In Restoration England, the most beautiful woman on the London stage was a man. Of course, back then only men were allowed to play females, but why quibble? The real-life Edward “Ned” Kynaston (Billy Crudup) of Stage Beauty, whose Desdemona death scene never fails to bring down the house, is so preternaturally pretty in drag that he taps into or awakens the sexual ambiguity of everyone who gazes upon him—and revels in the confusion. Ned’s dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), is infatuated with him even though she knows he has a male lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), who professes to think of Ned sexually as a woman. After a performance of Othello, two society girls invite Ned for a carriage ride and gigglingly request he lift his petticoat to reveal his “thingie.” (The cat-that-ate-the-canary grin on Ned’s face as he complies is priceless.) The periwigged aristocrat Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), eagerly sizing up Ned as a strumpet, is equally turned on when he discovers the truth. For Ned, scenes such as these are merriments in his own carnal vaudeville. (The tagline for this movie ought to read: “It’s Shakespeare in Love—With Everybody!!”) He imagines himself to be more feminine than any woman precisely because he isn’t one. Artistry trumps essence.
The role of Ned presents a magnificent opportunity for an actor because it is about the very nature of acting—the process by which a performer’s self is both obliterated and enhanced by submersion in a character. Crudup, whose features have the appropriate delicacy, plays Ned with complete conviction; it’s difficult to imagine anyone else succeeding as well. (The young Brando could have done it, and nowadays maybe Johnny Depp, although, judging from what he’s been up to lately, he would have brought a ripe campiness to the proceedings.) The true measure of Crudup’s abilities comes when Charles II (Rupert Everett) issues an edict banning men from playing women onstage. Ned’s world collapses: Suddenly, this sly tease is bereft not only of his career but of his identity (essentially the same thing). He goes from diva to laughingstock. Goaded by the king to audition as a man, Ned attempts a scene as Othello, and it’s a great, harrowing moment: Try as he might, Ned can’t control his fluttering wrists and vocal arpeggios. He cannot, to his horror, play a man.
If Ned were simply a poseur, his situation would be pitiable. But he is, within the acting traditions of his time, an artist. (At the height of his fame he declares, “A woman playing a woman? Where’s the trick in that?”) When he is exiled to a burlesque pub and, in drag, taunted and ogled by groundlings, the effect is tragic. Ned may have played Desdemona in a florid style that would be looked down on today, but he was still articulating—and borne aloft by—Shakespeare’s poetry. The film’s director, Richard Eyre, was for almost a decade the director of the Royal National Theatre and is surely aware of the history of acting technique—the way one generation’s genius is another’s ham. (Method acting, for example, which was once perceived as a pipeline to the “truth,” has bequeathed a considerably more complicated legacy.) He never makes the mistake of belittling Ned’s passion for his craft. There is a marvelous sympathy for the acting life in Stage Beauty, which was adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher from his own play. When that life is taken away, its practitioners are exposed as mere mortals without a role to perform—without a reason for being.
“The tagline for this movie ought to read: ‘It’s Shakespeare in Love—With Everybody!!’ ”
Ned’s rage to remain an actor pushes the action forward. In the movie’s terms, which may be a shade too sentimental, his dissolution has opened him up to a greater creativity. Maria, who alone understands Ned and has become an acclaimed actress, cares for him after his fall and even seduces him (they play-act in bed, swapping sex roles). His expanding sexual repertoire increases his versatility. He ends up playing Othello opposite Maria’s Desdemona, and the crowd goes wild.
This is all a bit simplistic. Eyre is working with highly charged psychosexual material, but his measured approach doesn’t convey enough of its craziness. Sophisticated though he may be, Eyre seems to subscribe to the self-help notion that in order for us to truly know what love is, we must know who we are. Ned’s confusions, sexual and otherwise, are only in the movie to be overcome. This is a rather middle-class approach to art, and art has often been created—especially in the acting profession—by people who are hopelessly in conflict with themselves. In fact, it’s probably impossible to be a great actor without also being a mass of contradictions. Ned’s sputtering journey to self-knowledge comes across as a convenient theatrical conceit.
It’s also too pat to have Ned and Maria play their Othello in a style that would have been far too realistic for the Restoration. It’s as if they suddenly took a crash course at the Strasberg Institute. Eyre has acknowledged in interviews that he is taking dramatic license here, but the effect is condescending; he doesn’t trust us to embrace their success unless he modernizes it. He needn’t have worried. Although it’s hard to believe that the winsome Danes, in whatever style, would have set the house afire with her acting, Crudup is a spellbinder in any mode he chooses to play: highly mannered or naturalistic, it makes no difference. Actually, the perfect finale to Stage Beauty would have been a scene in which he plays Othello to his own Desdemona—and strangles himself. He probably could have made it work, too.
The so-called American independent-cinema movement is largely the creation of studio-owned boutiques, but every once in a while a true indie shows up. Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (at Film Forum) was shot on video and edited on an Apple desktop computer, and, pre-Sundance, supposedly cost $218.32 to produce. It’s a prime example of outsider art—a movie made by someone who simply had to make it (a rare phenomenon). Caouette, now 32, has been documenting his world on film since he was 11, and it’s clear that for him, moviemaking is a form of salvation from a life of horrible dysfunction. Tarnation incorporates twenty years of footage from Caouette’s life into a jangly, hallucinatory jag; it’s as if he were channel-surfing his mindscape. Growing up gay in Texas foster homes, with a schizophrenic mother, Renee, and uncomprehending grandparents, Jonathan created an alternate universe for himself from the oddments of pop culture—grade-Z horror movies, musicals, and Warhol pictures, many of which he excerpts in Tarnation. He includes Super-8 snippets, photo-booth snapshots of himself as a baby with his mother, sequences from his early shorts such as The Ankle Slasher, and clips of himself dressed up as an abused woman or a goth girl. We see him receive the news by telephone that his mother, who now lives with him in Queens, has overdosed on lithium. (He throws up immediately afterward.) By all odds, Tarnation should have been an unwatchable, masochistic morass, but Caouette’s love for the broken Renee—which is the true subject of the film—is awe-inspiring. And there’s a new-style underground sensibility at work here—a fearless instinct for how movies can be tempered to fit one’s own psyche. The technology for making films of this sort is now so cheap that we could be on the verge of a real independent-cinema movement.