opinion

How 'Gods and Monsters' cast one of Hollywood's most successful gay directors as a predator

The story of James Whale's final days is as much a work of fiction as Frankenstein’s creature, writes Juno Dawson.

2018-04-19

“The Monster’s lonely. He wants a friend. A girlfriend. Somebody. What’s so sick about that?” asks Brendan Fraser’s Clayton Boone in Gods and Monsters. The adaptation of Christopher Bram’s book, Father of Frankenstein, saw Ian McKellen nominated for his first Academy Award. This year it turns 20.

I saw Gods and Monsters for the first time as a teenager and remembered the movie as a sweet, romantic tale about an old gay man who falls for his hunky gardener. Turns out memory can be an unreliable thing. Watching again, a re-evaluation was required.

The story centres on McKellen’s James Whale, the Dudley-born director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Recovering from a series of strokes at his Hollywood home, Whale becomes increasingly prone to dark hallucinations and fixated on straight gardener Boone, who, in turn, is flattered by the attention of someone he considers famous.

How I ever viewed Gods and Monsters as a romance is a mystery. From the first scene in which Whale compels a young fan to strip in exchange for questions, he is a predator.

And, like many sexual predators, he dresses his grooming up as charm and flattery. He offers bribes, such as taking Boone to meet Princess Margaret at a party. He coerces Boone into nudity.

I suspect this is how McKellen and director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), who is working on a new version of Bride of Frankenstein, wanted Whale to appear. He is, after all, both the god and monster of the title. McKellen, on top form, is both loathsome and vulnerable, if not sympathetic. I think we can understand Whale’s problematic behaviour (he was a prisoner of war and lost his true love), while not accepting it.

Fraser is also at his late-Nineties peak. He is painfully sweet and utterly gorgeous. I’m often baffled by how his career nose-dived so sharply based on performances such as this one.

But what I find most interesting about Gods and Monsters is how it’s almost entirely a work of fiction. While pertaining to be Whale’s life story, creative licence doesn’t even begin to cover it.

 

In reality, Clayton Boone never existed. While [spoiler alert] Whale’s death played out as it does in the film, he, at the time, was living with his boyfriend Pierre Foegel. Far from the tragic figure portrayed in the movie, Whale was openly gay in Hollywood (quite remarkable for the era) and was with his partner, David Lewis, for more than 20 years.

Hollywood is all too keen on presenting gay stories as brave, heroic tragedies. From Philadelphia to Brokeback Mountain, I worry about the legacy of the 'Dead Gay' trope. Why must gay stories inevitably end in death and weeping?

In real life, James Whale may or may not have been a “dirty old man” but I find it interesting that, aside from god or monster, the makers of the film were eager to cast him as a victim.

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