Friday, April 29, 2011
More messes like STAGE BEAUTY please.
As a tragedy of artistic obsolescence, a feminist triumph fable, and pan-gender love story—and sometimes all at once--Stage Beauty is perhaps unavoidably a mess. It often seems poleaxed by the endless mirror reflections of its themes of sexual personae and desire. But along with high-delight-ratio turns by Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, Beauty actually delivers a rare pleasure, the sense of being a movie in heated argument with itself.
But you have to get through an annoying first act to get to the film’s chewy center. Ned Kynaston (Crudup) is Britain’s most adored “leading lady”, the last of the red-hot drag queens who dominated British theater in the 1600s. (“A woman playing a woman—where’s the art in that?” he queries.)
Kynaston’s dresser Marie (Danes) is an actress manqué performing Shakespeare on the sly in underground productions. King Charles II (Rupert Everett) catches a show, and, at the urging of his wannabe actress lover (Zoe Tapper), declares female impersonation illegal. Unfortunately, director Richard Eyre (Iris) seems worried about our attention span, resorting to handheld, zoom and rack-focus camera gymnastics.
But as farce turns to drama, Eyre ditches the showy stuff and the movie hits its stride. Kynaston is reduced to performing skeezy he-she shows; Marie’s thespian shortcomings offer him a chance to teach her how to really be a woman, and so return him to legit theatre.
We know Crudup’s a fine actor: here he’s something possibly better, an A class showman. And after the mean de-glamming she suffered in Terminator 3, Danes comes back bristling with an almost predatory sexual intelligence.
After his banishment, Marie invites the identity-stripped Kynaston to her place for rest and rehab. She’s interested about the minutia of man-on-man action, but more fascinated by its possibilities as a tool for defining her self.
With no make-up, hair pulled back and a loose gown affording us glimpses of her small breasts, Marie looks the ideal androgyne. She mounts Kynaston, taunting, “Who am I now, a man?” She lies under him. “Am I a woman now?” That they eventually end up a pile in a pile of giggles is adorable, and so much for the immutability of sexual power roles. It’s a romantic dream view endorsed here and then wrecked in high, viscerally effecting style by the late film production of Othello.
The chastened (?) Kynaston plays the Moor soldier with a crazed virility suggestive of a punk rock Brando. Marie’s Desdemona becomes an early Blanche Dubois. Even while seemingly endorsing these pre-Method methodologies, the performances criticize it: Are simulated off-the-chart evocations of female suffering more ‘real’ than the stylized mode? Is this enraged masculinity how we define a ‘real’ man? Or is Kynaston really using his return to grace as an ultimate act of drag lampooning the idea of machismo that, as a bonus, also serves to help Marie? With one elegant last sentence, the film ends honestly, with a triumphant declaration of uncertainty.