Whether it's Prince or Billy Crudup, the sight of a man in eyeliner makes Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees go wobbly in the knees.
She was the first of her kind. He was the last of his.
Stage Beauty has been compared to Shakespeare in Love, and the superficial similarities make the comparison natural: Both are historical films set in England, both take place in the world of the theater, and both feature characters who masquerade as the opposite sex. From this basic premise, however, the two movies diverge greatly. Where Shakespeare in Love was primarily a love story, Stage Beauty delves into complex questions of identity, particularly as embodied by the character of Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous), the seventeenth-century actor famed for his portrayal of female characters. The fascinating exploration of identity, gender roles, and the nature of acting itself makes Stage Beauty a unique film experience that stands on its own.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1660, and Ned Kynaston (Crudup) is the toast of the English theater. In a place and time when women are forbidden by law to appear on public stages, Kynaston has forged a career playing women like Shakespeare's Desdemona. He takes his vocation seriously, working hard to improve his already acclaimed performances, but he also enjoys the adulation of young female fans and the patronage of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin, Washington Square), who is also his lover. His greatest admirer, although he doesn't realize it, is his dresser, young Maria (Claire Danes, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). Maria's adoration of Ned is both personal and professional, since she longs to be an actor herself. When she borrows Ned's wig and costume one night and purchases a role in a tavern's production of Othello, she ends up changing both their lives dramatically.
Learning of her venture into his territory, Ned spitefully brings her performance to the attention of King Charles (Rupert Everett, My Best Friend's Wedding), which could spell disaster for her. Fortunately for Maria, the king's vulgar young mistress, would-be actress Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper), persuades the king to overturn the law against female actors. As a consequence, Maria, now known as Mrs. Margaret Hughes, is launched to instant celebrity. At the same time, however, actors like Ned, who had trained only in portraying females, find themselves suddenly obsolete. As Maria's star rises, Ned's falls, and when he falls afoul of Maria's new patron, Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), he seems to have reached his nadir.
As the novelty of seeing women in female roles begins to wane, however, Maria realizes that she is not a good enough actress to hold audiences as Ned once did. Unless well-meaning friends such as Nell Gwynn and the diarist Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville, Daniel Deronda) can persuade Ned to tutor Maria in acting, not one but two careers may be over—and Ned may never learn how to find the reality beneath the illusion he has been living all his life.
Stories about actors are a natural way to explore identity issues, since by the nature of their work actors are constantly taking on different identities. In the case of actors like Ned Kynaston, who trained from youth to make himself into a vessel of femininity, the borrowed identities can naturally create some confusion as to the reality. Ned is the most complex character in Stage Beauty, and he has many of the most thought-provoking lines; in an early moment of self-revelation, when telling Maria about his education in acting, he reports that his mentor told him never to forget he was "a man in a woman's form"—"or," he adds with a sad, bitter little smile, "was it the other way around?" It's the first of many moments in which Crudup makes us feel the bleakness of being completely out of touch with one's fundamental self. Ned's early training has left him with no foundation on which to build; having devoted his life to creating a female persona, when that persona is stripped from him—along with his treasured status as actor—he is completely at sea. He has no belief in himself as a man, a fact made heartrendingly clear in a scene in which he tries to perform Othello but can't overcome his indoctrination in female gestures and inflections. In order to become his real self, Ned must abandon outward show and learn simply to be and do.
In a parallel development, Maria begins her career by mimicking the gestures and line readings she has observed Ned use, but they don't reflect the emotional truth of her characters: In one powerful confrontation with Ned, she tells him that his performance of Desdemona doesn't work because "a woman would fight" death, not accept it beautifully as does Ned. It isn't until Ned helps her bring out her own feelings in her performance—by teaching her the lesson he himself has learned, to do rather than to seem—that she becomes a good actress. At the same time, by exploring the perplexities of gender roles and identity together, they are able to become closer emotionally. In a scene remarkable for both its frankness and the degree of comfort between the two leads, Ned teaches Maria about the physical realities of erotic relationships between men—and learns what it's like not to have to take the female role, to which he has been relegated in his relationship with Buckingham.
