While widely compared to Shakespeare in Love, Stage Beauty, struck me as a very different movie. Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy that happens to feature Shakespeare's penchant for gender confusion as a plot device. Stage Beauty, on the other hand, is a drama exploring gender identity which happens to employ a romantic plotline. About all the films share in common are a performance of Shakespeare's play in which a woman takes a leading role.
Confused? Don't be. Stage Beauty is a clever tale set during the restoration of the English Monarchy under Charles II. During this era, only men were allowed to perform onstage, and the best actor at playing women's roles was Ned Kynaston. The conflict in the play is driven when the king makes an edict that women will be allowed to perform, and Ned's assistant, Maria, becomes the first actress on the English stage. Ned's career is ruined, and Maria is quickly joined by other actresses who are much better than her. But the problem is that they all use the same stiff acting style based on formulaic gestures. Ned is enlisted to help Maria improve her skills -- and they finish the film with the climactic murder of Desdemona from Othello.
This is where the great themes of the film come in. Ned has spent his whole life working masculinity out of his every gesture and tone. To play a woman, he has forsaken his masculine identity. But his understanding of women centers around his idealized sense of their beauty. For example, when Maria asks Ned why he doesn't play male roles he replies "Men aren't beautiful. What they do isn't beautiful either. Women do everything beautifully, especially when they die. Men feel far too much. Feeling ruins the effect. Feeling makes it ugly. Perhaps that's why I could never pull off the death scene. I- could never feel it in a way that wouldn't mar the -- I couldn't let the beauty die. Without beauty there's nothing. Who could love that?"
A little bit later, Maria throws this moment of self revelation back in Ned's face when in a fit of anger she shouts "Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak, and swoon, and toss your head but he never taught you how to suffer like a woman, or love like a woman. He trapped a man in a woman's form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died, beautifully. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight!"
Ned's confusion about his gender has led him to be objectified by men and women alike -- in his longing for an idealized beauty, he is made into a sexual trinket to be posessed by the aristocrats of the era. It is only when he realizes that there is more the femininity than beauty that he's able to help Maria transform her performance. Together they put on a show that is radically different from what came before -- and it electrifies the audience.
The film also does a fine job of showing the decadence of the Restoration era -- it is a culture centered around sensation -- not much unlike our own culture.
While The critics are mixed in their evaluation of the film, Tammy and I both thought it was pretty teriffic.
And I have to share one of the greatest lines -- When the king is justifying letting women on the stage, he says that the French have been doing it for years, to which one of his aides replies "Whenever we're about to do something truly horrible, we always say that the French have been doing it for years." Sacre bleu!