Tuesday, April 26, 2005

move reviews

Two movies in two weekends! This never happens. Not that we actually got out to watch them in a theatre--that would be too much--but, still. At the conference the weekend before last, the movie was Hitch, on pay-per-view in the hotel room, with friends. Picture four middle-aged academics (sorry, R. that's what we are now!) flopped on the luxurious Hilton beds, laughing over Will Smith. I laughed until I cried, more than once.

Then this past weekend, Stage Beauty. Again, Billy Crudup is eye candy, definitely worth watching, even in drag. (Though, in drag he's actually a little scary-looking, if you ask me.) But this one didn't make me laugh. In fact, it's a mess. It seems to begin with the premise that gender is a role, playable by anyone who bothers to learn the rules. But soon we learn the rules have mostly to do with the "five attitudes of feminine submission" (not an exact quote, but close). That is, femininity has mostly to do with submission. OK, fair enough in Restoration England, I suppose. But it gets worse. Crudup's character is "feminized" by his beauty, his love of beauty, and his sexual submissiveness. We get the sense that he was abused in childhood and thus "damaged," thus feminized. Nice.

Anyway, the movie begins in a sort of titillating, "weren't those people from the past decadent" sort of way. Kynaston (the Crudup character) is attractive to both men and women, and he obliges both. Upper-class men and women alike are somewhat disgusting: overly madeup, over-powdered wigs, over-interested in his plumbing, as it were. Out of makeup, Crudup looks like a modern man set against all these decadent aristocrats of the past. (This seems typical of Hollywood treatments of history: the more "like us" someone is, the better.) It's hard to tell what the movie is "about" at this point, except "aren't they creepy," which only takes you so far.

But then there's the whole question of role-playing as well. Kynaston/Crudup can play a woman better than the "real" woman, "Margaret Hughes" (Claire Danes). She gets to play Desdemona only because it's a novelty to have a real woman on the stage, but she's actually terrible. (Her terribleness, however, consists in imitating Kynaston rather than trying to interpret the role herself. That is, a woman imitating a man imitating a woman is less convincing than a man imitating a woman. Makes sense to me.)

At some point the movie shifts from a sort of gothic mode to farce. The king (Charles II) is a witless fop, controlled by his mistress. Both appear in drag, but not the kind Kynaston does--there's no effort to conceal, but rather to point up the differences between themselves and "real" men and women. And from here on out, gender starts to seem like an essential rather than an inessential quality: Hughes still can't play a woman convincingly, but she realizes it and tries to quit the stage. The point is, she's just a bad actress, not an unconvincing woman, as she earlier seemed. Kynaston is reduced to playing in drag in a tavern, since he can't get a job acting legit theatre since he can't convincingly play a man on stage. (Hmm.) But then: miracle of miracles! Kynaston and Hughes get together! (Well, of course, right? It's all about getting Billy Crudup and Claire Danes together, of course!) And when they do, he is no longer feminized--and she can finally play a woman convincingly. And the way they do it? Play the Desdemona's death scene realistically. Oh, that's all it took!? If Kynaston (oh, yeah, in blackface, which naturally makes him even manlier) can just get all aggressive with a woman, and Hughes can just really feel what it's like to fight for her life, then the gender roles miraculously sort themselves out in a really sexy way.

Sigh. So let me get this straight. Cross-dressers are really gay. Women are really submissive. And if men get violent with women then they are fulfilling their "real" roles and all will be well. And modern acting is "realistic" in ways that Restoration acting wasn't.

I'm no stickler for historical accuracy, but this just seemed like a travesty to me. It's conservative, and it's depressing. And it made Hitch seem even better, maybe, than it was. After all, in Hitch the Will Smith character coaches men to be nice to women: pay attention, listen to what they say, do some of the things they want to do. And do it with some conviction. And when that happens, romance can bloom. When Hitch takes his own advice, he still messes up when he's not paying attention to her responses, but when everyone acts their best selves, things work out. (You know, this film has things in common with the surprisingly feminist Ever After, also directed by Andy Tennant.) I know it's a totally heterosexist romance--either gay couples already know how to pay attention to each other, or Hitch/Will Smith would just be out of his depth with them--but in other ways it was really quite sweet and optimistic. (Plus we get to see Kevin James dance uninhibitedly, and I love to see a fat man dance. Why is that?) Whereas Stage Beauty just left a bad taste.

No comments: