Tuesday, May 03, 2005

She Walks in "Beauty" Like a Man...

I recently joined Netflix, and a natural side effect is going to be the occasional full-length DVD review. Emphasis on *occasional*. When it strikes my fancy. When work's not a biatch, as it was last week...


directed by Richard Eyre
starring Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, and a buncha other Brits

“Stage Beauty” slipped into theaters last fall with little fanfare and exited with even less. Its greatest claim to Hollywood fame (or notoriety, which often comes to the same thing) was the reported off-set affair between its two stars, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, which resulted in Crudup splitting up with his longtime girlfriend—the incomparable Mary-Louise Parker—when the latter was seven months pregnant. The ill-timed romance may have alienated at least some portion of the movie’s target audience. Which is a shame, because that audience was small enough to begin with.

For “Stage Beauty” is clearly aimed at the same sector of moviegoers who fell hard for the dazzlingly witty wordplay, literary self-referentiality, and pan-sexual gender-benders of “Shakespeare in Love.” Set in 17th century England, during the reign of Charles II (Rupert Everett, dapper as always), the film centers on the rise and fall of Ned Kynaston (Crudup), an actor celebrated in his day for playing women onstage—Desdemona being his particular specialty. This, of course, was when the women’s roles were still played by men. But then one day, at the urging of his saucy mistress, King Charles (yes, he of the spaniels) reverses the edict, ordering that women’s roles be played by women—and only by women, leaving poor Ned high and dry. He can’t play a man; he’s been trained since boyhood to play women, and the quasi-feminine gestures and mannerisms he’s learned by heart have become so ingrained in him that he actually sees himself as a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film probes the question of whether in fact it’s the other way around. Not that Ned is gay, exactly: “Stage Beauty” subscribes to the notion that sexuality was more fluid in those times, and his is less a function of his natural “orientation” than his theatrical role-playing.

Meanwhile, it’s an ill wind that blows no good to someone, and that someone is Ned’s devoted dresser, Maria (Danes), who’s spent her life watching him and longing to act herself. She seizes her chance, only to find that she’s an abysmally bad actress. And why? Because she doesn’t so much act as imitate Kynaston in monkey see, monkey do fashion. She’s a woman playing a man playing a woman. Only when Kynaston is enlisted, unwillingly, to coach her, do they begin successfully exploring the dynamics of masculinity and femininity and how that might translate onstage.

This is juicy stuff for anyone who’s ever studied English literature or theater, or both. That said, what sounds absolutely fascinating as a conceit on paper comes across as somewhat cramped and plodding in execution. Partly because it lacks the dippy charm and breathless romanticism of “Shakespeare in Love,” “Stage Beauty” never really takes off. It feels like an adaptation of a B+ senior thesis on gender and metatheatricality in English drama. As such, it suffers by comparison with Stoppard and Norman's inspired fantasia on those same themes. Maybe that's why I hardly raised an eyebrow at the way “Shakespeare in Love” played fast and loose with its historical and biographical facts, yet while watching “Stage Beauty,” I just couldn’t swallow its central proposition—namely, that Ned shifts overnight from the most mannered, artificial acting style possible (what we today would consider “bad” acting) to the kind of “naturalistic,” Method-esque approach that he develops through working (and playing) with Maria. Brando lives—over two hundred years before he was born.

My unwillingness to suspend disbelief is no fault of the actors, who are all quite good. Crudup’s name may now be Crud in the books of Mary-Louise Parker fans (and I count myself among them), but he delivers a remarkable performance here, considering he’s not quite pretty enough to be a convincing woman. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good-looking, delicate-featured guy, but he’s just not really androgynous. Still, there's real poignancy and grace in his portrayal of a man struggling to define his own identity. Danes acquits herself well, even if her accent is a bit too refined for someone of her presumably modest social station. (Though who knows what the Brits actually sounded like back then.) The other players, especially Everett and Tom Wilkinson as Ned’s costar and business partner, provide solid support and a touch of dry wit that’s conspicuously absent in the deadly earnestness of the leads.

There’s much to admire about “Stage Beauty,” and perhaps I shouldn’t compare it to “Shakespeare in Love.” It’s a meditation of a soberer hue, though there’s an overripeness, almost a rottenness, about its milieu that again contrasts sharply with the cheerfully dirty, freewheeling exuberance of the Rose and Curtain. Perhaps it reflects the difference between the Elizabethan and Restoration eras; I don’t know enough about either period to say. I do know that as a portrait of transition—artistic, historical, and individual—“Stage Beauty” is as thought-provoking as it is ultimately unsatisfying.

RATING: ** 1/2


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