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Movie Report: Stage Beauty

Your Humble Blogger finally got around to seeing Stage Beauty, the film of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty. I enjoyed it a lot, much more than I had anticipated. There was a bit of annoying Acting! but not as much as there might have been. And there was a lot of very interesting stuff, about the theater, and the audience, and sex, and gender. Mostly about sex and gender. Those Gentle Readers who miss the discussion on Jed’s famous How do you know your gender? thread can start all over again with this movie.

The story is about Ned Kynaston, a Restoration actor who has been trained from youth to play Shakespearian heroines in the old style from before they closed the theaters. The movie opens, more or less, with Othello V,ii. We will see that scene many, many times over the course of the movie, with different actors and characters; it’s the scene where the Moor kills his young bride. “Put out the light, and then put out the light.” Mr. Kynaston is a wonderful Desdemona in that old style, he is a superstar diva with groupies, etc, etc. But the next thing you know the King (Charles the Two, curse him) has put a stop to cross-dressing on the public stage, and Mr. Kynaston is out of a job, etc, etc, women playing women, etc, etc, und so weiter und so fort.

One thing that struck me about the movie is that for a movie with a lot of men who have sex with men, there aren’t any homosexuals, the way that I think of them. Mr. K himself likes to have sex with men whilst dressed as a woman; when asked what men and men do together, he responds that it depends which one is the woman. His primary lover, the Earl of Buckingham, says that he fucks Desdemona and Cleopatra and Ophelia when he fucks Mr. K, and if he is not a beautiful heroine, there is no attraction. Even the ponce Sir Charles Sedley, who is only mildly put off by discovering a street whore is a man, is not attracted to men dressed as men. There are women who are attracted to Mr. K only when he is dressed as a woman, and a woman who is attracted to him in both guises, but they are not (shown as) attracted to women dressed as women. There aren’t any women dressed as men—well, the King’s mistress, Nell Gwynn, is dressed as a man for one rather amazing scene, while the King is dressed as a woman, for amateur theatricals rather than for sex, although it is rather distantly implied that their cross-dressing is a kind of foreplay as well.

And, of course, there’s the fact that for us, watching the movie from our twenty-first century perspective, the lace and ribbons and wigs and makeup and jewelry of a gentleman’s dress appear very, very feminine. Sir Charles, specifically, is crimped and primped within an inch of his life, and is withal the most lecherous man in the show, and perhaps the most masculine. Depending on what constitutes masculinity. And the most feminine? Hard to say. Nell Gwynne is crude and vulgar, but feels a sort of sisterhood that feels culturally womanly, if not necessarily feminine. Possibly it’s Maria, although one of the gags of the movie is that she can’t portray the Compleat Female Stage Beauty properly, the way Ned Kynaston can.

Beauty, femininity, masculinity. The play shows not only how they are cultural constructs, but how they are fluid and ill-defined, only dimly understood and resisted as much as accepted. But powerful, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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