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Gods and Monsters Movie Review

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Hollywood is the wrong place to be a Nobody, even if you previously were a Somebody of the Highest Wattage. Gods and Monsters is a speculation on the sad last days of the legendary director James Whale, who brought us Frankenstein just in time for Christmas 1931, plus The Old Dark House (1932's Halloween release), 1933's The Invisible Man and, just in time for Easter 1935, Bride of Frankenstein. As the story opens, we see the great Ian McKellen as Whale in the spring of 1957, very frail in his 60s, drifting in and out of full consciousness. His constant attendant is Hanna the housekeeper (a nearly unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave at 55), who is devoted to him, despite her deep disapproval of his homosexuality. A very young and gushy journalist (Jack Plotnick as Edmond Kay) comes to pay a call on his idol, but he only wants to talk about monsters and Whale wants to talk about anything else. To liven things up, he agrees to give a complete answer to every question but only if Kay removes an article of clothing per question. The game doesn't last long, as Whale is in very delicate health indeed. McKellen's shrewd understanding of the sharp intelligence trapped inside a failing body is the key to his performance, and he gets the balance just right in this Oscar-worthy interpretation. Whale can't stop staring at his beautiful young gardener (splendidly played by a very buff Brendan Fraser as Clayton Boone), and he invites him to swim in his pool, drink his iced tea, and even pose for his portrait. The relationship is primal for Whale, but is initially no more than a source of curiosity for Clay. Warned by his friends about Whale's homosexuality, the straight Clay continues the association anyway. He likes the stories—well, some of them, and he develops sympathy for his employer as he learns more about his lonely life from Hanna. Whale invites Clay to a garden party for Princess Margaret (who did not visit Hollywood until 1965) at the home of director George Cukor. H.R.H. mistakes Whale for Cecil Beaton (unlikely since she'd known Beaton from childhood) and greets Clay (dressed down in a T-shirt) graciously, although Cukor is clearly annoyed. The conceit of the garden party is intriguing because it strikes true and false notes throughout the sequence. The notes that ring true are Whale's increasing isolation in a society that has no further use for him, and the fear he ignites by being himself when every other gay man at the party is required to play the game. Rosalind Ayres is wonderful as Elsa Lanchester, and so much like the delightful character actress that it's a shock to realize you're not watching the genuine article. (Jack Betts, too, is eerily like Boris Karloff at age 70.) But the actors playing Cukor and the Princess only look right—they feel quite wrong, especially when sharing a moment with McKellen who's so real and so right as Whale. Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Brain's novel Father of Frankenstein, shows the dwindling light of a former supernova in a frank and compassionate way. By showing an old man's agonizing desire for nostalgia, it owes more to Death in Venice than to Sunset Boulevard. And it's a rich and detailed portrait of one life's ultimate collision with destiny, as only Ian McKellen can etch it on our hearts and minds. (Clive Barker is among the executive producers on this one.)

1998 105m/C Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Kevin J. O'Connor, Brandon Kleyla, Pamela Salem, Michael O'Hagan, Jack Plotnick, Sarah Ann Morris, Rosalind Ayers, Jack Betts; D: Bill Condon; W: Bill Condon; C: Stephen M. Katz; M: Carter Burwell. Academy Awards ‘98: Best Adapted Screenplay; Golden Globe Awards ‘99: Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave); Independent Spirit Awards ‘99: Best Actor (McKellen), Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave); Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards ‘98: Best Actor (McKellen); National Board of Review Awards ‘98: Best Actor (McKellen), Best Film; Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards ‘98: Best Actor (McKellen); Nominations: Academy Awards ‘98: Best Actor (McKellen), Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave); British Academy Awards ‘98: Best Supporting Actress; Golden Globe Awards ‘98: Best Actor—Drama (McKellen); Golden Globe Awards ‘99: Best Film—Drama; Independent Spirit Awards ‘99: Best Screenplay; Screen Actors Guild Award ‘98: Best Actor (McKellen), Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave); Writers Guild of America ‘98: Best Adapted Screenplay. VHS

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