The two leads are admirably cast. Although Danes is somewhat limited as an actress, that works perfectly for her in this role, since Maria is less experienced than Ned in both acting and living. Danes does bring both the energy and the vulnerability of youth to her portrayal, as well as an appealing combination of naïveté and determination. Nevertheless, the film seems to sag when Crudup is not on screen (although Rupert Everett brings sly humor and glimpses of unexpected pathos to every scene he's in). Crudup's performance in the demanding role of Ned is nothing short of amazing. When Ned plays Othello at the end of the film—this time successfully—and we see him connecting with the character's own anguish, it's a shining moment in film acting. At the same time, his exhilaration when he realizes he can pull a real performance out of Maria is touching in an entirely different way. Crudup's portrayal of Ned is so nuanced and revealing that he is able to fill in gaps in the screenplay without the benefit of dialogue, simply by letting us see what he is feeling.
This ability is all the more valuable because, although the screenplay (by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on his play) is often intelligent and insightful, the middle of the film has a choppy, episodic quality. Even though it recovers for some triumphant scenes in the third act, there are blips in the story and character development that make it seem that we are missing important scenes or bits of dialogue. The tone of the film contributes to the confusion, zigzagging from high-spirited, bawdy humor to poignant drama and back again. There are also potentially fruitful themes that are never developed, such as when Ned receives a beating that damages his beautiful face; this incident could have had a powerful effect on his career and his tendency to define himself by externals, but instead it merely serves to accentuate the degradation of having already been made redundant by a female actress. If the overall story structure is uneven, however, often the dialogue itself is witty and perceptive. Consider, for example, this exchange, which takes place when Pepys praises the realism of Ned's "breeches" roles, in which he portrayed women disguised as men:
Ned: You know why the man stuff seemed so real? Because I'm
pretending. You see a man through the mirror of a woman through the mirror of a
man. You take one of those reflecting glasses away, it doesn't work. The man
only works because you see him in contrast to the woman he is. If you saw him
without the her he lives inside, he wouldn't seem a man at all.
This exchange—which director Eyre says was almost cut from the film—works on so many levels at once that it's almost like the mirror effect Ned himself is describing. It shows us how committed Ned is to his vocation that he has thought all this through. It also gives us a laugh, because he's almost absurdly intense, like the self-serious drama majors we all knew in college. But in its headlong way his speech opens up the whole psychology of acting and illusion; this is exactly the kind of argument (albeit dizzyingly put) that inspires rapt discussion among theater scholars. And, more poignantly, it shows us that Ned's obsession with illusion continues to stand between him and the reality he needs to access. Moments like this show that Stage Beauty is much more than just a pretty face: It has a rapier-sharp brain.
In terms of historical accuracy, Stage Beauty naturally takes some liberties, most prominently when Ned and Maria invent naturalistic acting a few centuries ahead of time. This particular development is an important manifestation of their personal journeys, so it's in keeping with the plot, if not the era, and consequently it doesn't jar too severely. There is also a thrilling scene that shows what a powerful, even frightening impact this style of acting must have had when it first appeared. The character of Charles II is a bit more benign (in the slightly potty way perfected by Peter O'Toole) than one would expect from history, but the role of sleazeball has already been filled in this story by the Duke of Buckingham, so the need for contrast makes his whitewashing understandable. Zoe Tapper's broadly comic interpretation of Nell Gwynn presents her earthiness in a way instantly recognizable to modern viewers. (Tapper also has some of the most howlingly funny lines in the film, most of which are unsuitable for repetition in a family-friendly website.) Some seventeenth-century accouterments that might strike modern viewers as bizarre, such as the exaggerated wigs and makeup sported by fashionable men of the period, are scaled down for the major characters and only appear in full-blown excess on comic characters like Sir Charles. Overall, director Richard Eyre has found an agreeable balance between historical veracity and modern accessibility.
