Saturday, September 11, 2004

Stage Beauty 

Keeping with the queer posts, as I've decided to do pretty much uniformly from now on (though I may not keep to that), Stage Beauty is a rather good new film out dealing with seventeenth century gender-bending. Claire Danes is always one to watch because, though she's not a great actress in her own right, she's great at picking interesting films to perform in. In this she's the dresser to a famous actor/actress, played by Billy Crudup, and a wannabe star, slightly hampered by the fact that women are forbidden on stage.

Events turn, to the extent that female impersonators become entirely forbidden. Unfortunately, not being trained into it, and all too tempted to copy the 'femininity' of the impersonators rather than portray their own, the new actresses are mostly awful. So we see Danes develop into an actress in her own right, able to die realistically because she knows what it is to be a true woman, which Crudup cannot. And we see Crudup come to terms with no longer being onstage as his former self, and being jilted by his gay lover, who was only interested in him as a woman. Slightly disappointingly, he's somewhat forced back into heteronormativity by playing Othello towards the end - having previously objected to it because 'men aren't beautiful' - but the queerness is kept up by his generally questionable gender and the spectacularly sexy (if you like that sort of thing) scene where he and Danes swap gender roles while in bed together.

Crudup is wonderful, partly because he makes a very beautiful and believable woman except when on stage, where he becomes a very OTT drag queen. But then so does everyone else, women included. Danes makes as good a drag queen as anyone when trying to play a woman onstage. And there's the heart of it. The whole film is about gender-questioning, not just the character played by Crudup, and the fact that the directors have managed to make a relatively mainstream romantic comedy about that is quite an achievement. They've done it at the expense of digging as deeply into these issues as I would like, but it's enough to keep me very happy, and for me to feel able to recommend it to my more boring friends too.

Interestingly, the trailer for the US release is quite different from the UK release. The first thing the US trailer tells you is that the leading lady of the day 'wasn't really a lady at all', something which the film itself leaves ambiguous. In addition, it features very little of Crudup dragged up, and a lot about the struggles of women to get on the stage. The UK version, by contrast, is much camper, with lots of drag and the decision to let women perform seeming to be a momentary whim of a silly King (Rupert Everett). Whether this is because the UK public/promoter is more open-minded, or simply because we're only able to digest this sort of film if it's presented as a Carry On-style romp, I don't know. But the film itself is quite unlike either trailer, and really very good.

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