Stage Beauty
Director: Richard Eyre. Cast: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Zo Tapper, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Richard Griffiths, Fenella Woolgar, Alice Eve, Edward Fox, Clare Higgins, Tom Hollander. Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher (based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher).

A Home at the End of the World
Director: Michael Mayer. Cast: Colin Farrell, Dallas Roberts, Robin Wright Penn, Sissy Spacek, Erik Smith, Harris Allan, Matt Frewer, Ryan Donowho. Screenplay: Michael Mayer (based on his novel).

For those of us who tend to grouse that Hollywood doesn't make enough movies about queer people or about the hidden flexibility in concepts like sex and gender, it should be a relief when movies like Michael Mayer's A Home at the End of the World and Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty alight on commercial screens. However, as the tagline for the recent Nicole Kidman thriller/drama Birth reminds us, "Be careful what you wish for." As it happens, Birth itself is gorgeously, fascinatingly curious about the nature of human love and the fact that, under the right circumstances, human needs and drives can attach themselves to almost anyone and starkly refuse to let go. It's a terrific picture, whatever its flaws, and since it opened the same week that Stage Beauty arrived in Ithaca and A Home at the End of the World debuted on DVD, I'm less woebegone than I might have been about the failure of the other two films.

The disappointments of Stage Beauty are a little easier to excuse, because the film is trying to do quite a bit. That's also the problem, unfortunately, because neither Eyre nor screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, adapting his own play, seems to have organized their shared, ample ambitions into any particular order, nor to have noticed how many of these ambitions actively work against each other. Billy Crudup stars here as Ned Kynaston, an acclaimed stage actor during the English Restoration, the period when plays finally returned to public view after eleven long years of dark and empty theaters under Cromwell. It's a fascinating period in British theatrical history, and Stage Beauty initially seems keyed in to how a revived nostalgia for the Elizabethan stage competed with a burgeoning appetite for novelty and progress. Not that Stage Beauty even for a minute presents itself as an anthropological tract, but the same basic dichotomy subsists within Ned's predicament. As per Elizabethan custom, he is a male actor playing female roles in Shakespearean tragedies, and the audiences in Stage Beauty can't get enough of his fey and decorous Desdemona—possibly, but not only, because it's been such a good while since they've seen any Desdemona at all. Ned is soon to become a fossil, but he's also a star attraction. The bravos when he dies are so loud and so long that the Emilia in this production is perpetually grumpy about her delayed entrance and comparative neglect: "I die, too!" she harrumphs to anyone who will listen, which is almost no one.

Meanwhile, however, Ned's dresser Maria (Claire Danes) is using her pittance of a salary to finance a sort of amateur production, also of Othello, taking place in the wee hours at the Cock Pit, a cheekily and unconvincingly named local tavern. Maria appears as Desdemona in this B-grade Othello, and the fact that a (bad) actress appears onstage is what makes this show a hit and a curio on the word-of-mouth circuit around the pub. Actresses were still a verboten concept at this point, and so Maria's exposure is the first of many inevitable plot "twists" in Stage Beauty. There are several more of these to come. After Rupert Everett's saucy King Charles II overturns the interdiction on female performers, Maria is in direct competition with Ned, whose entire career is now jeopardized, no doubt permanently. Eminently foreseeable varieties of bickering and squawking ensue between this couple, but no points for guessing how things turn out.

Stage Beauty has been dogged throughout its production by comparisons to Shakespeare in Love, in which Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola nursed the same theatrical ambitions that Danes' Maria does here, though some sixty-odd years earlier and with Will Shakespeare himself to parry and plead with. You can see why everyone involved with Stage Beauty has been loath to discuss a link between the films, and it's true that for all of their obvious linkages, the pieces have very different tones. In some senses, they are almost total opposites. Shakespeare is a romantic and comedic confection leading up to Viola's triumphant debut, which, in the film's last act, she melancholically discovers will also be her final performance. Stage Beauty, by contrast, largely unfolds while the key characters are all at each other's throats, saying nasty things that are only half-intended to be funny. Mostly, everyone just rues each other's existence. The climax is when things finanlly get happy, making this perhaps the world's only movie in which people fall in love when one pretends to suffocate the other as a career move. The script then abandons the leads—do I reveal too much?—amid what looks like the start of a beautiful friendship, however awkwardly choreographed.

