JAMES WHALE, British stage and film director, born (d: 1957) Most famously, the director of four classics of the macabre, Frankenstein (1931), and perhaps the best of all, the witty Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Among his many other films is the best of the three Hollywood depictions of Showboat, the 1936 black-and-white version with Irene Dunne. Whale lived openly as a Gay man in a then-as-now closeted Hollywood. His long-time lover was the producer David Lewis. But by 1940, no studio would hire him, and he never worked again. His later life was famously portrayed in the film Gods and Monsters (1998), starring gay actor Ian McKellan and the estimable Brendan Fraser. One of the most critically acclaimed films of 1998 and winner of several awards including the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Gods and Monsters is a compassionate speculation about the final days of Whale Adapted and directed by Bill Condon from Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein, the film stars McKellen in a sublime performance as the white-haired Whale, who is portrayed as a dapper gentleman and amateur artist prompted by failing health into melancholy remembrance of things past. Flashbacks of lost love, World War I battle trauma, and glory days in Hollywood combine with Whale’s present-day attraction to a newly hired yard worker (Fraser) whose hunky, Frankenstein-like physique makes him an ideal model for Whale’s fixated sketching.
The friendship between the handsome gardener and his elderly Gay admirer is by turns tenuous, humorous, mutually beneficial, and ultimately rather sad – but to Condon’s credit Whale is never seen as pathetic, lecherous, or senile. Equally rich is the rapport between Whale and his long-time housekeeper (played with wry sarcasm by Lynn Redgrave), who serves as protector, mother, and even surrogate spouse while Whale’s mental state deteriorates. Flashbacks to Whale’s filmmaking days are painstakingly authentic (particularly in the casting of look-alike actors playing Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester), and all of these ingredients combine to make Gods and Monsters (executive produced by horror novelist-filmmaker Clive Barker) a touchingly affectionate film that succeeds on many levels. It is at once a keen glimpse of Hollywood’s past, a loving tribute to James Whale, and a richly moving, delicately balanced drama about loneliness, memory, and the passions that keep us alive.