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'Without beauty, there's nothing. Who could love that?' (Ned Kynaston,
Don't expect an elegant historical romp from Stage Beauty; it's much more than that. Director Richard Eyre (Iris) and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher have loosely interpreted true events to deliver a passionate, romantic journey of gender-bending self-realisation set in the bawdy world of the British Restoration, circa 1660.
In a time when women are banned from acting on stage, King Charles II is on the throne, accompanied everywhere by his vulgar but merry mistress, Nell Gwnn. Meanwhile Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the most celebrated leading lady of his time. He is adored by his audiences, by his lover and patron the Duke of Buckingham, and secretly loved by his dresser Maria (Claire Danes). But when aspiring actress Maria's illegal performance as Desdemona in Othello triggers royal permission for women to act on stage, Kynaston's fall from grace is swift.
This is an actors' film, where the talents of Danes and in particular, Crudup, shine. (Their remarkable relationship triggered an off-screen romance.) Crudup is taut as the bisexual Kynaston, trained to be a calamity and actress since early adolescence, and emotes powerfully as he struggles with his sexuality and identity in an unfriendly new political landscape. He is alternately a catty drag queen, angry young man and committed thespian, without ever straying beyond credibility. In contrast, Danes is luminous but unsure as Maria. A talented supporting cast includes Rupert Everett, providing comic relief as the languid King, while Ben Chaplin is sensual as the self-serving Duke.
Stage Beauty has been compared to Shakespeare in Love, but although it's less successful, it's far less contrived. Although Stage Beauty is a love story, you don't know how things will resolve. The pace is less brisk than in a more manufactured film, but it's also more realistic, enhanced by production design and costuming which depicts both the grit and the sumptuousness of the time.
While at first the on stage acting grates, it is deliberate. As Stage Beauty progresses, the acting technique evolves to resemble 19th Century Naturalism not true to life, but faithful to the emotional journey of the characters. It's a special film that will take you on an emotional journey too.
**** out of ***** stars.
Stage Beauty is another adaptation of a play. Yawn? Well don't, because
it also happens to make a highly successful transition from stage to
screen thanks to the genius that is director Richard Eyre.
It tells the tale of Ned (Billy Crudup), a young actor who specialises in portraying women on stage. In a world where only men are allowed to tread the boards, Ned's "Desdemona" (from Shakespeare's Othello) is the closest thing 17th century audiences get to femininity in theatre. However, a young upstart in the form of Maria (played by Clare Danes) wants to change all that. She has a passion for drama and unfortunately the bisexual Ned. With the help of King Charles II (Rupert Everett), she may just get her wish, changing theatre forever, and hopefully pick up Ned on the way.
When thinking of the themes of the film, many people dismiss it as a clone of Shakespeare in Love. This is unfair- the film is more thought provoking, substantial and better acted than the aforementioned Oscar snaffler. It explores themes of sexuality and gender with insight and intelligence as well as telling (and, in fact enthralling us with) a love story. As previously referred to, the acting is exceptional, especially the two leads (Danes and Crudup) who shine. The supporting cast is strong too, with Richard Griffiths as a heterosexual prequel to his role in Withnail and I, Tom Wilkinson brimming with quiet intensity as Betterton and Everett hamming it up wonderfully as the King.
Even if it does end on a slightly trite note (not to give too much away, but its' "birth of method acting" shtick irritates), Stage Beauty is a funny, heart-warming and occasionally quite cerebral meditation on love and art. What more could any theatre, or film lover for that matter, want? And don't say Shakespeare In Love!
Before the Great Fire and the Great Plague of the mid-seventeenth
century, London slowly, joyously awoke to the end of the Interregnum,
that dark period of the evil regicide, Cromwell and his dull and dim
son and successor. Theaters shut down during the Protectorate now
reopened and the die-hard, dour Puritans either doffed their somber
garb and decamped for more favorable vice-free venues or joined the
Director Richard Eyre and script author Jeffrey Hatcher (who wrote the play on which "Stage Beauty" is derived) set the screen with a feast of authentic costumes and an almost palpable ambiance of a great city resurrecting a rich cultural life, at least for those of means.
But, as has been said, the play is the thing and the acting here is uniformly engrossing, indeed superb.
