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-
These are flawed and fascinating people: Stage Beauty‘s Edward Kynaston, the based-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-