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Gods and Monsters.

Perhaps the residents of Hollywoods densely populated closet know what they're doing. Ian McKellen, who can mop most of his colleagues off the screen, is the "outest" of British actors and also one of the least known to American movie audiences. It would be nice to think that at least some of that anonymity had to do with his chameleonic ability to morph himself utterly, be he a proper German gentleman (Bent), a snorting hayseed preacher (Cold Comfort Farm), or a calculating monarch (Richard III).

The actor's craft takes on metaphorical resonance in McKellen's two newest films, in which his elderly characters transform a pair of young men with opposite results: one from a fist-swinging lug into a sensitive companion, the other from the apotheosis of civilized man into a murderous monster.

Bill Condon's beautiful Gods and Monsters affords Sir Ian his richest screen role to date as James Whale, the expatriate British film director who made a splash with 1936's Show Boat and the first two Frankenstein films Recovering from a stroke in his Pacific Palisades, Calif., manse in 1957, he becomes infatuated with a hulking lawn-maintenance man named Clayton Boone (George of the Jungle's Brendan Fraser, in a revelatory performance), who stirs memories of his famous screen monster and his long-dead wartime lover.

Unrequited gay-straight May-September Yank-Brit love stories would appear to be this year's flavor, but Condon's fictionalized bio is head and shoulders above Love and Death on Long Island as a subtle psychological study of the mutual dependency of two unlikely soul mates. Poetic spirits from rough-and-tumble backgrounds, Whale and Boone share an instinctive empathy for the other's solitude, one that is expressed with increasing tenderness and ferocity as the director's condition deteriorates.

Condon has created an affectionate portrait of Hollywood in the '30s and '50s, authenticated by movie-star look-alikes and Richard Sherman's detailed production design (check out the arriviste bric-a-brac that crowd Whale's estate). Offsetting the heartrending synergy between the leads are hilarious featured turns by Lynn Redgrave as Whale's primly disapproving Hungarian housekeeper and Jack Plotnick as a not-so-naive gay film student whom Whale cajoles into stripping for an interview. Gods and Monsters is a triumph on all levels, a movie for people who love movies and for people who love people who love movies.

The same cannot be said of Apt Pupil. Adapted from Stephen King's novella of the same name by first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, Apt Pupil stars a postpu-bescent Brad Renfro (The Client) as the eponymous honor student whose keen interest in Holocaust studies uncovers a Nazi in the neighborhood woodpile.

Renfro stalks the frail war criminal (played by McKellen with studied technical acumen) to his home, where a perverse bond evolves between the pair as the accused gradually draws out the latent cruelty in his accuser. Renfro's character may also be deflecting latent homosexual tendencies, but Boyce's script pulls back from that early intimation.

Director Bryan Singer's follow-up to his stunning The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil skitters absurdly between psychodrama, high school dating angst, and Grand Guignol a la King. It wants to be a shocking meditation on the fascist lurking in us all, but it's too messy and bombastic to take seriously. Still, what a world it would be if McKellen could have as transforming an effect on closeted Hollywood actors as his characters do on their straight antagonists.

Stuart is theater critic and senior film writer for Newsday.
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Author:Stuart, Jan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Oct 27, 1998
Previous Article:Culture of Desire.
Next Article:Apt Pupil.

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