October 22, 2004

Stage Beauty

Directed by Richard Eyre Starring Billy Crudup and Claine Danes

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The disproportionate success of Shakespeare in Love now gives lackluster writers the artistic license to freely co-opt historical figures and then play fast and loose with the facts. Ned Kynaston and Margaret Hughes - respectively one of the last Restoration actors to step into female roles and one of the first actresses - are the latest victims of such revisionist burlesque aimed at mass consumption.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has synthetically stitched their stories together and created the Frankensteinian Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which he now adapts for the silver screen. Predicated on conventions, Stage Beauty is a contrived reworking of A Star is Born and All About Eve with a fervently hateful gender-bending twist.

Supposedly the best female-playing actor in his day, Kynaston here resembles a ghastly drag act (think Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) thanks to an unconvincing portrayal by Billy Crudup. Maria Hughes, played by Claire Danes, is conveniently his all-purpose dresser/secret admirer/imitator-turned-rival/love interest/saviour. When Charles II finally legalises the profession of actress, Kynaston finds himself out of work and abandoned by his patron lover. But leave it to rising star Maria to rescue Kynaston's dame in distress from the oblivion that is cabaret and reform him into a performer of male roles.

Kynaston and Hughes make fascinating subjects, as their separate experiences define that period in the history of theatre. Unfortunately, Hatcher is more immersed in bawdy antics than social annotations. In keeping the veneer of a lightweight crowd pleaser, Stage Beauty deliberately overlooks its delicate social subtext.

The film glosses over the fluidity of gender and the complexity of sexuality with some dangerously ill-informed assertions - such as a homosexual relationship necessarily consisting of two men assuming the roles of a man and a woman. The screenplay caricatures Kynaston as a stereotypical catty diva, who is irredeemable unless he kowtows. Hatcher is single-mindedly preoccupied with the masculinization and heterosexualization of Kynaston, having him subjected to humiliation for his refusal to conform.

By the film's rousing finale, both protagonists have substantially sacrificed their core beings and compromised their integrity. A pretentious bourgeois audience may find this kind of faux art film entertaining in spite of its vile message that basically urges minorities to seek refuge in the closet for the sake of acceptance. But to discerning viewers, the film is simply an unintentionally bleak reminder of how little times have changed.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.