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NewCityNet Whale Tale

Reviving "Frankenstein"'s father

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Some days it's more fun waking up to sudden snowstorms at Sundance than trudging to the movies.

But all it takes is one good film to drive away the memory of another joke-choked Mamet-Tarantino-Kevin Williamson retread, or a grim "white trash" put-down or some failed Parker Posey non-comedy. Where's the "indie" spirit in that? "Indie" is the kind of slang that's almost become a joke, since independent once meant a movie with some independent thinking, or at least, a fresh voice financed independently of the studio system. Ironically, the most independent-minded movie I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 was a straightforward, classically shaped story, told with economy and grace, a literary way with a quip, and boasting two remarkable performances on a budget modest for even contemporary cable product.

The generosity of spirit of Bill Condon's $3 million "Gods and Monsters" even extends to its ending, making it that rare modern tale that ends with a perfect thematic and visual summary. But at first half-glance, "Gods and Monsters" might have seemed to festgoers like one among the most dread subcategory of that dread category, not just a movie about movies, but a film about... filmmakers. I was worried that the months of quiet after its premiere might have meant that this exceptionally good movie would go unseen or be consigned to a "cable premiere." Condon's career had flown under the critical and commercial radar before, starting with his precocious horror script, 1981's "Strange Behavior," followed by several movies for television and cable. But how could it go unseen?

Ian McKellen's performance as James Whale, the openly gay English expatriate director of movies like "Frankenstein" is hands-down brilliant. (McKellen makes the florid most of the elderly Whale's verbal ripostes, commenting when asked what words were exchanged at a party: "Nothing of importance - just two old men slapping each other with lilies.") There are so many layers so effortlessly arrayed in his work that one would be forgiving even if the film were not as good as it is. Condon's portrait (based on a novel by Christopher Bram) of Whale as an artist in the last days of his life is richly faceted as well. Brendan Fraser, wide-eyed, heavy-browed - the handsome Frankenstein, is also very good as a gardener whom Whale fixates upon, a straight man who remains curious and ambivalent about Whale's need for his companionship. "Brendan listens a lot," Condon says. "I love the way he does it. If he didn't have that equal weight in the scenes, I don't think it would come off. By definition, that character he plays is so unformed and inarticulate but he's got this stuff raging inside."

While there were many movers and shakers in the critical community supporting "Gods and Monsters," including the lead critics of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, distribution was still a question mark in the months that followed. "It was a nerve-wracking experience," Condon was able to say, laughing, when the film was showing at the Chicago International Film Festival. "Gods and Monsters" had premiered late in the Sundance festival, after many of the most powerful acquisitions people had gone back to sunnier climes. "What was interesting to me was that the people who finally bid on the movie were all companies that didn't exist a year ago," he says. "The major ones are just not that independent anymore." Condon knew he had the critical support, but the larger "independents" all considered the movie a hard "sell," falling between the audiences for horror, the audiences for classy acting, and a gay audience. "There's no way this movie could ever clear $100 million, it's no 'Good Will Hunting.'"

Condon sees the mix of audiences to be a bonus for his movie, with the substantial mainstream arthouse audience appreciating McKellen's work, and then the gay audience that doesn't overlap with the first group. Although some distributors saw the movie only as a gay entry, Condon says, "I don't see it as a gay movie and it's not being marketed it as a gay movie." In fact, one of the stirring virtues of the movie is how it becomes a study in the human need to maintain contact with the world outside oneself, a wry, rueful elegy to memory and friendship. Condon sees a third audience as well, those interested in the movies of James Whale, the "Frankenstein" iconography, and the work of executive producer Clive Barker. "We'll see what happens, though," he says, smiling hopefully, near the end of three years of work to get this story to audiences.

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