Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters is one of the most beautiful, elegiac films of the last fifteen years. It is a fictionalized, speculative film about the last days of the great golden-age Hollywood director, James Whale, who is best remembered for directing several Universal horror classics, such as The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). When Gods and Monsters was released it received very good reviews, but several critics, obviously uncomfortable with the film’s depiction of Whale’s open homosexuality, managed to slip in comments regarding the director’s “hedonism.” One wonders whether, if the film’s subject had been the hetero charm of a Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn, would those same critics have written a praising pat on the back for the celluloid studs? Regardless, Gods and Monsters, while simplistic, is brave in its depiction of Whale’s sexual preference; yet the film also strangely holds back from damning Hollywood’s blatant hypocrisy regarding Whale’s fall from grace.
Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, and especially Lynn Redgrave give superlative performances. Fraser’s Clay Boone is Whale’s Frankenstein/Adonis of a gardener. Boone is slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing that his retired celebrity employer (McKellen) is more than just an odd artist. When Hannah, Whale’s maid (Redgrave), lets the cat out of the bag, Boone’s initial reaction is one of subdued violence. However, Boone soon finds himself missing Whale’s anecdotes and returns to his employer’s studio, securing a promise from Whale to “go easy on the fag stuff.”
Whale gives a “scout’s honor” but, of course, slips when reminiscing about a male lover in the great war. Boone utters the lines that every gay man or woman has heard from a homophobe, “You must think the whole world is gay. I’ve got news for you, it’s not.” Boone is a failed Marine, and directionless in life. Whale’s career accomplishments, along with his service as an officer in the war, attract the young man. The Whale that Boone now sees is aged, gay, and suffering the effects of a stroke, true, but he is still the type of figure Boone was hoping to meet in HollywoodLand.
Due to the stroke, Whale frequently lapses into the not-so nostalgic past, which he has spent his life covering up. He poignantly describes his family to the transfixed gardener, “I had imagination, creativity and wit. Where did I get that? Certainly not from them. It was like a family of farmers had been given a giraffe and did not know what to do with the creature, except harness it.”
Yet, it was hardly the pedestrian mindsets of poor, family Brits that ruined Whale. Whale was harnessed and then undone by the equally pedestrian corporate mindsets of the Hollywood studio system. Flinching from fully portraying Hollywood’s betrayal of Whale’s talent is where the film fails. The Road Back (1937) was a film that had been on Whale’s mind and heart for some time. It was to be his personal statement against the war. Gods and Monsters tells us that much, but then short shifts the emotional, more complex truth. According to Condon’s script the studio simply didn’t like the film, added some slapstick, and the result was a bomb for which Whale was blamed, thus destroying his career.
Actually, the truth is political. The Jewish heads of Universal studios were, in fact, threatened with a ban from the Nazis, due to The Road Back`s unflattering portrayal of Germany. The studio heads backed down and Whale was ruined. Hollywood has never been known for its moral courage. Charles Chaplin faced the same backlash with The Great Dictator (1940). Carl Foreman (High Noon, 1952) was among those blacklisted with the aid of Hollywood rethuglicans John Wayne and Howard Hawks. When Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004) was released churches were taking kids by the busload to see this “Lethal Jesus” porn and Wal-Mart stocked its shelves when the DVD was released. The trillion or so dollars it racked in effectively silenced criticisms of its blatant anti-Semitism, and only now after Mel’s repeated foot-in-mouth incidents can anyone point out the “I told you so.”
Up against institutional politics, Whale was deemed the idiosyncratic freak. It was not Whale’s sexual orientation, but his refusal to back down to the Nazis that sealed his fate. The atheistic director was put out to pasture by Executives, who just happened to be Jewish, who were fearful of offending Adolf Hitler. Ironically, by doing so, those same execs helped put their horror franchise permanently out of business. The post-Whale Frankenstein films were, in Whale’s words, directed by second-rate hacks. The franchise’s later films were copies of Whale’s visionary originals, and it did not take audiences long to tire of the unimaginative repetition.
This is a vital element in Whale’s story and, alas, it is an often told story, especially in Hollywood. When executives interfere with the artistic vision, in a dollars and sense mindset, they wind up sabotaging their golden-egged goose. Whale, Orson Welles, Tim Burton (with the Batman franchise) and most recently Sam Raimi (with the Spider-Man franchise) are prominent examples. By toning down that elemental part of the story, Condon emotionally diminishes Whale’s renegade spirit. Whale’s sexuality was a vital part of him and Condon is to be applauded for depicting that, but homosexuality was only a fragment of that spirit. His stubborn artistry was what drove him and, eventually, got him banished.
That (big point) aside, the rest of the film holds true. Whale’s eventual decision is a noble one. By placing quality of life over quantity, Whale displays a brave, true morality. He wrong-headedly attempts to solicit Boone’s assistance in helping carry out his plan. However, he sees Boone for what he is; a big pussycat. Whale repents for misjudging his gardener. Whale too could stereotype, and he realizes this most poignantly. Frasier excels here and he rounds out his character so well that one laments more roles like this did not follow for him. As excellent as Frasier is in the role of Boone, Lynn Redgrave is perfect in the role of Hannah. She is a pre-Vatican II, unattractive middle-aged Catholic widow. She chastises her employer’s ways, but she truly loves him, and in a moment of crisis that she becomes fully Catholic, praying for Jimmy to have a better life ahead, and feeling he deserves it. We can relate. McKellen as Whale is mesmerizing and we can easily identify with Hannah’s devotion to him. Redgrave completely disappears in her role, almost to the point of being unrecognizable. She intentionally bears a similarity to Whale character actress Una O’Connor, but takes that character to a unpredictable level. She is simply amazing, and when crisis comes her way, she tackles it with guts and empathy.
By focusing more prominently on Whale’s sexuality, as opposed to his artistry, Gods and Monsters, unlike Redgrave, falls a bit shy of hitting the mark. Still, it is an exceptionally intimate, sublime film that will make you fall in love with these people and, with that said, criticisms are rendered superfluous.