I'm not sure that there could be any better time to visit the 1998 film Gods and Monsters. Three of the four elements that make the film a true treasure have been circling the news. Aside from the excellent turn by star Ian McKellan, we recently lost the talented Lynn Redgrave, have suffered yet another terrible Brendan Fraser movie, and finally, have learned that writer/director Bill Condon is daring to helm The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
But before I get into that, I must at least mention McKellan's performance. Magneto and Gandalf were still in his future, and beyond his many skilled Shakespearian turns on stage and screen, his cinematic credits -- narrator of the quilt doc in To Die For, Death in Last Action Hero for example -- didn't make a name for himself. But in '98, everything was to change. He starred in Apt Pupil and Gods and Monsters, solidifying himself as an endearing performer and multi-faceted actor. As director James Whale, McKellan swims between lechery and love, decorum and desperation. He's of the generation where mind trumped all and age didn't dictate thoughts, a Henry Miller of sorts, desperate not to lose the mind he has always held so dear.
While around him...
Lynn Redgrave passed away on May 2 at the age of 67. Immediately, I began to think of the two roles I will always remember her for. Having recently re-watched Kinsey, I first thought about how she sat down and stole the show with a simple re-telling of her character's story. In just moments, she emoted pain and pleasure, seeming more like a real interviewee, than a film's finale role. It was Bill Condon who captured her then, just as he had six years before, as Hanna in Gods and Monsters.
At first, it might seem that Hanna is the typical quirky housemaid. Her disapproving eyes evaluate everything as she tsks and diligently performs tasks in and out of her job description. But I was quickly stunned by how well Redgrave balanced dear love and protectiveness for her employer with strict, undying religious fervor. She knows what James Whale is; famously, Whale never hid his homosexuality. She is sure he's going to hell, but it's not expressed with malice, but with sadness. As much as she disapproves of his sexual proclivities, she sees the good in him, releasing the pain in her eyes as she talks about where he will end up, now that he's facing death.
As strictly religious as she is, her faith-based fears don't trump her love, and it's not just because he employs her. She leaves the ultimate decision to God, and wishes it could play out differently. In these moments, those stern shakes of the head and overflowing moments of animosity feel real as well as funny.
Just a few weeks ago, we were treated to our latest Fraser flick, Furry Vengeance. Back in the day, it could have been a ridiculous comedy or heavy drama. Now, his dramas are fewer and farther between, his last meaty mainstream gig being Crash six years ago in 2004. As Dawn noted in her review: "If you're confused by my passion for the star of Monkeybone and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, I would suggest that you run immediately to Netflix or your nearest video store, and watch Gods and Monsters with Fraser and Sir Ian McKellan."
Fraser held such a dramatic charm in the '90s that even after a pile of mostly familial adventures, he's still that talented actor woefully underused. It isn't because of School Ties or With Honors, it's because of Gods and Monsters. It wasn't a particularly challenging role, but it's one that Fraser really brought to life, balancing a classic '50s homophobic fear with true heart. His monosyllabic gardener isn't as we'd expect -- a poorly educated guy without a thought in his head. He's simply the product of his experience. He's tried to be a good man and chase the American dream, but when he fails, he just falls into the status quo for guys like him -- playing a part. But as McKellan's Whale frankly shares incredibly intimate memories, Clayton Boone is offered a new life.
He doesn't become some erudite smarty pants. He simply tries to express himself. It might fail miserably when he talks to ex-flame Betty (Lolita Davidovich), but the seeds are set for himself to pull together and become the man that he is at the end of the film. Whale's life allows him to see the show; seeing the copies of paintings, realizing that there's so much more to the director than scary films, Clayton realizes the act he himself is playing, how his life doesn't reflect his desires. When Whale desperately hits on him and tries to use Clayton as a puppet for his own end, Clayton cracks, repelled by the man's sexuality as he has been taught, but also learning that there are cracks in every facade. Ultimately, it allows him to find a middle ground, a modest, but stable life.
While all of the actors involved have considerable talents, Bill Condon definitely knew how to bring it out of them. Filming Gods and Monsters, he chose many close shots and segments, often focusing on the shells his characters are living in, lingering on faces to show the performance while also knowing when to cut to memories and new movement. His camera work is alive just as much as his characters -- simple when it needs to be, intermingled and artistic when it doesn't.
It's so interesting how this came to be. While it's about the man who brought us Frankenstein and his Bride, it's about drama, not horror. Yet this was a film Clive Barker championed (no doubt inspired by the similarities he shares with Whale), that was given to the man who directed Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, and before that, wrote and directed the horror thriller Sister, Sister.
Now, he's going to wrap up Twilight., and it's hard to remember his origins lay in horror. Watching Gods and Monsters now, I tried to imagine how Condon's work on the film could translate to Breaking Dawn. My first thought is that I wish he would have written the script as well. Considering the depth given to three fairly standard characters -- the rich manipulator with secret intentions, the busy-body maid, the simple gardener -- I wonder what flourishes he could have given Bella and Edward. Would, or could, they become likable outside the fandom? I can't see that happening without Condon's pen. I'd hope for something wildly surprising -- like a horror director jumping directly into notable dramatic fare -- but hoping for that seems unwise.
- In his review, Roger Ebert stated that Fraser's casting was not ideal because he doesn't present a strong sexuality. He wrote: "We never ever believe there's a possibility that anything physical will occur between them -- and we should, I think." Do you agree, or disagree?
- In another review, Variety stated that the last 15 minutes falter. Do you like the way Condon wrapped the story for both Whale and Boone? If not, what would you have changed?
- Could you buy into the duality of each character? That Hanna was both disapproving and loyal, that Clayton was both homophobic and open-minded, that Whale was both lecherous and sympathetic?
- As solely a director and not screenwriter, what do you think Condon can bring to the teen vampire series?
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Last Week's Film: Juno