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.
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The Independent Culture
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

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