Gods and Monsters (review)

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Only the Lonely

In Gods and Monsters, movie director James Whale (Sir Ian McKellen, in a brilliant performance) talks about how the movies he was best known for — Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein — were comedies about death in which the humor was subtle enough so as not to ruin it for people not in on the joke. Much the same could be said for Gods and Monsters.

Quiet, touching, and often funny, Gods and Monsters takes us into the last days of Jimmy Whale’s life. After suffering “a touch of stroke,” he befriends his gardener, ex-Marine Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser, surprisingly fierce and effective). Jimmy’s primary interest is in Clay’s young, hard body, but Clay is as straight as they come. Still, Clay agrees to sit as a model for Jimmy to sketch — he can use the extra money, he says, though Jimmy does “creep me out with this homo shit.” Their relationship never actually approaches friendship, at least not on Clay’s part, but Jimmy clings to him as one final human contact in his dying days.
It becomes obvious that the genuine heart and humanity of the monster of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein came wholly from their director. A creative child who grew up in a poor English factory town, his needs were never met and never understood, as Jimmy explains sadly to Clay. He was, like Frankenstein’s monster, a “freak of nature. I had imagination, cleverness, joy. Where did I get that? Certainly not from” his family, which sent him to work in a factory.

Being gay in a world — even the world of Hollywood in the 1950s, when Gods and Monsters is set — that turns a blind eye or actively disapproves separates Jimmy as well. Hanna (an understated, marvelous Lynn Redgrave), Jimmy’s housekeeper, is a devout Catholic. She loves Jimmy but is resigned to the fact that he will burn in hell for his “buggery.” “It doesn’t seem fair,” she says with a shrug, but there we are.

Jimmy is at first amused by Clay’s homophobia. In one craftily funny scene, they discuss Jimmy’s homosexuality, his former “husband,” and Hollywood’s attitude toward gays. Clay assures Jimmy that he’s not gay, and wonders uneasily whether Jimmy is attracted to him. And all the while, the two of them are sucking on big, phallic cigars. Jimmy seems aware of the symbolism, but it’s lost on Clay.

Their uneasy relationship does grow threatened by Clay’s fears. Jimmy reminisces to Clay about the men he has loved and times when his home was full of beautiful young men. It’s truly a poignant moment, until Clay explodes. If Jimmy had been joyfully remembering all the women whom he had loved, Clay would’ve enjoyed his “locker room talk,” but like many straight men confronted by homosexuality, he takes it as a personal affront and storms out. (He comes back, though, after proving to himself how straight he is by banging the first woman he can find.)

“Alone bad, friend good,” moans Frankenstein’s monster, and like the monster, Jimmy is desperately lonely. Even after Clay’s outburst, he can still look to the younger man both for friendship and as a twisted kind of savior, as demonstrated in a bizarre dream sequence, furious and funny, in which Jimmy dreams of Clay as Dr. Frankenstein removing his, Jimmy’s, damaged brain and replacing it with a healthy one. This hope of Jimmy’s for salvation from his illness will manifest itself in his real world in a way that will startle and upset both him and Clay.

From its loving recreation of the set of Bride of Frankenstein to its sly humor (another example: Brendan Fraser, with his big square head and flattop haircut, looks in shadows and silhouettes like the monster) to its perfect, heartfelt performances, Gods and Monsters is a insightful tribute to a man who was both a god and a monster in his own mind.

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