets the choicest morsels of dialogue and most coveted actor-friendly scenes of civilized deliberation, pithy agitation, anguished recall and pitiable confusion, but there is no lack of grace and perception in the work from the offbeat, perennially underrated Fraser, who has the less showy but really more difficult role.
Reviews were strong, box-office tepid at $6,500,000, not compensating for a $10,000,000 tag. 105 minutes, with Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Rosalind Ayres (as Elsa Lanchester), Arthur Dignam (as Ernest Thesiger), Jack Betts (as Boris Karloff), Martin Ferrero (as George Cukor) and Cornelia Hayes O’Herlihy (as Princess Margaret). Fine score from Carter Burwell.
* The script makes poignant use of Whale’s haunted memories of the grotesque waste in World War 1, yet it chose to leave out that he also became a German prisoner for 16 months. He directed 21 features. They include Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein and the first version of Show Boat.