The most interesting thing about Stage Beauty is the nastiness of the middle section, especially as refracted through Crudup's performance. Ned is totally self-involved, he is largely contemptuous of the women he studies and imitates, and when the indifferently gifted Maria turns into a professional rival, he looks like he wants to rip her limb from limb. (Remember, people, this is a comedy—at least sort of.) The casting of Crudup is a tip-off to the strained emotional place where Stage Beauty winds up. This handsome and talented but standoffish actor has practically made a career out of headlining movies whose primary virtue is that they don't go where you're expecting, but whose biggest problem is that the places they do go aren't especially enticing—see Jesus' Son, Waking the Dead, or World Traveler for an idea of what I'm talking about. In other, higher profile movies like Almost Famous and last year's Big Fish, Crudup's allergic resistance to easy pandering was a welcome antidote to the gloppiness around him, but you still don't leave those movies craving the chance to see him again soon. Ned's vindictiveness and his scrupulous, jealous protection of his craft are almost surely, I imagine, what drew Crudup to the movie, and he does an admirable job of suggesting sympathy for the character's situation while refusing any sympathy for Ned himself. His Desdemona, too, is a properly alluring and disconcerting creation, and if there's anything I liked about Stage Beauty, it's that neither Crudup nor the film was overly precious in presenting the central character. S/he is nobody's hero/ine, if you know what I'm saying.

As though to compensate for its vinegary lead actor, however, Stage Beauty pours on the schmaltz almost everywhere else, and to totally desultory effect. Crudup is acting in the movie he'd like to be in, while everyone else casts about trying to determine what movie they are, in fact, in. Ben Chaplin is agreeable to lounging around in his wherewithal, though he has little of interest to say or do. (Well, that's not true, considering how he gets stuck with the world's sourest sweet nothing, slapping a blond wig on top of Crudup's head before penetrating him and sighing, "I like to see a golden flow as I die in you.") Tom Wilkinson is agreeable to hanging around as the requisite Elder British Actor in this ensemble, though his role as actor/producer Thomas Betterton doesn't give him much to chew on, either. Claire Danes gives things a college try, but Stage Beauty sadly proves that she still hasn't made the leap from precociously headstrong presence to fully developed actress; she's been showing more signs lately of what she'll be like as a mature performer, doing some precise character work in The Hours and Igby Goes Down, but she never really gels as Maria. She's too ornery to endear, even with a Gwynethy wig of rolling blonde curls, but she's a little too sweet for us to believe her moments of outrage.

In defense of all the actors, though, the screenplay, photography, production design, and general tone of the film are all huge obstacles to the people appearing in it. Stage Beauty doesn't for a nanosecond feel like a movie that's taking place when the film purports: except, possibly, for Crudup-as-Ned-as-Desdemona, which is such a peculiar and stylized creation you have a hard time pegging it anywhere in time, none of the other actors has a bearing or temperament that feels "period." You try to cut some slack to a film that's working on a limited budget, but the exteriors of the London streets look dingy and hermetic; there is no sense that London continues beyond the purview of each shot. (Quite to the contrary, you can practically sense the script supervisors and craft service installed right around the corner.) The photography, more than being stagebound, feels frankly disorganized—the actors keep getting caught sawing their hands, nervously looking around at each other, and busily occupying space the way that under-directed actors do when they don't know they're on camera and have been crowded into a film with far too many people in it.

