Friend . . . Good
Director Bill Condon won an Oscar for his Gods and Monsters screenplay. Nonetheless, British critics lambasted his mostly fictional film adaptation rather than the source novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. For them, these imagined sad last days would have constituted libel if subject James Whale had still been alive. While the “explanation” of Brian Jones’s 1969 swimming pool “death by misadventure” in Stoned was to occasion yawns, conjecture about a similar 1957 incident in Condon’s film was an outrage.
English theater actor, set designer and director Whale found his profession in World War I POW-camp performances and in 1930 was brought to Hollywood for a screen rendition from the stage. Although he did a handful of other intelligent films, he is remembered for the witty, leisurely horror classics Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (Claude Rains’s 1933 starring début) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Retired early during the second war though lured back for one uncompleted multipart project, he pursued a second passion, painting. The film, however, implies that the self-exile was not exactly a willing one but, instead, some sort of open-secret ostracism for cinematic failure, sexual orientation and an abrasive but spot-on cynicism.
Openly gay, among the theater’s admired classical and Shakespearean interpreters, Sir Ian McKellen more than merited his Oscar nomination as the dapper, fastidious and bitter filmmaker near the end of his rope. Until late, he does not show his sketches, in despair and anger, so it cannot be determined if memory and motor skills had already deteriorated prior to the stroke suffered while being interviewed by silly, worshipful, available Edmund Kay (Jack Plotnick).
Likened to “an electrical storm” -- flashes of the creation of the Monster (Amir Aboulela) and his Bride -- “my condition will deteriorate until the end of my life.” Petted and fretted over by Christian longtime housekeeper Hanna (unrecognizable, also Oscar-nominated Lynn Redgrave), the stricken forgotten man is, beneath aloofness, afraid and lonely.
Hunky Southern California gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser) is invited to a beer, then into the house for lunch, and then to pose for a headshot in the artist’s studio. A tad too wide-eyed for belief even in the ‘50s, “Mr. Boone” is a biceps-tattooed ex-Marine who did not actually make it out of boot camp much less to Korea, an alpha male with the roadside bar ladies, imbued with his class’ attitudes and naïveté about “homos,” and insecure and at loose ends.
Memory, and the inevitable loss of it, plagues “Jimmie” Whale, as he and Clay verbally joust, spar, separate, reunite, and in bits and pieces bare their inner selves to each other. Clay chauffeurs him to a snobby garden party at gay cruiser George Cukor’s (Martin Ferrero), which gets symbolically poured on and where Boris Karloff (Jack Betts) is now a doting grandfather and Elsa Lanchester (Rosalind Ayres) betrays heartfelt concern under a catty exterior.
Memory flashbacks and visions surface more and more: the director’s unhappy misunderstood childhood (Brandon Kleyla); his love for a beautiful fellow soldier dead and stuck on wartime barbed wire; naked muscular swimmers in the pool fronting the studio; and the making of his two Frankenstein classics, with current faces and figures sometimes replacing those of 1931 and 1935. “It’s been a long time since anybody came into this hut. I was all alone. It is bad to be alone.”
Hanna comes to realize Clayton’s good-hearted importance, to accept, encourage and finally cover for the young man. Dying mentally more than physically, the director asks, not for sensual love, but “I want you to kill me. Please do it now.”
“I am not your monster” is the reply, although, pater familias years later, Clayton is joyfully the monster in the rain.
On DVD at the local (Columbus Branch) library, Gods and Monsters could not be the big-screen larger-than-life experience. At any scale, however, it catches a life and that life’s relation to art. Fiction need not be finically factually true, just imaginatively faithful to the human heart, more than can be said of this climate’s fabricated “news” and scam “autobiographies.” One imagines that James Whale would not have turned over in his grave in horror.
(Released by Lions Gate and rated "R" for sexual material and language.)