By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Clive Coot|
Stage Beauty, a vivacious little number that takes breezy liberties with the life and loves of the 17th-century Shakespearean actor Edward Kynaston, is a movie about the theater made by a man of the theater. This is an enterprise that all too often ends in tears, though not in the frisky hands of Richard Eyre, a longtime director of England’s Royal National Theater who crossed into film with the terrific political drama The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983) and more recently the 2001 Iris Murdoch weepie Iris. Stage Beautymay have more thematic ambition than is altogether good for it, but along with The Madness of King George, Shakespeare in Love and Restoration, the movie blows a fresh wind of disrespect, high drama and lush romanticism through that stolidly middlebrow subgenre, the period drama.
The known facts about Kynaston are that when the fanatically puritan Oliver Cromwell closed down England’s theaters, the fledgling actor forged ahead and received clandestine training in women’s roles. When the more liberal, if no less philistine, King Charles II returned from exile in 1660, Kynaston became a star famous for his portrayal of Desdemona in Othello — he was written up by no less an observer than Samuel Pepys as “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life.” Kynaston’s sex life was either ambiguous or ambidextrous; he was rumored to have slept with the Duke of Buckingham, but ended up marrying a woman named Maria and fathering six children.
Eyre lathers this already colorful life into a feisty comic drama about performance, the allure of the cross-dresser and the ephemeral cult of celebrity. In some quarters the movie, which advances Kynaston as a closet heterosexual, will be seen as reactionary. There’s a vague feminist slant too, but the film is as much about the intimate connection between an actor’s life and his art as it is about the politics of gender, and to his credit Eyre has sidestepped the temptation to dumb down Kynaston’s biography into a 17th-century La Cage aux Folles. Not that the movie lacks for burlesque. Billy Crudup, who plays Kynaston with just the right balance of excess and restraint, is nothing if not a pretty boy. With his delicate bone structure and kewpie-doll lips, he makes a pretty girl too. The film opens on the climactic death scene in Othello, and Crudup’s sly rendition of the dying Desdemona is both impish and showily gestural, with a hint of simpering contempt for the feminine wiles hovering behind it.
Kynaston’s blend of snarkiness and haunting vulnerability seems only to bring more adoration from his male and female fans, blissfully suspended between belief in his female nature and a smutty desire to confirm what they already know lies beneath those skirts. Then as now, though, careers turned on the forked tongues of powerful insiders (Richard Griffiths, a.k.a. Harry Potter’s nasty Uncle Vernon, turns in a wonderfully piggy performance as a conniving blue blood). Lulled into a false sense of security by his popularity and the protection of his titled lover (Ben Chaplin), Kynaston is devastated to discover that his dresser, Maria (a very good Claire Danes, cannily tempering Crudup’s flightiness with an earthy practicality), has been hanging on his every word and gesture — and reproducing them in a fringe theater that has caught the eye of the king (Rupert Everett, channeling John Cleese) and his lively mistress, Nell Gwyn (Zo√ę Tapper). Overnight, Kynaston is reduced to a has-been. When the repentant Maria, herself displaced because she is, after all, a god-awful performer, comes across him sadly parodying himself in a tavern, she rescues him, and the stage is set for some mutual tutoring in art and life.
This is a trifle pat, but the killing of Desdemona conceals all manner of other, more symbolic murders, and the scene becomes the movie’s refrain, repeated each time with a significantly different style and emphasis, each time marking a sea change not only in Kynaston’s fortunes but in the philosophy
of acting. Eyre has collapsed the transition from gestural to
naturalistic performance, a process that took several centuries, into a few short years, which takes some nerve. Still, nerve and an excess of aesthetic ambition are what give Stage Beautyits feverish energy. And if all this sounds like a movie that only a theater buff could love, it’s far from it. Eyre chases mood up
and down the scale beautifully, from saucy to tragic to heartfelt. Stage Beauty is about the loss and recovery not only of an actor’s career but of his whole identity. It’s about the creative exchange between a man imprisoned in his role, both as actor and as male, and a would-be actress imprisoned in imitation.
By the time the final scene of Othello is played out for the last time, Maria has become an actress and a lover, and Ned Kynaston has closed the gap between the actor and the man.
I don’t quite buy the therapeutic make-over, but the movie is bags of fun to watch.
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