Behind every great movie about a famous director, is there another famous director?
Almost always — but not in the remarkable case of Gods and Monsters. A meditation on the last days of English expat and Hollywood fright-flick auteur James Whale (he gave eternal life to Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man in the ’30s), the picture was released last fall to wide acclaim. Most reviews rightly singled out the performers. Ian McKellen does masterfully varied work as the manipulative, failing, irrepressibly flirty gay movie director. Brendan Fraser, in marked contrast to his Mummy sleepwalk, is a revelation as the gardener whom the suicidal Whale envisions as his liberator. Fraser employs an extraordinarily expressive vocabulary of awkward, birdlike postures to put across guilelessness. And Lynn Redgrave mugs deliciously as Whale’s housekeeper, a crucifix-wearing home edition of Igor (she’s always calling her boss ”master”) who could be a cousin to Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.
Still, with Gods’ video debut, the dialogue, even more than the actors delivering it, carries the most juice. Time, then, to amp up some accolades for writer-director Bill Condon.
Bill who? You know — the guy who beat out Elaine May and Terrence Malick for the Best Adapted Screenplay award in the final half hour of the Oscars, after Redgrave and McKellen lost in their acting categories. (Condon was so far back in the I’m-nobody section of the auditorium that his cast spent a long moment trying to spot him after his name was announced.)
Expertly stitched together from parts of Christopher Bram’s far more discursive novel, Father of Frankenstein, Condon’s script is a tidy juggernaut of conversation — intense, chess-game conversation full of believable fits and starts. How he shaped it so well, and led his actors to find so many shifting currents in it, is what Mel Brooks would call a sweet mystery of life, considering that Condon’s sole previous directorial credit on a feature was Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh. (He’d also scripted forgettable fare like F/X 2 and Strange Invaders.)
Clearly Condon found inspiration for Gods in other tales of moviemaking — which makes his creation an especially good excuse to program your own double, or quintuple, feature about beleaguered cinematic visionaries. Pull Sunset Boulevard off the shelf and you’ll see how Condon makes inspired use of Billy Wilder’s indelible image of a corpse found floating in a swimming pool. He also salutes the immortal sequence of Norma Desmond (played by actual silent star Gloria Swanson) studying her own past glory on a rickety projector.
In fact, if there’s one motif snaking through the best films about filmmaking, it’s the sequence where everybody gets together to watch the work. Tim Burton stages two full-blown premieres in Ed Wood, his black-and-white tribute to the most inept horror-flick impresario ever. Never mind that Wood’s pictures, like Plan 9 From Outer Space, never had such unveilings. These are the evenings Wood wished he could have orchestrated.
When successful auteurs turn the camera on themselves — that is, on fictionalized personas — they tend to be far less indulgent. In 8 1/2, Federico Fellini creates a portrait of monstrous egotism in Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), whom we see desperately trying to arrange people in his life the way he orders his actors around make-believe sets — even as we marvel that Fellini himself has pulled off the very trick Guido can’t.
Self-loathing also permeates Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town, with Edward G. Robinson as Maurice Kruger, a fading director on location in Rome and Kirk Douglas as the down-on-his-luck star who takes over the picture. In a remarkable passage, Kruger looks at Minnelli’s own The Bad and the Beautiful, admiring its skill. The scene works both within the melodrama and as Minnelli’s gibe at his grandiose industry; it’s trash, but thematically resonant trash. As Whale says in Gods, ”The trick is not to spoil it for anyone who’s not in on the joke.”
Gods and Monsters: A-
Sunset Boulevard: A
Ed Wood: B+
8 1/2: A
Two Weeks in Another Town: A-