Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
Movies about movies, or movies about the people in movies are at least a little bit self-referential. Gods and Monsters is such a film. While not actually about the movies themselves, the film serves as something like an emotional biography of James Whale, the man who directed Frankenstein and Show Boat among other films. While it touches briefly on his early life, the film focuses instead much more on the end. The title of the film comes from a line spoken in Bride of Frankenstein, a film that is referred to throughout the running time.
Gods and Monsters takes place after the Korean War and about a decade and a half after Whale had left the film industry completely. He was a unique personage in the era, being one of only a few people in the country, let alone Hollywood, who was openly gay at a time when such was more than simply taboo. This is more or less what the film explores, and in truth, Gods and Monsters is more about Whale’s homosexuality than it is about his life specifically.
The tale is told in part through Whale’s mind, which becomes increasingly fractured as a result of strokes. Part of the film is also told through the lens of Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser), hired to take care of Whale’s lawn and garden. Slowly, the two form an odd sort of friendship, one that takes difficult turns as Whale’s homosexuality becomes more and more of an issue for Boone.
The third main player here is Hanna (Lynn Redgrave, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Whale’s live-in housekeeper. The relationship between Hanna and Whale is an interesting one. It’s clear that the two have something very much like a marriage despite Whale’s sexual proclivities and Hanna’s religious issue with same. She comments at one point that she stays with him because she was with him when he was happy; it’s only fair that she stay with him while he is ill.
I’m not sure how thoroughly immersed Gods and Monsters is in the idea of New Queer Cinema, but I think that it’s certainly there in part, particularly because a great deal of the film explores the increasingly sexual (although never consummated) relationship between Whale and Boone. Whale, of course, is completely accepting of his own homosexuality. It is Boone who fluctuates wildly between disgust and something like acceptance. In fact, in several important moments of the film, Boone acts almost as if he is Whale’s partner in everything but sex.
The biggest hurdle that Gods and Monsters needs to overcome is not the portrayal of homosexuality on screen or even the brief flashes of full-frontal male nudity during one of Whale’s reveries. No, the biggest issue is the casting of Brendan Fraser as Clay Boone. There is a scene early on where Whale and Boone are just meeting where Whale asks Boone if he would sit and model for him for a sketch. Whale comments specifically on the interesting architecture of Boone’s (and thus Fraser’s) head. Physically, Fraser is a great choice for this role. But he seems inconsistent at times, almost as if he’s not sure that he belongs in the film. That may actually work to his advantage in places; in a real sense, Clay Boone doesn’t belong in James Whale’s world, either.
The end result of the film is a sensitive portrayal of James Whale, one that isn’t shy about his flaws and one that doesn’t apologize for him, either. There doesn’t appear to be an attempt to “norm” homosexuality in any real sense, but there is also no sense of it demonizing it as well. In that respect, it may well be “norming” homosexuality—it’s simply a part of who James Whale is, and an aspect of the character that must be dealt with before the final credits roll. That it’s the main aspect of the character explored here is what seems to put this into the category of queer cinema.
I liked Gods and Monsters the first time I watched it and I liked it this time as well. The presence of Ian McKellen cures a lot of ills, and he seems very much at home in this role. Of course, that’s one of the joys of seeing McKellen in anything. He adds a humanity to Whale that is implied in some of Whale’s best work. There’s a sense, one hinted at at one point, that the Monster is a kindred spirit—an outcast simply looking for a place to belong in a world that isn’t prepared to have him there. This sense is only enhanced by Whale’s retirement from film; he is not even ornamental when the film takes place. Everything has passed him by, a realization that leads to the ultimate conclusion of the story (not including the short coda at the end).
Is it worth seeing? I think so. Just as Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein sought to humanize Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, Gods and Monsters seeks to put the man behind those films into a more human, less “other” focus. For that, at least for those who have loved and still love the films of James Whale, Gods and Monsters is worth seeing.
Why to watch Gods and Monsters: Ian McKellen is always worth watching.
Why not to watch: Brendan Fraser might be miscast.