Whale's Tale

Gods and Monsters traces a gay film director's complex life

On May 30, 1957, the Los Angeles Times reported that the body of "the distinguished film producer and director James Whale" had been found floating in the swimming pool at his home in Pacific Palisades. Fully clothed, Whale's corpse exhibited a head wound. "Whale," the Times went on to point out, "had lived in retirement since the early days of World War II. Friends said he had no known relatives."

In other words, there was no way that the Times in 1957 was about to make note of either Whale's longtime lover, producer David Lewis, or his short-term boy toy, chauffeur Pierre Foegel. Nor was the paper prepared to go very far in explaining what really "distinguished" Whale from most Hollywood directors. It did, however, remind readers that he was responsible for a quartet of the most stylish and sophisticated horror films ever made: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), arguably his best picture. He also made The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), One More River (1934), Remember Last Night? (1935), Show Boat (1936) and The Great Garrick (1937).

But by 1957, Whale, who worked as a stage director in his native England before moving to Hollywood in 1930, was regarded as just another Hollywood has-been.

Only the bizarrely theatrical nature of his passing, eerily reminiscent of the opening scene in Sunset Boulevard, released just seven years earlier, made newsworthy his apparent suicide at the age of 67. But while the Times may have been tactful in reporting Whale's demise, his death became part of Hollywood lore when he was found to have been gay and (unlike his contemporary, director George Cukor) hadn't gone to great lengths to hide it.

Those facts in turn inspired the dearly held notion that Whale's career ended not because of bad luck and poorly chosen projects, or because Universal Pictures, for whom he worked, was taken over by moguls who didn't share their predecessors' high regard for him, but because he was openly gay. And as any Hollywood impresario will tell you, a homosexual driven to suicide always makes for a good third-act finale. The thing about Whale is that his death made sure that the curtain wouldn't come down anytime soon on that third act.

Nothing stokes the fires of gossip faster than a gay corpse. Was there foul play? Did Whale find himself at the mercy of a murderous hustler, as actor Ramon Novarro would 11 years later? The questions came thick and fast, and no answers followed. Silence creates a vacuum that wagging tongues are sure to fill. And the power of such wagging is so great that even when a pioneering biography of the director (James Whale, by James Curtis) finally revealed in 1982 that Whale had left a suicide note, the speculation did not cease.

Debilitated by a series of strokes, Whale had simply, and quite deliberately, taken his life by throwing himself headfirst into the pool. That was that. But some people, especially those entranced by the myth of Hollywood, sensed there was more to be told about the director's death. For example, a recent episode of cable's matchlessly lurid Mysteries & Scandals advanced the theory that a surfeit of poolside boy parties hastened Whale's demise.

But you don't have to be Kenneth Anger to be intrigued by Whale's life and art. And it is here that novelist Christopher Bram enters the picture with Father of Frankenstein (1995). Bram's novel might be said to split the difference between truth and conjecture; it recounts the undisputed facts of Whale's death and adds a soupçon of fictional dish to the director's life through the invention of Clayton Boone, a handsome young drifter who works as a gardener for Whale in his declining days.

Indulging the older man's request to model nude for a painting, Boone goes on to forge a platonic yet erotically tinged friendship with him. Filled with insight into the filmmaker's work while offering a solid, fact-based portrait of his personal character (one that a modern gay reader can perhaps comprehend better than one of Whale's generation), Bram's book is tailor-made for the movies. But it's a complex, subtle story (part Death in Venice, part The Bad and the Beautiful) sure to be trampled by the sledgehammer sensibilities of today's supposedly cutting-edge movie hotshots.

Bill Condon, writer-director of Gods and Monsters, the screen adaptation of Bram's novel, isn't one of those. While Condon's credits include the scripts for two of the wittiest fantasy films of the '80s, Strange Behavior (1981) and Strange Invaders (1983), and the script and direction for Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995), nothing in his past suggests what he has accomplished with Gods and Monsters. This is in no way a horror film, yet it evokes the style and substance of Whale's thirties classics as well as more recent masterworks of Hollywood macabre such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Day of the Locust (1975). Moreover, while it deals with the life and death of a gay man, Gods and Monsters doesn't pitch itself politically or erotically into any special key.

Rather, this chamber drama (whose title is derived from a toast made by actor Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein) is a deeply felt and oddly moving reverie on death and the process of taking stock of one's life.

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