Nov. 24, 2004 - Issue #475: The Verge
An unsuitable job for a woman
Billy Crudup plays a cross-dressed theatre icon in frilly Stage Beauty
As Stage Beauty begins, Kynaston is at the height of his fame and popularity—but it’s a curious kind of fame. With a royal ban still in place against women performing onstage, Kynaston has risen to the top of the theatre world by specializing in female roles. Far from being thought of as a freak or a deviant, though, Kynaston was worshipped as a sort of exotic sex symbol. After seeing him perform in John Fletcher’s The Loyall Subject in 1660, diarist Samuel Pepys even went so far as to proclaim Kynaston “the loveliest lady I ever saw in my life.” Kynaston is played in the film by Billy Crudup, whose angular face and lean but athletic build don’t seem especially feminine, even disguised under elaborate female costumes and thick makeup, and I’ve read a few reviews arguing that Crudup’s unconvincing drag act is a major drawback to the film.
But I think that’s precisely the point that director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting his own play Compleat Female Stage Beauty) are trying to make. Kynaston isn’t trying to look like a “real” woman. Instead, he’s embodying what generations of men that came before him have decided are the essential qualities of femininity: delicacy, grace, passivity. In fact, there’s an amusing scene between Kynaston and his dresser Maria (Claire Danes), a young woman who dreams of becoming an actress herself, in which Kynaston ridicules Maria for even suggesting she’d have the skills necessary to properly play a woman onstage. (“Do you know the eight poses of feminine supplication?” he says condescendingly.) Playing female roles requires years of specialized training, as far as Kynaston’s concerned—the fact that Maria has actually been a woman all her life is completely irrelevant.
The first half of Stage Beauty has a lot of fun playing around with gender roles and having its characters interact with actual historical figures like Pepys, Nell Gwyn and King Charles II (an amusing study in weary royal dissipation by Rupert Everett). And there’s a lovely ironic reversal built into the script: after Charles decrees not only that women may now perform onstage, but that men are henceforth forbidden from playing female roles, Kynaston finds his career in ruins while Maria (thanks more to sheer novelty value than talent) becomes the newest star of the London stage.
But it’s also at this point in the story that the film’s sexual politics become hopelessly muddled. Kynaston is portrayed at the start of the film as proudly homosexual: he even has a male lover, an aristocrat played by Ben Chaplin who’s sort of the 17th-century equivalent of those closeted gay guys who prefer making out with she-males. But the film portrays Kynaston’s feminine instincts and his homosexual leanings more as an unwelcome curse than a true part of his personality: one of Crudup’s big scenes takes place when he auditions for a male acting job, but starts sobbing in horror when he realizes his female acting gestures are so ingrained that he can’t get rid of them—his hand keeps fluttering delicately in the air like Dr. Strangelove unable to stop his arm from giving the Nazi salute.
The film ends with Maria and Kynaston performing Othello before the king—he’s been coaching her to play Desdemona and has stepped in at the last minute to play Othello. Their chemistry is electric, and the idea is that not only has Kynaston finally been able to express his true artistry as an actor by playing a male role, but that he’s finally put all that homosexual business behind him by falling in love with Maria—as if being gay were just a confused, childish phase he had to grow out of. This notion isn’t just offensive to gays; it’s offensive to actors too. Why does Stage Beauty consider playing Desdemona less of an achievement than playing Othello? Isn’t that kind of transformation what theatre is all about? Stage Beauty presents itself as a celebration of acting, but in fact it’s saying you’ll be happiest if you go through life playing the most conventional role you can find. V
Directed by Richard Eyre • Written by Jeffrey Hatcher • Starring Billy Crudup, Claire Danes and Tom Wilkinson • Opens Fri, Nov 26
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.