Hollywood never goes too long without holding up a mirror to itself. Biopics like Ed Wood or Hollywoodland explore (somewhat) true stories of Hollywood. Other films explore Hollywood through a more fictional lens and include King Kong , Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ In the Rain, The Day of the Locust, Sunset, Get Shorty, and Adaptation. God’s and Monsters, a film adapted from the novel, The Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, does both, offering a fictional take on the final days of James Whale, who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. But in choosing a fictional account of James Whale’s life for the silver screen, Hollywood perpetuated its troubled relationship with queer identities that it has grappled with since the birth of film.
Upon returning from the hospital after a stroke, Whale (Ian McKellen) takes an increasing interest in the new landscaper, the young and attractive Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Over a few days and despite Boone’s homophobia, the two slowly become friends as they swap stories about how they’ve come to be the men they are. Whale convinces Boone to be his guest at a party hosted by Princess Margaret and attended by Hollywood elites, including his ex-lover, David Lewis (David Dukes). After returning to Whale’s home, he eventually attacks Boone in a scene that could be read as both dementia and sexual assault. Boone fends Whale off and rather than fight back or fleeing, Boone takes pity on Whale and helps him to bed. Boone awakes the next morning to find Whale in the pool dead and a suicide note. The maid urges Boone to flea to avoid police investigation. The film flashes forward years later as Boone introduces his son to Bride of Frankenstein and he tells his son that he knew Whale.
In many ways the film depicts an ever-present but unacknowledged presence of LGBTQ people in Hollywood; something that was largely ignored until the 1980s. In particular, Vitto Russo’s 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet speaks to this silencing of LGBTQ contributions and absence of genuine representation in film history. The book was adapted into a documentary of the same name in 1995 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. In this same decade, TV and film gradually expanded its depiction of LGBTQ characters. In the years leading up to the theatrical debut of Gods and Monsters in November 1998, mainstream entertainment increasingly delivered more positive (though often still problematic) depictions of LGBTQ folks in films such as To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), Chasing Amy, In and Out, Ma Vie en Rose (the latter three titles were released in 1997), and in television with Ellen’s famous coming out episode (also in 1997) and beginning of Will & Grace (1998).
Whale was indeed gay, but the plot of Gods and Monsters is still largely fictional. At times, the film is amazingly open and campy, invoking Whale’s own work as Whale and Boone almost-aggressively mouth cigars and interact in ways that blurs the lines of budding friendship and flirtation – quite similar to the scene in Bride of Frankenstein when the monster befriends the blind man. Also, the best line of the film recognizes the abundance of LGBTQ people in Hollywood when Whale introduces Boone to Princess Margaret and director, George Cuckor, also an openly gay male in Hollywood. Whale says to the Princess, “He’s never met a princess, only queens,” while looking Cuckor, who had just belittled him, in the eye,
Yet at other times, the film queer aesthetic feels aloof, particularly in the denouement. Whale’s assault of Boone followed by his suicide leaves viewers wondering whether it was an act of shame in his sexual aggression or an act of defiance to his failing body. Regardless, viewers are left with feeling more pity than compassion for the dead Whale whose final days seems to be a multifaceted indictment of growing old, losing control of one’s body and mind, and dying alone while gay. Coupled with the maid’s encouragement for Boone to flea, Whale’s sexual orientation is both problematized and erased in a few short scenes.
And then there is the significance Ian McKellen and Bill Condon’s involvement in the film. In his book, Gods and Monsters: A Queer Film Classic, Noah Tsika notes that:
The importance of an openly gay actor [McKellen] portraying an openly gay historical figure in a mainstream film written and directed by an openly gay man [Condon] makes Gods and Monsters unique.
However, the film battles with how much it wants to engage in this significance. A prominent paratextual example of this unclear message emerges from “The Making of” documentary on the original DVD release. The documentary includes conversations about understanding and discussing Whale’s sexual orientation and the limits of Hollywood as well as the importance of the film in a post-AIDS epidemic world. Both McKellen and Condon are openly gay, something the documentary never connects to the film. Such an absence seems to only perpetuate the situation that Whale explains in the film, “You must understand how Hollywood was twenty years ago [the 1930s]. Nobody cared a tinker’s cuss who slept with whom, so long as you kept it out of the papers.”
This disconnect echoes in many ways the Clinton administration’s 1994 policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” – a tepid approach to recognizing but rejecting LGBTQ people that only ended in 2010. Hollywood appeared to also embrace such a problematic stance. While the documentary, The Celluloid Closet, speaks to the history of LGBTQ lives hiding (often in plain sight), it seemed to end on a note of optimism and progress – positive examples were just around the corner. Yet, as one of the first movies to emerge in the years after the documentary, Gods and Monsters shows that Hollywood still wasn’t ready to engage in telling true stories about the industry’s queer past. Rather, Hollywood spun a fictional tale about a real person to tell a romantic tragedy that would allow straight audiences to feel safe and comfortable about Hollywood in general, while reducing their homophobic anxiety. After all, the gay man dies as the end (a typical Hollywood tradition as noted by Russo and the documentary based on his book), and questions of Boone’s sexuality are resolved by a final scene that shows he has produced, not just a child, but a male child, clarifying how heterosexual he is.