After an unintentionally long hiatus, I’m back over on the Wonkomance blog today, talking about one of my favorite movies of all time. Stage Beauty, starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, released in 2004, presumably as a costume drama. While it did feature “real” people (in some obviously exaggerated situations, of course), this weird, wonky historical-set flick is far more of a statement piece on self-identification as pertains to gender and sexuality than it may have intended to be. And I love it.
Ned (played by Billy Crudup) is a visually stunning man. He isn’t overly tall, and in the many scenes where he is only wearing underclothes, the viewer can see there isn’t an ounce of spare flesh on his lean, muscled frame. He isn’t feminine, nor is he androgynous, but he is beautiful, and much of that beauty is in the way Crudup portrays Ned—utterly certain in who he is, thus breeding a misplaced and eventually maladroit confidence when that certainty crumbles.
It’s an ugly crumble, too, when Ned falls apart, but Crudup does it splendidly. Painfully, but splendidly. At the same time, we see Maria (Claire Danes) rise with no little hesitation from her idol’s ashes. She never wanted to destroy him, but in order to do what she loves—act—Ned, as he is at the beginning of the movie, cannot exist. And before my most recent viewing of the film, this was my big take-away from it, what I thought was its most powerful message.
I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t correct, either. While these two couldn’t live in the same role in the same world, because of their genders and sudden political and social changes, it’s more that Ned could not live in that role in that world because he had never been allowed to develop a chance to understand his gender for himself, or even his own sexual preferences.
So then we are left wondering if Ned is gay. Or is he bisexual? Does he even know, himself? On the surface, it seems he gets off on being adored…with the exception of Maria. They have a camaraderie, conspiratorial but not easy, because she is soul-wreckingly in love with him, and he is oblivious to it. There is one early instance where she is lying atop Ned and he makes a move as if to kiss her, his expression curious, as if he’s realizing it’s the most natural impulse in the world but he doesn’t quite know why he’s experiencing it. But she pulls away, and later, when she sees him on the darkened stage with the duke, Danes makes her character’s heartbreak palpable.
Of course, I love the film most of all because of the stunning final twenty minutes, where the protagonists are first in rehearsal and then on stage performing Desdemona’s death scene from Shakespeare’s “Othello.” It is, to this day, probably the best example of powerful Shakespeare as it should always be done that I have ever seen — and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare, both live and on-screen. That death scene alone is worth watching this movie.
Go forth, and be wonky.