Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ms. Gender Studies

That's what Tabitha calls me when I haven't seen some movie that deals with gender that I probably would want to watch, like The Crying Game or Transamerica. So yesterday, we finally watched Stage Beauty, the 2004 movie with Claire Danes and Billy Crudup. In 17th century London, after years of women being banned from performing on the stage, the king reverses his edict and bans men from playing women. Crudup plays the current most famous lady of the stage, Ned Kynaston, and Danes plays his dresser and aspiring actress Maria. It's kind of like a reversed version of Shakespeare in Love, except instead of a woman playing a man, it's a man playing a woman (and a woman playing a man playing a woman, to ill effect; Maria plays Desdemona like Kynaston and fails to capture the hearts of her audiences).
This is not a totally historically accurate movie, of course. Kynaston really was a famous leading lady, and Margaret Hughes (Maria's stage name) was perhaps the first professional female actress, although not Kynaston's dresser or lover. From what I read, men weren't banned from performing as women, just strongly discouraged or looked down upon. And the acting style that has evolved by the end of the film is much more realistic (a style which didn't really start until the 19th century, I think) than the stylized 17th century performances given on stage at the beginning of the movie. But what the hell, it's a romantic comedy of sorts, right?
What's really interesting is the gender stuff that happens in between or during so many of the inportant scenes. Kynaston's performances, for instance, are a very stylized version of "woman". When Maria first talks to him after he discovers that she's been performing, he asks her if she knows "...the Five Positions of Feminine Subjugation. No? Perhaps you're more acquainted with the Pose of Tragic Acceptance. Or the Demeanor of Awe and Terror. " Another oft-cited line is his: "A woman playing a woman. Where's the trick in that?" (He fails to note that he is not really playing a woman; he is playing a stage version of a woman, which is entirely different. It's like a 17th century drag queen, in truth.) There is a great conversation between the two during which he says he can only act as a woman because then he can act beautifully. He says that men do terrible things, and he wants no part of it. Maria takes on his views of women, telling him that his portrayal of Desdemona is one she has never liked because he never fights, just dies. "A woman would fight!" she screams at him before running from the room. (She shows this quite viscerally later in the film.)
Kynaston shows a rather ambiguous gender and sexuality that is fleshed out as the film progresses. He begins by joining two ladies in a carriage and encouraging them to touch his penis to prove he is not a castrato, but is soon in an empty theater making out with the Duke of Buckingham onstage while wearing a long blond wig. Before an entrance, somebody whispers to him that he is "a man in woman's form. Or is it the other way around?" He seems at a loss himself. One of my favorite scenes (for all that it seemed a slightly implausible scenario) concerns Maria asking him what exactly two men do in bed together. (He claims that with two men, one acts the woman and one acts the man, but whatever... It was supposed to be the 17th century, so I'll let him slide on that one.) What follows is a series of shots of the two in different poses (her sitting on his ass, him holding himself up over her back, then over her front, and so on) with him articulating who is the man and who is the woman. During the final scene, when they are finally and inevitably kissing, she asks him what he is now, and he replies "I don't know" and they both look just fine with that. All in all, a fun and interesting movie that teasingly addresses gender while still telling a good story.

1 comment:

PocaCosa said...

Wow! Thanks for the Netflix addition! :-)