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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 Beauty may 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 (Zoë 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 Beauty its 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.

 

If Stage Beauty is about an artist transformed by love, Shall We Dance? is about an ordinary man who reaches for art in order to find love and finds himself transformed by art, or at least ballroom dancing. Or it would be, if it weren’t such a lump of lead. The 1996 Japanese movie on which it’s based, directed by Masayuki Suo, was a little inert for my taste, but it had a goofy, downbeat charm, and I could see why it swept the box office in Japan — it’s about a man breaking out of rigid conformity. And I’d have thought someone with the mettle of Peter Chelsom, a Brit who counts among his critical successes Funny Bones, The Mighty and the delightful light-opera hit Hear My Song, could have made a tight little American romp, or a quiet chamber piece, out of a resonant universal theme, the incompleteness of the ordinary life.

Instead, Shall We Dance?, which roams all over the emotional map without landing anywhere, is an unwieldy mess that gives every impression of having been made under a mandate to fill the Miramax crowd-pleaser slot. Armed with a handsome Weinstein budget, Chelsom has some serious star wattage at his disposal, and that turns out to be the problem. I can’t think of two actors less suited, separately or together, to play nice but troubled Everymen than Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. With his unaccountably sexy snaggleteeth and the famous gigolo twinkle in his beady eyes, Gere was not made for nice. He was made for sin and deceit, and in Shall We Dance? he looks almost embarrassed to be playing John Clark, a preternaturally good-natured Chicago lawyer who’s happily married to no less a beauty than Susan Sarandon, yet trudges through life bowed by a discontent he can’t articulate. One night he glances up from his commuter train and sees a sad, beautiful face (J.Lo) gazing out of the window of a seedy dance studio. With uncharacteristic impulsiveness, John jumps out and signs up for classes, along with several other apparent losers as klutzy as he is. Soon he’s learning to put a spring in his tango, but not, alas, from the sad woman, a ballroom champion who for unspecified reasons has lost her partner and lover, and remains out of reach. Lopez, who was born to be vibrant, sexy and sassy, and can even manage quietly luminous when pushed (she was irresistible in Out of Sight), spends most of the movie frozen into a wince that suggests a hurt more gastrointestinal than romantic. Only at the end, when she cheers up and steps out for a paso doble, do her natural radiance and her magnificent butt show up for duty.

Too little, too late. By this time Shall We Dance? has gone right where you expect it to — straight to sitcom. With its de facto family of schlubs propping one another up through bad times and good, the movie shows its true colors: It’s Friends plus gaudy frocks. The dismally pedestrian script is by Audrey Wells — one mourns for the crisp talent that wrote The Truth About Cats & Dogs and Guinevere. Though it’s meant to move as well as entertain, the film lacks the tonal nuance that, in the Japanese version, warmed audiences to the struggle of this docile, inexpressive man to find a way out of the daily grind. Sailing grimly toward a sewn-up, sugary finale, Chelsom ups the ante of his broad burlesque until it smothers whatever might be touching about this bunch as they struggle to redefine their identities. The ending is as comfortable as an old shoe, and — aside from a couple of nice dance sequences — about as exciting. Only Stanley Tucci, mincing manfully in a scary wig as John’s co-worker and closet ballroom champ, and a very funny Lisa Ann Walter, rising above a thankless Bette Midler role, seem to understand that the only way to go with all this enforced zaniness is to drive it straight off a cliff.

STAGE BEAUTY | Directed by RICHARD EYRE | Adapted by JEFFREY HATCHER from his play THE COMPLEAT STAGE BEAUTY Produced by ROBERT DE NIRO, JANE ROSENTHAL and HARDY JUSTICE | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex and Playhouse 7

SHALL WE DANCE? | Directed by PETER CHELSOM | Written by AUDREY WELLS | Based on the film by MASAYUKI SUO | Produced by SIMON FIELDS | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide