Stage Beauty and Being Julia (review)

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All an Act

Damn Shakespeare anyway. He said everything worth saying and we far less talented wordsmiths are left to flounder in his wake. I’d really like to invoke his all-the-world’s-a-stage bit, but that’s so obvious and absolutely everyone’s using it about these two movies — not only did he say everything worth saying but he said it so well that it’s all become clichés. And he’s always quoted cuz he was pretty much right about everything he said, and that all-the-people-players thing is so irresistibly apropos to both Stage Beauty and Being Julia, for both films explore the idea that we’re all just performing in a grand play by offering us actors for whom playing a part is what life is all about, onstage and off. The extra satisfying kick comes from both films’ attitudes, which look upon actors with less suspicion and more sympathy than usual, taking the Bard’s observation to a generous conclusion: Maybe actors are “always on,” but then, aren’t we all?
These are flawed and fascinating people: Stage Beauty‘s Edward Kynaston, the based-on-reality Restoration-era (1660s) actor who played female roles at a time when women were forbidden to do so; and Being Julia‘s Julia Lambert, a 1930s W. Somerset Maugham character treading the boards in the West End. Both are superstars, coddled and protected in their little bubbles of fame; everyone wants to bask in their reflected glory, which makes it harder, one supposes, for them to avoid always playing a part — certain expectations go along with who “Ned Kynaston” and “Julia Lambert” are, and their own public personas are the greatest roles they play. Which is, of course, a bit of a problem, particularly when the public turns its fickle fancy elsewhere.

I can’t imagine anyone other than the marvelous Billy Crudup (Big Fish, Charlotte Gray) as Ned Kynaston. Ned could have been a caricature — the original drag queen — but Crudup brings him both a sensitivity and a muscularity, and not necessarily a physical one, that makes the character an intriguing portrait of confused identity. And again, it’s not just in the obvious arena of gender and sexuality so much as simply being able to know oneself as a person on a level more fundamental even than maleness or femaleness — even Ned’s fairly disastrous bisexual romances are treated by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting his own stage play) as merely one expression of Ned’s willing entanglement of who is he with the characters he plays.

Things start going terribly wrong for Ned when his dresser — he’s been playing Desdemona in Othello, to great acclaim — starts sneaking off to perform onstage. Wouldn’t be a big deal if she wasn’t female, a gal named Maria (Claire Danes: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Hours, who’s never been better)… and if she wasn’t such a scandalous hit that King Charles II (Rupert Everett: Shrek 2, Dangerous Liaisons, having fun with a juicy role) decides to lift the ban on women on the stage. Ned finds himself on the outs, and that’s when the film gets even wittier, sharper, and more bitter. There’s something meanly delicious about seeing Ned getting his smug arrogance knocked down by Maria: he thinks he knows women because he’s performed cartoonish versions of them onstage. (Part of Crudup’s triumph here is that he makes us really, really like Ned even though he desperately needs a smack, he’s so full of himself.) She sets him to rights, the too-complicated-to-explain upshot of which is that the two of them, as they strive desperately to figure out their places in their suddenly disarrayed world, invent a new kind of acting. It’s not new to us today, but the verve that Crudup and Danes bring to their shockingly different staging of Othello and Desdemona’s big scene rivets us just as it does the king and his actress-wannabe mistress (the luscious Zoe Tapper): they’d complained about wanting something novel in the theater, and here it is, in all its astonishing glory.

One of the things I love the most about Stage Beauty is how modern it feels — director Richard Eyre keeps his focus on the personal, on the things that 350 years of cultural, social, and technological evolution couldn’t really have changed. This story could be taking place in the East Village today — the trappings would be different, but the search for the self through the not-quite artifice of theater would be the very same.

Ned and Maria wouldn’t have much trouble adapting to life in the theater in 1930s London, where Julia Lambert reigns supreme. But she’s got a similar problem to Ned’s: someone younger and fresher is trodding on her heels, threatening it all. But Julia has a plan to deal with this problem.

We know she’s up to something — snippy little Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch: Ella Enchanted), a truly dreadful actress to boot, would be simply too tempting a target even if she weren’t trying to steal Julia’s thunder — but we’re not sure exactly what. Getting there, to the revenge served cold, is an awful lot of wicked, witty fun, though, what with Julia’s romantic misadventures, with a kiss-ass young American named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) and with her dear friend Lord Charles (a surprising Bruce Greenwood: I, Robot, Hollywood Homicide, all tux tails and plummy accent). The distinct impression is that Julia manufactures her own drama — she plays the same tearful scene with both men, like it’s scripted in her mind — and yet it’s not that she isn’t genuine. It’s that this is the only way she knows how to be herself.

As with Crudup’s Ned, Annette Bening (Open Range, American Beauty) seems born to play Julia. István Szabó’s (Sunshine) film would be cause enough for celebration for giving us a smart, sharp, confident — though far from perfect — woman of the kind we rarely get to see on film. But Bening’s performance brings everything up to a level of brilliance — she’s a commanding presence, and, like Crudup, makes Julia a supremely screwed-up character that you nevertheless cannot help not only love but appreciate.

If there’s truth to be found in the fakery of fiction, in the pretending that goes into performance, Stage Beauty and Being Julia are damn fine explorations of how the truth-finders do the job, even if they’re not aware of how they do it themselves. As odes to the art and craft of acting, these are two wonderful films.

Stage Beauty
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for sexual content and language
official site | IMDB

Being Julia
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for some sexuality
official site | IMDB

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