Based more or less on history, the film chronicles an awkward and for many painful evolution of law and theater, the two intertwined. For when Charles II was restored to the throne lost by his father (who also lost something else of even more estimable value), theaters reopened but under an old law that forbade the presence of actresses on the stage. The great female roles of Shakespeare were performed by men, some of whom were the subjects of audience and patron adulation for their skills of gender mimicry.
Ned Keynaston (Billy Crudop) is the leader of the pack, a star of the stage whose Desdemona is the height of his career. Serving as his dresser is Maria (Clair Danes), a frustrated actress who mouths the lines of Desdemona from the side of the stage as Ned wows the punters.
Maria actually gets to act behind Ned's back but in a less than first-line theater, her costume borrowed, to be generous, from the unsuspecting Ned.
What follows is a comedy and a drama as the king (Rupert Everett), at the urging of one of his mistresses, Nell Gynn (newcomer Zoe Tapper) proclaims that women may take on the roles of their sex and the cadre of female impersonators must seek new and gender authentic roles. At first amused, then devastated by a loss of roles, income and prestige, Ned slides to singing bawdy songs in drag to a somewhat low(er) class clientele in a sink run by a foulmouthed harridan. But under the protection of a genuinely odious, rotund and foul Sir Charles (Richard Griffith), Maria becomes the toast of the town for her fine acting.
Sexual attraction equally matched by a moving ambiguity permeates both the roles played by Maria and Ned and their off-stage lives. Maria is in love with Ned who is, at least, potentially bisexual while actually intimate with one of the king's favorites, the second Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). Buckingham was, in actuality, one of the most complex characters during Charles's two decade exile and then restoration to the throne. A conniver and master manipulator, here his skills are shown as being wholly adapted to surviving in a court attended by intrigue at every turn.
Eyre projects role reversal both with Ned and Maria's theater life and their increasing personal but never simple involvement. Can he make love to a woman? Does he know himself what his orientation is? There is a certain contemporaneity to the artfully acted issues raised in this mid-1600s scenario.
Eyre could not have selected a better cast. Crudop is penetrating as a man whose whole, strange persona is transformed in an instant by a monarch's command. Everett is disarmingly foppish as the Stuart monarch but in a critical scene he reveals his deep, lasting resentment over his father's and his dynasty's fate as he orders women to be allowed to perform. Edward Fox is splendid in short takes as Charles's key minister, Sir Edward Hyde (the Earl of Clarendon but he's never identified with his proper peerage title).
Zoe Tapper may well have studied the life of her character, "the Protestant Whore" (so known and loved by the London underclass to distinguish her from the despised "Catholic Whore" who alternated with Nell for the king's company and body (forget about the queen-she doesn't even make an appearance here). She's crude, raw, vulgar, sentimental, loyal and cunning - she IS Nell Gynn.
Hugh Bonneville is the randy, compulsive diarist Sir Samuel Pepys, father of the Royal Navy, here a stage door Johnny, a voyeur. Ben Chaplin as the Duke of Buckingham is just the right admixture of randiness and a healthy regard for the penalty that can be incurred by going too far over the edge of conventionality. And Tom Wilkinson as Ned's and then Maria's stage impresario combines business acumen with a soft human touch.
But special kudos go to Clair Danes - this is her best performance to date. She runs the gamut of emotions from helpless subservience to repressive laws to sprightly awakening of her worth to deep confusion about her priorities and needs. She inhabits the role of Maria with skill and grace. An Oscar-worthy display.
The score is fine, briskly and authentically complementing the story. And for the first time ever in a movie a king of England is shown cavorting in the royal rack with his mistress while six adorable King Charles Spaniels look on.
This movie has the blessing of the flawless direction of Richard Eyre,
who knows a lot about kings and queens. The screen play is adapted by
the author of the play, Jeffrey Hatcher. Surprisingly, these two men
have been able to create a film that is not only visually satisfying,
but it also is an adult entertainment.
This movie gives us a glimpse of how theatre functioned in England up to the times of Charles II. The female roles of all plays were portrayed by male actors. The school of acting in that era was an artificial one where actors relied in gestures and affectations that would be laughable today in a serious drama, but that was the way it was the accepted Method then, nothing to do with Stanivslaski, or Strassberg.
