James Whale directed Hollywood classics like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Show Boat. Now he’s retired and he wants to see his gardener naked. Gods and Monsters examines how artists process death. Whale channeled the traumas of the closet and the Great War into Frankenstein’s lonely monster. At its best it transcends the (fictional) biopic formula. At its worst it paints homosexuality as a tragic affliction.
Ian McKellen plays Whale as a combination of Norma Desmond and King Lear. He makes a meal of each lusty monologue. Brendan Fraser struggles as Clayton Boone, the handsome gardener. There’s no sexual ambiguity in his performance. But if he’s defiantly heterosexual than what does he want from the predatory Whale? Fraser tries a new tack in each scene. But he’s often reduced to the audience for McKellen’s one man show.
Learn more in this spoiler filled recap. The film merits a trigger warning for scenes of sexual assault and self-harm.
Act One: Hooray for Hollywood
Scene One: James Whale’s Swimming Pool. Hollywood. 1957.
COLLEGE BOY (Jack Plotnick): Gosh I love your work. I wanna write a paper on your career.
JAMES WHALE (Ian McKellen): I’ll answer your questions if you remove your clothing.
COLLEGE BOY: Anything for a grade. (He strips to his briefs.)
WHALE: Who are you again? (Whale has a stroke.)
Scene Two: James Whale’s Studio
BRENDAN FRASER: (mumbles) I’m your new gardener.
WHALE: Splendid. Would you mind modeling for a portrait?
FRASER: (mumbles) Who me? I guess.
WHALE: Sit in that chair and take off your shirt.
HOUSEKEEPER (Lynn Redgrave): You’re going to hell.
WHALE: Hush. I’m not going to ravish him. I’m just going to monologue about my unhappy childhood.
Scene Three: A Heterosexual Bar
FRASER: Can we watch Bride of Frankenstein on the TV?
FRIENDS: This film’s silly.
FRASER: It’s sad. He wants a friend.
(Dream Sequence: Brendan Fraser’s Frankenstein replaces James Whale’s brain in a laboratory.)
Act Two: Friend?
Scene Four: Modeling Sessions
HOUSEKEEPER: Don’t let the Master molest you.
FRASER: You mean he’s a fruit?
WHALE: Indeed. I used to throw big gay sex parties.
FRASER: GROSS! CHANGE THE SUBJECT!
WHALE: How about another monologue? I served in the Great War. My lover died in the trenches. (Whale has a stroke.)
Scene Five: George Cukor’s Party
GEORGE CUKOR: Ugh. Who invited Whale?
COLLEGE BOY: I did daddy! I want to take his photo with Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester.
BORIS KARLOFF & ELSA LANCHESTER: Greetings fellow has-been!
WHALE: Now I’m depressed. (Whale has a Great War hallucination.)
Act Three: Alone Bad
Scene Six: James Whale’s Studio.
FRASER: I was discharged from the Marines when my appendix burst. It made me question my masculinity.
WHALE: I don’t care about your backstory! I’m losing my mind! (Reveals his ‘portraits’ are scribbles.)
FRASER: Would you feel better if I modeled in a towel? (Strips.)
WHALE: Screw the towel! Show me your George of the Jungle! (Tackles him.)
FRASER: ROAR! FRASER SMASH! (Fraser chokes Whale.)
WHALE: Kill me baby. I’m Frankenstein. You’re my Monster!
FRASER: That’s how you see our underwritten relationship? I’m out. (Fraser leaves.)
WHALE: I didn’t even get to third base. (Whale drowns himself in the pool.)
Epilogue: Years Later
FRASER: And that’s how a gay man’s suffering taught me to be a better person.
SON: Daddy, what’s third base?
Father of Frankenstein
We never ever believe there’s a possibility that anything physical will occur between them–and we should, I think.Roger Ebert
What does Fraser’s character want? A mentor? A patron? A friend? Whale never bothers to find out. His lechery and narcissism are established in the opening scene. He admires Fraser’s looks and his strength. He sees a monster who can “mercy kill” him before his mind fades. Their one-sided conversations never allow a true friendship to develop. I wondered if another actor might have challenged McKellen more. That same year Daniel Craig played a similar role to Fraser’s in Love Is The Devil. He’s terrific but the film’s even gloomier than this one.
Bill Condon’s screenplay, adapted from Christopher Bram’s novel, won an Academy Award. Ian McKellen was nominated for Best Actor. It’s still rare for openly queer actors to be nominated. Particularly for queer roles. Lynn Redgrave was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Redgrave oversells her comic relief but it’s nice to see her.
Have you seen Gods and Monsters? Did the Frankenstein metaphor work for you? You can read about horror movies with LGBT protagonists here. You can find more of my reviews on The Avocado and Letterboxd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.