28 October 2004 | noralee
A Fascinating Search for What Is Male/Female On Stage
"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.