On May 30, 1957, the Los Angeles Times reported that the body of "the distinguished film producer and director James Whale" had been found floating in the swimming pool at his home in Pacific Palisades. Fully clothed, Whale's corpse exhibited a head wound. "Whale," the Times went on to point out, "had lived in retirement since the early days of World War II. Friends said he had no known relatives."
In other words, there was no way that the Times in 1957 was about to make note of either Whale's long-time lover, producer David Lewis, or short-time boy toy, chauffeur Pierre Foegel. It did, however, remind readers that he was responsible for a quartet of the most stylish and sophisticated horror films ever made: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), arguably his best picture. He also made The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), One More River (1934), Remember Last Night? (1935), Show Boat (1936), and The Great Garrick (1937).
But by 1957 Whale, who worked as a stage director in his native England before moving to Hollywood in 1930, was regarded as just another Hollywood has-been. Only the bizarrely theatrical nature of his passing--eerily reminiscent of the opening scene in Sunset Boulevard, released just seven years earlier-- made his apparent suicide at the age of 67 newsworthy. But while the Times may have been tactful in reporting Whale's demise, his death became part of Hollywood lore when he was found to have been gay and (unlike his contemporary, director George Cukor) hadn't gone to great lengths to hide it. Those facts in turn inspired the dearly held notion that Whale's career ended not because of bad luck and poorly chosen projects, but rather because he was openly gay. And as any Hollywood impresario will tell you, a homosexual driven to suicide always makes for a good third-act finale. The thing about Whale is that his death made sure that the curtain wouldn't come down any time soon on that third act.
Nothing stokes the fires of gossip faster than a gay corpse. Was there foul play? Did Whale find himself at the mercy of a murderous hustler, as actor Ramon Novarro would eleven years later? The questions came thick and fast, and no answers followed. Silence creates a vacuum that wagging tongues are sure to fill. And the power of such wagging is so great that even when a pioneering biography of the director (James Whale, by James Curtis) finally revealed in 1982 that Whale had left a suicide note, the speculation did not cease. Debilitated from a series of strokes, Whale had simply, and quite deliberately, taken his life by throwing himself headfirst into the pool. That was that. But some people, especially those entranced by the myth of Hollywood, sensed there was more to be told about the director's death. For example, a recent episode of cable's matchlessly lurid Mysteries & Scandals advanced the theory that a surfeit of poolside boy parties hastened Whale's demise.
But you don't have to be Kenneth Anger to be intrigued by Whale's life and art. And it is here that novelist Christopher Bram enters the picture with Father of Frankenstein (1995). Bram's novel might be said to split the difference between truth and conjecture; it recounts the undisputed facts of Whale's death and also adds a soupion of fictional dish to the director's life through the invention of Clayton Boone, a handsome young drifter who works as a gardener for Whale in his declining days. Indulging the older man's request to model nude for a painting, Boone goes on to forge a platonic yet erotically tinged friendship with him. Although Bram's book is tailor-made for the movies, it's a complex, subtle story (part Death in Venice, part The Bad and the Beautiful) and would surely have been trampled by the sledgehammer sensibilities of today's supposedly cutting-edge movie hotshots.
Bill Condon, writer-director of Gods and Monsters, the screen adaptation of Bram's novel, isn't one of those. While Condon's credits include the scripts for Strange Behavior (1981) and Strange Invaders (1983) (two of the wittiest fantasy films of the '80s), and the script and direction for Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995), nothing in his past quite suggests what he has accomplished with Gods and Monsters. This is in no way a horror film, yet it evokes the style and substance of Whale's '30s classics. Moreover, while it deals with the life and death of a gay man, Gods and Monsters doesn't pitch itself politically or erotically into any special key. Rather, this chamber drama (whose title is derived from a toast made by actor Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein) is a deeply felt and oddly moving reverie on death and the process of taking stock of one's life.
Sound bleak and morbid? Not in the slightest. That's because Condon was lucky enough to engage the English stage actor Ian McKellen, best known for his Shakespearean roles, to play Whale--and wise enough to know when to stand back and allow McKellen to inhabit a part he clearly embodies right down to his fingertips. McKellen's name has become fairly synonymous with prestige projects, notably the screen version of Shakespeare's Richard III (1995). (He also stars in the recent Apt Pupil.) In Gods he demonstrates his incredible ability to convey raw, subtle, and difficult emotions. And Condon gives McKellen all manner of visual and dramatic richness to chew on.
While the plot may nominally be set in the Hollywood of 1957, Gods really takes place in Whale's mind. It's an odd, melancholy place in which past and present compete for attention, each finding the other trumped by fantasy. Jumbled and disconcerting as that may sound, it's crystal clear onscreen; Condon is aware of the fact that the two Frankenstein films, and much of Whale's other work, are evocations of World War I. The Great War marked Whale and his generation in the same way that World War II and Vietnam would mark later ones. Condon knows it's only a short step from war's charnel house to a laboratory where disparate corpses are sewn together to create new forms of life. He makes this plain from the film's opening shot, in which a dark, hulking figure that could be a soldier or a lab-created "monster" lurches across a barren landscape that looks like a battlefield.
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We are often unsure of exactly what we're looking at, or what anything means; the movie slips from one place and time to another, then back again, from Whale's pool to the trenches of World War I to the studios at Universal where Bride is being shot to a garden party at Cukor's house where Princess Margaret is the guest of honor (the film's funniest sequence). We're certain only that everything we witness is happening to one degree or another inside Whale's head.
While Gods and Monsters is something of a one-man show, words of praise should be offered to Brendan Fraser (though he fulfills the main requirements for his performance as soon as he reveals his remarkable body), Lynn Redgrave as Whale's housekeeper (similar to a Germanic Una O'Conner, the Irish actress who appeared in Bride), Lolita Davidovich as Clayton's slatternly would-be girlfriend, and David Dukes in a brief turn as David Lewis.
Toward the end of the film Dukes kisses McKellen on the forehead, underscoring the love between these men who are no longer lovers. The moment has more emotional resonance than the combined results of the past decade's so-called New Queer cinema. In short it's a moment, and a film, about compassion.
Gods and Monsters.
Written and directed by Bill Condon. Based on a novel by Christopher Bram. Starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, David Dukes, and Lolita Davidovich.