GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Gods and Monsters
Starring: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Mark Kiely
Rated R, 105 minutes
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones, Vincent D'Onofrio, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, George 'The Animal' Steele
Unrated, 93 minutes
Bride or Frankenstein] was supposed to be funny... I had to make it
interesting for myself you see, so it's a comedy about death. The trick
is not to spoil it for anyone who's not in on the joke. But the monster
never receives any of my jibes. He's noble; noble and misunderstood."
At first glance, directors James Whale and Ed Wood seem to have little in common beyond a shared love of filmmaking. Both men crafted movies whose personal visions were their own. While Whale is revered for being the director of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, Wood achieved the dubious distinction as being voted "the worst director of all time" for such "classics" as Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Two excellent films explore their life stories while offering intriguing "fantasias" on certain aspects of their private lives.
At the age of 67, director James Whale committed suicide by diving into the shallow end of his pool. The year was 1957 and writer/director Bill Condon's wonderful Gods and Monsters waxes poetic on what the last days might have been like for our beloved "Father of Frankenstein."
Whale (Sir Ian McKellen) lives alone with his Hungarian housekeeper, Hannah (Lynn Redgrave). One day, he notices his new yardman, Clayton (Brendan Fraser), and is immediately attracted to him. Clayton agrees to sit for some drawings, and is soon swept away by stories of old Hollywood. Clayton is an entirely fictional creation of Christopher Bram, (author of the acclaimed novel, Father of Frankenstein), and through him the audience learns about Whale. Their complex relationship provides the core of the film.
At first, Clayton remains oblivious to Whale's sexual nature. It is not until a lady friend makes certain insinuations and Hannah calls Whale "a bugger" ("I don't know the English word") that his eyes open. Nevertheless, he remains fascinated by both Whale's tales about Frankenstein and about the trenches in World War I. Whale shared a romantic moment with a young soldier who was killed soon afterwards, his body caught on a rampart of barbed wire. The war would be responsible for the gallows humor prominent in all of his horror films.
Gods and Monsters works as both a serious drama and also as an homage to Whale's filmic style, complete with its grand camp humor. Hannah's thick accent is reminiscent of The Bride's daffy housekeeper (who was also the inspiration for Frau Blucher in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein). Clayton's flattop haircut transforms him into the monster whenever he is seen in shadow. The movie's climax takes place during a thunderstorm and utilizes every grand guignol camera effect possible... even those used by Whale himself.
The attitudes of the 50s, regarding homosexuality, are examined by the director. Hannah sadly tells Clayton that Whale will burn in hell for his "sins." At a party thrown by gay director George Cukor, Whale tells his ex-lover, producer David Lewis, that he is no longer concerned with his reputation and that he is "as free as the air." Lewis reminds him that "the rest of us aren't." This doesn't stop Whale from indulging in a bit of mischief. Flaunting all protocol, he introduces his gardener to Princess Margaret and proclaims, "He's never met a princess before, only queens."
There is so much to recommend in this remarkable film, especially Ian McKellen's marvelous and honest performance as the proper English gentleman who is also a typical "dirty old man." Lynn Redgrave provides comic relief as the housekeeper, and Brendan Fraser, who is both brutish and innocent (like Frankenstein's monster), proves that he is capable of roles that require more acting range than George of the Jungle. He holds his own beautifully with McKellen. Gods and Monsters is a masterpiece. DVD collectors will want to know that the DVD special edition is presented in its original widescreen format and features both a director's commentary as well as a documentary on the making of the film.
Wood: Do you know I've even had producers re-cut
While Whale's films are revered for their impeccable style, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s are remembered for being hopelessly inept. Whale was openly gay. Wood was supposedly straight, but enjoyed wearing women's clothes, especially angora sweaters. Like Whale, Wood also fought in one of the big wars. Unlike Whale, he once parachuted behind enemy lines wearing women's undergarments under his uniform.
Tim Burton's sweet film, Ed Wood, poses the following question: What if a filmmaker was as passionate about cinema as Orson Welles but possessed none of his talent? Johnny Depp, backed by an outstanding cast, stars as the sublimely ungifted Wood who, with his unconventional circle of friends, are responsible for some of the most amateurish - but entertaining - films ever made. Director Burton focuses on the hilarious obstacles they faced, but also on the touching and poignant friendship between Wood and his star, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in an Oscar-winning performance). Wood was ecstatic that an actor of Lugosi's stature would work with him. Lugosi was washed up, and addicted to morphine, and was thrilled just to be working in films again.
One of the ironies of Wood's films is that despite their low budgets, awful scripts and bad acting, Wood believed in them and his infectious enthusiasm inspired his "ensemble." Glen or Glenda? was supposed to be an exploitative film to cash in on the Christine Jorgenson scandal; Wood tried to make its transvestite hero sympathetic. Plan 9 From Outer Space attempts to condemn mankind's suicidal fascination with nuclear technology but all anyone ever notices is the obvious fact that its late "star," Bela Lugosi, only appears for a grand total of 3 minutes and that a much taller stand-in (with darker hair) holds a cape in front of his face for the remainder of the film.
While most of the events are true, Burton indulges in a few flights of fancy, including a fictional scene where Wood meets his hero, Orson Welles. In perhaps the seminal moment of the film, Wood storms off the set, dressed in drag, and wanders into a nearby restaurant to find Welles. It is the "beautiful" Orson Welles from Citizen Kane, (an uncanny performance from Vincent D'Onofrio) and the cinema giant and the not-so-great director share tales of studio interference. This scene beautifully illustrates how both a genius and a hack can be possessed by the same dreams while enduring the same setbacks. Welles ends by telling Woods that "visions are worth fighting for. Why waste your life making someone else's dreams?"
Ed Wood also takes place in the 50s and the same homophobic sensibilities seen in Gods and Monsters are also present here. Wood's girlfriend leaves him because she can no longer take his angora sweater fetish or the "freaks" that he hangs out with. When Wood arrives on the set of Plan 9 wearing women's clothing, the film's backers (who happen to be Baptist ministers!) are horrified.
Only a quirky, off-beat director like Burton would even conceive of making such a movie, let alone bring it off with such success. It is not necessary to be familiar with Wood's works in order to enjoy it, but it helps with some of the best "in-jokes." The low-budget look of Wood's films is impeccably re-created. The same is true in the casting of Wood's offbeat circle of friends. Ed Wood offers dead-on impersonations by Landau as Bela Lugosi, Jeffrey Jones as the bogus psychic Criswell, Lisa Marie as Vampira and Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood's actress girl friend. Bill Murray also excels as a lonely and lovable transsexual named "Bunny" Breckenridge. Like John Lithgow's portrayal of Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp, Murray infuses sensitivity into a role that could easily have been turned into an offensive cartoon. ("Nix on the nelly," he tells a gang of aging drag queens auditioning for Glen or Glenda, "but don't lose the naivete.")
In other hands, the resulting film might have been mean-spirited but Burton never ridicules Wood and that is a good thing. It is, in fact, one of the greatest movies about filmmaking ever made. Like Gods and Monsters, this is personal cinema at its best. These are two films which get better upon each subsequent viewing. Both can be rented at video stores everywhere.
On James Whale
More On Ed Wood
More On Tim Burton
and Johnny Depp