Production values maintain the combination of historicism and accessibility. The visual look of the film is splendid without being stuffy; diffuse candlelight effects and a muted palette, together with extensive use of steadicam and handheld camera work, prevent pomposity from creeping in. The score by George Fenton (Dangerous Liaisons) combines stately authentic-sounding music with a rhythmic Celtic-tinged theme that contributes energy and freshness. The transfer reproduces these efforts attractively: The subdued palette is rendered with clarity and detail, with deep velvety blacks, and the picture is free from obvious defects. The 5.1 surround mix—the default audio setting—makes subtle but effective use of ambient sound to enhance realism, and it presents Fenton's score with vibrancy and crystalline highs.
The main extras on this disc are a commentary by director Eyre and a half-hour behind-the-scenes piece divided into numerous segments that can be viewed individually or as a whole. Although padded considerably with clips, this featurette does include interview footage with Crudup, Danes, director Eyre, production designer Jim Clay, and a host of others who have often enlightening perspectives to offer on different aspects of the film, from story development to the process of transforming Crudup into a feminine stage beauty. The commentary by Eyre leans toward the technical side of the production, with much discussion of shooting locations, lighting, and production values, but he also offers insights into the film's relationship to historical fact and into the story and characters—some of which didn't jibe with my own experience of the film, so this was a thought-provoking and sometimes a surprising perspective on the story and characters. Eyre, for example, frames Ned's identity dilemma as being restricted to his sexual orientation, which I thought reduced the complexity of the questions Ned was grappling with. Eyre also explains the final scene, which he feels is often misinterpreted. Unfortunately, he does not comment on the way art and commerce intersect throughout the film; money is a significant undercurrent throughout the story, and since this theme is never overtly developed in the film, I had hoped Eyre would discuss it in his commentary. Nevertheless, this commentary is a worthwhile addition to the film. Besides these two supplemental features, the disc also includes a sequence of trailers that are bizarrely ill-suited to the feature; disappointingly, the film's own theatrical trailer doesn't appear among them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps in part because Ned has more of an emotional journey to make than does Maria, their love story isn't as satisfying as the story of their self-actualization—or as convincing: If we are to believe these two to be in love, rather than simply passionately attracted to each other, we need a bit more to build on. As I noted earlier in my discussion of the screenplay, it feels almost like we are missing important segments of dialogue or scenes in which the two leads communicate their feelings toward each other. Passionate about acting, about discovering themselves, these two certainly are—but when their own characters are still evolving, it's hard to know how much we can believe that their chemistry signals a solid basis for a romantic relationship. Maria's feelings are more plausible, at least initially; she seems to be able to see deeper than the ambiguously gendered surface to love Ned for who he really is. But since this happens even before he knows himself who that is, how much can we, or Maria, trust that her feelings have a basis in reality? She may only be in love with the illusion he's created. At the same time, Ned's feelings for Maria seem to be less about loving her than loving the self she has helped him discover. The final scene could mean that Ned is now able to experience real love because he has stopped worrying about defining himself, but it could also simply be showing his exhilaration at having just pulled off a really stupendous stage performance and reclaimed his place in the theatrical pantheon.
For this reason, fans of Shakespeare in Love who are seeking a similar love story may find their hopes disappointed. The relationship between Maria and Ned is a lot more complicated and, ultimately, a lot more ambiguous than that joyous romance. That isn't to say that it isn't a rewarding story; just that less optimistic viewers may come away feeling that this particular part of the plot doesn't reach a satisfying resolution. Although in many ways Stage Beauty presents itself as a love story, overall it's more a story about self-discovery, and potential viewers should bear this in mind.
Despite being set in a specific point in history, Stage Beauty has a timeless quality that surmounts its historical distance. The issues at its heart are more relevant today than ever: the construction of gender and the ways both individual existence and relationships are structured around the often shifting conception of sexual identity. It's also a refreshingly grown-up look at romance and sex, a perceptive depiction of theatrical life, and a lewdly hilarious comedy. Even though it doesn't consistently attain the brilliance to which it aspires, this is a film that is stimulatingly different from the norm. It also offers incontrovertible proof that Billy Crudup, even more than the self-transforming character he portrays, is an actor of dazzling talent. His powerful performance here suggests that his future career will be a remarkable one.
Since His Majesty has retracted the law against female actors, Stage Beauty is free to continue beguiling audiences. Case dismissed.
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