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IN SHORT: A fine film, in every sense of the word.
The last time Cranky was on CNN Saturday Morning was the week that Ian McKellen's Apt Pupil was being reviewed. In that review I said I that hadn't seen an actor "who could hold a candle to McKellen." Cranky meant it, then, and he is flabbergasted to report that he can correct himself now. Brendan Fraser, yep, the same Brendan Fraser who starred in George of the Jungle and is signed for the Dudley Do-Right movie accomplishes the feat in Gods and Monsters, a speculative drama about the last days of gay Hollywood director James Whale. Now, based on the e-mails I've gotten over the last five years and some of the flame-basting that's shown up on the message boards, some of you fine readers have a problem with portrayals of homosexuals in film. So, if that's you, or if you are a teenboy looking for an action flick, move along. As for the rest of y'all . . .
A couple of years ago, Jessica Lange won an Academy Award for her performance in Blue Sky, a film that nobody saw. Lest history repeat itself, Cranky is going to start rambling like a film student about Gods and Monsters, which may be the best overall film he's seen all year.
James Whale was a British "nancy boy" (as his father puts it in the film) who found success in Hollywood as a director of horror movies such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. He also found community amidst the LA homosexual film community, who found a fair amount of creative and emotional freedom in the keep-it-out-of-the-papers and do as you please film world. As you'll see in some of the recreation of the filming of Bride, there was plenty of swish to go around. In what is presented as this film's version of history, Whale was one of the few who didn't hide his homosexuality. After a particularly disastrous film, he left the biz for the comfortable life of gentleman painter, and nailed as many male models as he could in late night all-boy nude swimming parties. So much for the distasteful aspects of the story. On to the meat and potatoes.
As Gods and Monsters begins, Whale is recovering from a mild stroke. Dirty old men, regardless of predilection being what they are, Whale playfully indulges his lusts by trading biographic information for pieces of clothing of the student questioners that come to his house. His disapproving Teutonic housekeeper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), has hired Clayton Boone (Fraser) a new, less expensive part-time gardener whose muscles ripple underneath his T-shirt and draw the attention of just another horny old Hollywood man. Yes, Whale tries to weave a web of seduction on the young man but Boone is absolutely straight and, being just a couple of watts sharper than a dim bulb, needs to have the whole situation explained to him by the household help.
Also at work in the story is the fact that Whale's physical situation is steadily deteriorating. He may fancy himself to be the studly seductor, but the fact is that the man's mind is going. He is just as apt to flashback on a brutal childhood or the horrors experienced in the trenches during World War One as he is to lapse into nostalgia for an old love. More to the point of the story is that the two men become about as close to friends as is possible, before reality comes crashing down and a 40 year old mystery of the events surrounding Whale's death is allegedly solved.
What is driven home by Gods and Monsters is that loneliness is as much an affliction of the old as it is of the young; It is a shared experience between people, whether gay or straight, male or female. Each character in this film is, in his or her way, lonely. It would be easy to see a "master thespian" piece of overacting here, but you won't.
The mark of a great performance is whether or not you are affected by a character, regardless of whether or not you approve of the behavior you see. The strength of Ian McKellen's performance is that, even if you believe Whale is doomed to burn in the lowest pits of Hell, as Hannah does, you feel sympathy for this steadily declining man. Cranky isn't revealing the moment at which Fraser goes toe to toe with McKellen, acting chop for acting chop, but you'll know it when you see it. Both men deliver exemplary performances, as does Ms. Redgrave.
Bill Condon's book adaptation and film direction includes clips from both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as well as recreations of the filming of those flicks. Jack Betts and Rosalind Ayers portray Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester, respectively, in their aging years. David Dukes plays the boyfriend who distances himself from the director in Whale's final days, the closet (and Hollywood for that matter) being what it was in the 1950s.
At any other time of the year, Gods and Monsters still would have gotten a rave and a Cranky rating of $7.00. But, this isn't any other time of the year.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Gods and Monsters, he would have paid...
Gods and Monsters has Nomination written all over it. McKellen, Fraser, Redgrave deliver quality performances across the board. They and Condon all make Cranky's year-end best of list. If you fancy yourself any kind of film fan at all, seek this sucker out.
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