The leading figure of that theatrical world was Ned Keynaston, who was the most famous Desdemona of his time. There must have been a lot of gay men that were attracted to that world, as was the case with Mr. Keynaston, who might have been bisexual, although that comes as a secondary subplot. This actor is greatly admired by all, including the dressing assistant, Maria. This girl loved to be in the theatre, but could not, because only men were allowed. So instead, she goes to a second rate company that puts on plays in a pub and emerges as Margaret Hughes, an actress in her own right who will challenge Keynaston's Desdemona and makes that role, her signature role as well.
Claire Danes, as Maria, or Margaret Hughes, has never been better! She shines as the girl whose ambition is to be on stage. She is wonderful in the part. Ned, played with gusto by Billy Crudup, shows an unexpected range, although he has done theatre extensively. Both of these actors takes us back to London and make us believe that what we are watching.
A glorious English cast behind the two American principals are gathered to play effortlessly the theatrical figures of the time, and also the King and his court. Ruper Everett, as King Charles II, is hilarious. The scene in which he plays in drag with his mistress, Nell Gwynn, is one of the best things of the movie. Also, Richard Griffith, as lecherous Sir Charles Sedley, gives a stellar performance. Ben Chaplin, as the Duke of Buckingham, reveals the ambiguity of the men that were attracted to those early thespians.
Thoroughly enjoyable because of Richard Eyre's direction and eye for detail.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Those who have something invested in keeping the boundaries of gender
and sexuality rigid will be offended by this film, whether they be
religious fundamentalist types or gay-rights advocates who argue from
the constrictive either/or framing of their opponents. Fundamentalists
(and I used to be one!) would, at the same time, find material to
support their nurture-not-nature conclusions in Ned Kynaston's
background (implicit victimization at the hands of an implicit
pedophile), the bigoted comments of the king about effeminate boys, and
most of all the actor's eventual orientation "reversal" at the hands of
the "right woman." This, of course, would anger those who have chosen
to engage them in the loaded "is it a choice?" battle which completely
dismisses the B in LGBT. If you are coming from an angle in which no
Kinsey scale exists, then the offense makes sense.
I think it's a mistaken angle, however. My only complaints about this movie were minor, and involved poor editing, unnecessary dialogue, and a couple of unlikely scenarios (e.g. the carriage ladies' hyperbolic reaction to Ned's petticoat surprise). Otherwise, I loved it - enough to watch it four times on DVD. For me, this story was about identity, authenticity, the malleability of gender and sexuality, and the difference between love and projection.
At the bustling outset of the film, Ned (pitch-perfect Billy Crudup, ravishing in any incarnation) is arrogant and narcissistic; his self-regard is balanced perilously upon a constructed self that relies on the applause of others. Alone with Maria, we get a glimmer of something else in him when he pauses contemplatively to quote his mentor - "Never forget that you are a man in woman's form...or was it the other way 'round?" This hint at an awareness (on his or the film's part) of the essential duality of human nature is echoed by Maria - "You would make as fine a man as any woman."
When Ned loses his role and his audience to Maria, he loses his very identity; in this way, she "kills" him. The theme of killing and dying is cleverly woven throughout the narrative, both onstage and off. (But more on that presently.)
Lost and literally beaten, Ned turns to his former lover, who spurns him with droll indifference. Ned is no longer the shallow Duke's glittering projection but a raw, needy, and very messy human being. Ned's disastrous last-ditch attempt to play Othello for the king in order to save his livelihood is the final humiliation. Maria watches his disintegration onstage, and grasps his utter vulnerability for the first time. It's a credit to Claire Danes' talent that she can speak volumes without uttering a word; in this scene and the inn scene her unexpressed love bleeds from every pore.
The almost-sex scene between the two at the inn is one of my favorite love scenes in any film. The gentle role-switching from "man" to "woman" (in alternate parlance, "top" to "bottom" or "dominant" to "submissive") leads to a passionate confusion in which, if you'll notice, Ned tells Maria (astride him) first that she is the "woman" - "And now?" she says, kissing and caressing him - "The woman," he says - "And now?" she says, her passion intensifying - "The man," he murmurs. Do the roles really matter? If only he had shut up about Desdemona! But there is still some "dying" left to do, and not in the Shakespearian sense. Call it evening the score.
