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With: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich
Written by: Bill Condon, from the book by Christopher Bram
Directed by: Bill Condon
MPAA Rating: R for sexual material and language
Running Time: 105
Date: 01/21/1998

Gods and Monsters (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Father of Frankenstein

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Adapted from the book "Father of Frankenstein" by Christopher Bram, the new movie Gods and Monsters tells the story of film director James Whale, who completed 21 movies in Hollywood but will forever be remembered for only four: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Yet Gods and Monsters is not a standard bio-pic. The movie begins in 1957, almost twenty years after Whale retired from making films. Whale is living comfortably and quietly in Hollywood, having recently suffered a stroke that has killed the part of his brain that controls emotions, thoughts, memories, and smells. He is constantly dealing with a hundred random thoughts at one time. The movie follows this lead, and tells Whale's life stories in a seemingly random fashion. Whale is played by the brilliant English actor Ian McKellen (Richard III, Apt Pupil), who conjures beautiful pains, desires, losses, and regrets in the character.

Whale has a poolside art studio and passes the time sketching and painting. He has a housekeeper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), who has worked for him so long that she "must take the bad with the good." Whale (who is gay) notices a well-built gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Frasier), working on his lawn. He invites Boone in for tea and convinces him to sit for a portrait. Boone is not gay, but soon finds himself enjoying the older man's company nonetheless. We suspect that the reason for this lies in a wonderful scene from Bride of Frankenstein, which all the characters watch simultaneously on television. It's the scene in which Karloff stumbles into the blind man's hut, and the two become "friends," misfits and outsiders with nothing in common except being lonely and misunderstood. Parallels are increasingly drawn between Boone (with his squarish haircut) and the Frankenstein monster. In one amazing shot, Boone imitates the monster walking in the rain.

Up to now Bill Condon, the writer and director of Gods and Monsters, has made science fiction and horror films like Strange Invaders (1983), Sister Sister (1987), and Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995). This movie is obviously a dream come true for Condon, and he delivers it with precision, care, love, and intelligence. There is nothing hurried or slipshod here. He introduces a key prop -- an old sketch of the Frankenstein monster -- gradually over several scenes. The monster's face appears in a corner of the frame in one shot, then closer in another, until finally Whale picks it up and gives it to Boone.

Condon also resists the temptation to show too many re-creations of old movies and imitators of old stars, focusing instead on the main drama. Although, in one brilliant scene Whale greets director George Cukor (played by Martin Ferrero), who was also gay, and the meeting of the two Hollywood charlatans is as classic as Ed Wood's bumping into Orson Welles in Ed Wood (1994).

McKellen is not the only one who gives a brilliant performance. Vanessa Redgrave is so good as Hanna that you don't even recognize her. She completely embodies the character who is always in the background, but ever so essential (much like the Una O'Connor-type character in Whale's own films). Likewise, Brendan Frasier comes across as confused and lonely; overriding his beefcake persona. And Lolita Davidovich has a small but potent role as Boone's jilted lover, Betty.

I did learn a little about James Whale, and I did get to see some cool Frankenstein stuff, but when I came away from Gods and Monsters, all that had shrunk in importance. I was moved, fulfilled, happy, and surprised. Gods and Monsters is a great movie, and one of the year's best.

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