Movie: Gods and Monsters (1998)
Why Did I watch this?
I gotta admit, Tubi is coming through on this series. What does it say about my tastes that most of the movies I want to watch are on Tubi? Also, there doesn't seem to be a save progress feature if you don't have a paid subscription? I dunno, wasn't that hard to remember my time stamps.
I have no idea how this got on my radar, I've definitely just liked the title for a long time, although I think I got it mixed up with Gods and Generals (2003). I added it to my Netflix DVD queue on April 28th, 2010. It might have been an interest in seeing Ian McKellan in a non-Gandalf or Magneto role, and I know it got enough Oscar buzz to score three nominations (but no wins) during the year of its release. Maybe I was searching around for things related to Frankenstein (1931), anyway, I don't really know, but it felt like nice viewing. Also, it was available when I had a time crunch to write this article.
What Did I know ahead of time?
Alright, so I forgot most of the plot until I started watching it, but I did know about James Whale and that it was a weird predatory gay movie with Ian McKellan. I forgot the squidge was Brendan Fraser and didn't really know how much of a biopic this was or anything. Like, was it the making of Frankenstein or what? So, a little but not too much.
How Was It?
This was one of the better movies I've seen in this series, which was very rewarding. Not everything fires on all cylinders here, but it's witty, intriguing, and has exceptionally strong character work. The movie follows James Whale, director of Frankenstein twenty years after his most notable foray into horror (and wisely places the spotlight on the mostly acknowledged as superior film, Bride of Frankenstein ), after he suffers a stroke and then (SPOILER) dies. But it's the road there that's fun.
I felt a little kinship to Ed Wood (1994), which also highlighted an icon of Horror, Bela Lugosi in his final pitiful years after playing Dracula. In that film, he desperately clung to what made him a cultural force, although he was well past his prime or relevancy. Whale here on the surface seems eager to leave his role behind him, claiming that he has had much better pictures since, and that his life isn't over yet (it actually is). However, he is clearly proud of his work on the movie, and finds joy in explaining it to new audiences and seems to accept that it's what he'll be most known for. It's a nuanced take in how one relishes the fame they've earned for a singular work but also strives to be a well rounded human being.
Then there's the gay stuff. James Whale was a magnificently flaming homosexual, and there isn't a better actor to play him than Ian McKellan who is equally a queen. In the ever present problematic category, he does appear more of an older seducer and predator, which feeds some nasty old homosexual stereotypes. This won like a GLAAD award, so maybe it's okay? Whale is certainly a fleshed (hey oh!) out character and you really do get a sense of his history, repression, and desires in the film.
And he's not all that bad. He just tries to manipulate young boys into taking their clothes off in his private home. He does also definitely try to rape Brendan Fraser, although some of that may have been him losing his mind after the stroke and forgetting where he was and who he was with. OR it was an attempt to enrage him into killing him, since he was suffering confusion and memory loss. He committed suicide soon after. So there might be a weird pass for some of the behavior, and it all works within the confines of the movie. I am just curious if a modern portrayal wouldn't lean so heavy into the "Old gay men want to capture and have sex with all the pretty straight boys" narrative so much.
He really just wants an outlet for his proclivities. And whether he's too old to really have sex anymore or just wants to play around and file some images for the ol' spank bank is up for debate. It's why this movie works, it gives you enough insight into his mind to make some inferences but doesn't give any clear answers. It's very good.
There are many Frankenstein metaphors too, including some magnificent recreations of the set during shooting flashbacks as well as archive footage. Is Whale the mad doctor and Fraser his monster? Or might he be the monster?! oooohh. There are also great recreations of World War I during shooting flashbacks and you get the sense of all the trauma that went into Whale's psyche despite his outwardly cordial appearance.
Fraser does a good job, it's hard to remember that he was an actor once. This was right before both X-Men (2000) and The Mummy (1999), so it's fun to see both these guys right before they hit mainstream blockbuster stardom. He's an assuredly lost soul and easily manipulated, but he is also able to be his own person while accepting the influence of others. It's good work. I also kept thinking about him in The Whale (2022). I wonder if that ever came up?
This is a great flick, it's really specific, and elevates itself over other biopics by just focusing on one moment in the subject's life. Also, Brendan Fraser's character is totally made up. It uses a bit of fiction to accelerate the themes it wishes to convey instead of dragging out contrived tropes. Like WEIRD: The Al Yankovic Story (2022)! You still get a sense of who this dude was, more so than other biopics because you see how he reacts, not just what other characters do to him. All biopics should follow this format.
But no, there are no actual gods nor monsters in this movie. Sorry.