For alas, Maria is a terrible actress: as affected as Ned was, and twice as false. In rehearsal with someone who evokes her own passion, however, her performance begins to come alive.
The harrowing climax of the film has the viewer wondering, along with the theatre audience, if the newfound Othello's murderous passion is real. And it is, which is why Ned is so good at it. In "killing" Maria onstage, he manages at once to work out his Othello-like ambivalence and rage toward a woman he also loves; to "kill" her affected stage persona; and to give birth to himself as an authentic actor in his own male body. It's damn near perfect.
"Finally got the death scene right." Ned may not yet know who or even what he is, but he finds expression of his innermost being with a person who loves and accepts him for whomever he may turn out to be. We should all be so lucky.
We sat for the first few minutes wondering whether we'd come to the
right film (expecting a formulaic period romp). And for a little while
I was prepared to spend the rest of the evening apologising to my
partner for the slowness and oddness of the film. But once our
disbelief had been suspended and we'd got used to the cramped feeling
of the film (more like a staged version than cinematic at times), we
both loved it.
I agree that Claire Danes acted well (though the hyperventilation happened once too often) and Billy Crudup brought a complexity to the role that I rarely see in films. The reference to Shakespeare in Love is an affectionate comparison: I enjoyed the light snack of Gwinny, luvvies and Fiennes and have sat through the DVD time and again. But that film had a predictability that Stage Beauty lacked. We didn't know that Stage Beauty's 'love element' would ever work out.
I do not see the development of the relationship between Danes and Crudup as a conversion from gay to straight. Instead I see a problematic progress from an imposed gender identity (perpetuated through sexual fantasy by Buckingham) to an un"knowing" but more satisfying state, where it's being yourself (whatever that is) not performing a role that counts. I think that this is relevant to all of us as we perform the roles that we and those who've influenced our upbringing have created for ourselves. We can't easily escape them (and some are more hammy than others in their performance) but the knowledge that life is performative and complex is, for me, liberating.
And all that from a costume drama!
Billy Crudup is an actor I follow with feverish anticipation. I saw him for the first time on Broadway, about 10 years ago, in a Stoppard play. It was love at first sight. A sensual, magnetic, beautiful man. "Jesus Son" "Waking the Dead" and "Almost Famous" confirmed my initial impression. Here we have an actor for the ages. A unique, monumental talent. "Stage Beauty" however, gives me pause. Billy is entrusted with a bigger than life role and he comes out of it with a half cooked, self conscious, affected performance. He underlines every other line with a semi smile, a slight pressure of the mouth as if he didn't trust the power of his own delivery. It could be treated as a character trait if you've never seen Billy Crudup before but that tic belongs to the actor not to the character. I'm, of course, being a bit anal retentive. At his weakest, Billy is stronger than most but my expectations are so high that something like that would throw me out of my involvement with his character. The film as a whole is lovely and fun. The one most effective element is Rupert Everett's performance as Charles II, his best - an that is saying a lot - in many, many moons. Comparasions with "Shakespeare in Love" are unavoidable but totally misguiding. See it for what it is and you'll enjoy it thoroughly.
"All the world's a stage," wrote the Bard, "and all the men and women
merely players that strut and fret their hour upon the stage."
"Stage Beauty" is set in the world of seventeenth-century Restoration theatre, but the stage serves as a microcosm for life itself, and the roles played by the actors before the public mirror the roles they play in their private lives. The question is, do they create their roles, or do their roles create them?
Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is an actor who takes on women's roles, since real women are not permitted to do so. He has been thoroughly trained and schooled in the then highly stylized technique of portraying women -- to such an extent that any trace of masculinity seems to have been drummed out of him.
His dresser Maria (Clare Danes) yearns to be an actress herself, but is prevented from doing so by the narrow conventions of Puritan England -- until Charles II is restored to the throne and decrees that, henceforth, real women shall play women's roles on the stage. A whole new world opens up for Maria, but it looks like curtains for Ned.
