Film: I'd like to thank Dr Frankenstein

Writer-director Bill Condon has reanimated the reputation of James Whale, one of film's forgotten heroes - and won himself an Oscar.

Bill Condon has just won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay of Gods and Monsters, the fictionalised biopic of James Whale, a homosexual British director who moved to Hollywood in the 1930s. Those of you who watched the whole ceremony may remember him. He was the little man who almost-but-not-quite made the scathing speech about Hollywood's homophobia (the one that Ian McKellen promised he'd make if he won the Oscar for Best Actor). Having talked to Condon just a week before, I'd hoped for more. Much more.

People expect Condon to be English. He's not. They also expect him to be witty. He is. "Don't be afraid if you hear some odd noises," he warns me. "I might start screaming." It's the kind of greeting you hope to hear when a horror-movie director picks up the phone, but Condon is not talking from the crypt - just LA - where building work on his neighbour's apartment is making his blood boil.

A philosophy graduate, Condon moved to LA from New York in 1983 to script obscure, cult chillers such as Strange Invaders ("an alien invasion movie") and Strange Behaviour ("a mad-doctor movie"). From such B-movie beginnings, he managed to work his way behind the camera for an auspicious-sounding debut: directing Eric Stoltz and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a romantic thriller called Sister Sister.

"The film was not a success," admits Condon cheerfully, "so I went to film-makers' jail: directing cable movies." Having served his small screen sentence, Condon is back this week with Gods and Monsters. More character study than Ed Wood-style spook-fest, it's a rather different creature to Condon's earlier efforts.

Based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Chris Bram, the film opens many years after such triumphs as Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein were released, and imagines the final month of Whale's life, pulled into focus by his friendship with Clay, the beefcake handyman who comes to clean his pool.

As Clay, George of the Jungle's Brendan Fraser once again proves he's the best topless actor around, but the film belongs to McKellen. Impeccably dressed but physically frail, McKellen's Whale swings between sly humour and suicidal despair, nostalgia and nightmare as he reminisces about lost loves, past productions and a miserable, working-class childhood.

McKellen's Whale impersonation is inspired, but there was a time when the actor wanted nothing to do with Whale. "Chris had Ian in mind even as he was writing the novel, so I certainly saw him on screen when I was writing my screenplay," says Condon, "but it took several months and endless calls from my agent to get him to read it." A nice pause for dramatic effect. "When he finally did, he jumped on board."

Condon faced a similar struggle selling Gods and Monsters to a studio. The director has said he "would never even have pitched it to a major". Why? "Because 80 per cent of it was two people sitting in a room, talking. It's about a man who is losing his powers, not gaining powers. It's about loss, regret and melancholy. It has a gay man in the lead and it's not a perky, gay-lifestyle movie. It's about the darker, more complicated side of being gay."

Instead he approached smaller, independent studios where he was "a victim of the PC-police. They looked at the characters and said `let's make them positive depictions'." To whitewash a movie about the creator of Frankenstein seemed too ironic, even for a man of Condon's satirical sensibilities, so it was lucky that he finally found a company that gave him the freedom to show Whale, warts and all.

Condon used his experience of working with British director Tony Richardson to paint a picture of an ex-pat who found his self-imposed exile equally lonely and liberating. "Early on in my career, I wrote a couple of scripts for Tony," says the director. "He was so glad to get away from the whole British class system in California, I modelled some of Whale on him." Other elements of the character came from friends of Whale's, and from McKellen himself.

At the start, Condon admits, he was intimidated by his lead actor: "Not just because of his talent, but because of the number of amazing directors he's worked with. It was like being the new lover of someone who has been in bed with many of the greatest film-makers of all time. It makes you self-conscious." But Condon found him easy to work with and generous in his performance.

"I think Ian reveals a lot of himself in this movie," Condon says with a naughty giggle: "This character can be wildly manipulative at times, and Ian gets right in touch with all that stuff from inside himself."

If the relationship between Whale and his handyman forms the film's emotional core, Condon amuses himself stylistically by fashioning Fraser's flat- topped hulk into a Karloff lookalike, and pastiching Whale's pictures. "The scenes from The Bride of Frankenstein were great fun, but I enjoyed using touches of Whale throughout," says Condon. "At the beginning, for instance, when you first see Clay, it's in individual body parts, like Frankenstein's monster. Then there's Lynn Redgrave's Teutonic housekeeper, whose character is straight out of Whale's gallery of grotesques."

Despite its elegiac tone, Gods and Monsters' playful homage seems sympathetic towards a director who always regretted that more people didn't appreciate the camp humour of his horror.

"Oh yes," says Condon, "I think for him the great moral sin was for anyone to take themselves too seriously."

By giving audiences a Whale of a time, Gods and Monsters should bring this forgotten director back to life for a new generation. Shame about that Oscar speech, though.

`Gods and Monsters' is on release from tomorrow. See The Big

Picture, page 10

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015