What happens next is pure anachronism: Ned and Maria are able to rise above the limitations and constraints of their era. Not only do they transcend their gender or sex roles, but they overcome their classical training and, in effect, engage in Method acting, a technique still three hundred years away in the far-distant future. When he teaches Maria how to break the mold and play Othello's Desdemona in a whole new, natural way, Ned becomes a seventeenth-century Stanislavsky.
But, by George, it works. Their performance of the celebrated death scene from "Othello" sends shock waves through an audience accustomed to pantomime and exaggerated gestures -- and it electrifies us as well.
Not since Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love" have an actor and actress so shimmered and shone simultaneously on stage and screen. One hopes that Billy Crudup and Clare Danes will be remembered for their luminous performances at the 2005 Academy Awards.
"Stage Beauty" is a clever and moving combination of the period feel of
"Shakespeare in Love" and the themes of "A Double Life." In the latter,
Ronald Colman is an actor who immerses himself into his role as Othello
and, as in "Beauty," continually repeats and reinterprets the murder
scene, with increasing realism.
The emphasis here is on male/female gender roles on stage from just before to just after women are allowed on stage. Playwright/screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's choice to use "Othello" as his prism is significant on many levels.
All the characters agree that the productions of the play at this time in the 1660's already included the artifice that the Moor is portrayed in blackface, though this is a serious drama of passion and not one of the lighter comedies or romances with hidden or mistaken identity. The final presentation of the key scene does have the on-screen audience terrified that the actors' animosity has led to all pretense being abandoned.
Hatcher simplifies the gender issues by focusing on a play where the leads, "Desdemona" and "Othello," are unambiguous in their sexual poles, which makes Billy Crudup's "Ned Kynaston" tortured self-discovery to move from one role to the other particularly fascinating. The movie includes a brief, comic debate about the ramifications of "Rosalind" in "As You Like It" in a time where a male actor would be portraying a Shakespearean heroine disguised as a man, in what we now consider 'trouser roles' (like "Portia" in "Merchant of Venice" or Viola in "Twelfth Night").
Set in the period of the Stuart Restoration when kings are in and out of exile and a brash cockney mistress masquerades as the queen, though Nell Gwynn's influence is doubtless exaggerated, the mise en scene is a society where all are play-acting in wigs and make-up. Ben Chaplin's Duke of Buckingham, in a much more leonine role that his milquetoasts in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" or "Birthday Girl," wryly demonstrates as he cynically moves from an affair with "Kynaston" to a rich marriage.
Claire Danes's contrasting naturalness is luminous as she has no doubts about her femininity, but is frustrated in getting Kynaston to perceive it, and not just as another artifice. While it is an asymptotic flirtation as his sexuality is left indeterminate, it is marvelous to watch "Kynaston" tentatively and painfully learn to explore his masculine side that was suppressed since childhood, on stage and off.
The conclusion seems a cri de coeur for audiences to accept gay actors as "Stanley Kowalski" in "A Streetcar Named Desire," to get across that no matter how naturalistic the acting, it is still pretend.
Director Richard Eyre's camera work swirls around a bit too much to animate the choice dialogue, but there are also outdoor scenes of dirt, violence and cruelty that open up the action from the play, thus showing the theater as a refuge from reality.
George Fenton's score sounded marvelously appropriate to the period.
Crudup's and Danes's British accents are unfortunately a bit too bland, but convincing.
He is exquisite, Billy Crudup I mean, but not as a woman. Strangely enough he is more feminine as a man than he is as a woman. Look at him in "Almost Famous" perfect. Shaped like a flamenco dancer, rhythmic, sexual, casually overpowering. In "Jesus's Son" just by waking up at the beginning of the film, he, his character, gets you. Here he seems at odds with the feminine aspect of his character. His Desdemona is a performance. What perhaps I'm saying is that I admired the performance but I didn't feel it. I was aware of its quality but I couldn't taste it, as I have done with previous Billy Crudup creations. Another strange thing, Clare Danes. I think she's one of the most interesting actresses of her generation and here you enjoy her enormously when she's on but her character is now a blurry dot in my memory. What remains most vividly in my mind is Rupert Everett's sensational turn as King Charles. All said and done, try not to miss it.
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