Maybe the film is going for that Lion in Winter vibe of proudly creative anachronism—a period scenario that makes an ironic joke out of its modern flavors. But Stage Beauty just isn't acted or filmed with enough precision to earn our trust the way The Lion in Winter does, and nor does it use its dissonant sense of history as an avenue toward shameless entertainment, the way The Lion in Winter does. Hepburn and O'Toole squabbling like The Honeymooners is a ridiculous idea and a completely ingratiating one. Stage Beauty has nothing comparable to offer, and at its worst, it prioritizes its own seriousness (which it never achieves anyway) over any form of audience appeal (which is the best this material can aspire to). The film just isn't fun to watch, and moreover, its basic premise is so historically specific that it doesn't work as a transhistorical piece. Even the small stuff is jumbled: the first thing we learn about Danes' Maria is that she's besotted with Ned's interpretation of Desdemona, but then the whole film turns on the fact that she's actually appalled by it. That Stage Beauty culminates with Ned teaching Maria how to play a woman, while lily-white Ned graduates from playing women to playing Moors, is a cultural-studies conundrum for another day. I am sure the film thinks it's saying something, and if anyone on screen looked like they knew what they were saying, I might have been more convinced myself.

Say this for Stage Beauty, though: it stumbles and looks silly while attempting a complex narrative about some truly distinctive people. Michael Mayer's A Home at the End of the World is an almost stolidly straightforward narrative with little more than one question in its heart: can people happily live outside of social and sexual convention? Again, to be fair, that's kind of a grand question, and this script—adapted by Michael Cunningham from his own novel—parses it a few different ways. What is the place of an adopted child within his new family? How does someone who prematurely loses his parents and his sibling go about replacing them, if that's even an appropriate verb? Most centrally, can three intimately acquainted adults, each of whose desires is a little bit different, nonetheless sustain a workable family group?

The more I think about it, the more I realize what huge stakes this film sets for itself, and therefore how fully it fails to fulfill them. Even if the themes are dense, the storyline resolutely isn't: Bobby and Jonathan are childhood friends who, through a series of accidents and awful luck, become adoptive brothers just as they're getting sexually curious about each other. That's in 1974. Flash forward to 1982, and grown-up Bobby (Colin Farrell) leaves the sticks and re-joins grown-up Jonathan (Dallas Roberts), who now lives in the East Village in New York City, cohabitating with a movie version of a kook named Clare (Robin Wright Penn), who plans to have a baby with Jonathan. He's gay, but they're not into the whole standard nuclear family thing anyway, so no one seems too ruffled about it. Bobby isn't ruffled either, because Cunningham has imagined him just a step or two above Forrest Gump, ogling everything and shuffling around with what seems like a minimum of comprehension. This makes him a pretty easy lay, a sucker for quick commitment, and the last person in the world who's going to ask a tough question. Even when Jonathan gets shifty about the menage--trois, once Bobby has become Clare's bed-buddy. Even when Jonathan gets irritable again, this time because his Mom (Sissy Spacek) seems even comfier in her relationship with Bobby than she is with her biological son. Even when he learns that Jonathan has contracted HIV but would prefer that Bobby not say anything to anyone.

The basic plot-outline of A Home at the End of the World is a little squishy and a little schematic. Rather like Gump—a comparison I'm sure the filmmakers would hate, except perhaps for Robin Wright Penn—the material has a bizarre impulse to sweep across decades of social history (the first scenes are in 1967) without really setting its foot down anywhere, at least not in a way that counts for something and that isn't immersed in a pound of Sweet 'n' Low. The tone is resolutely anecdotal, and peachy-sweet at that. The movie only coughs up a scene when some turning point takes place: someone dies, someone moves, someone opens a business, someone visits, someone leaves, someone gets sick. What is missing completely is what the daily texture of life feels like for these characters, and it's a huge problem for the movie. We just don't have any sense of these characters' lives, and yet their lives are the only thing the movie is about. I simply couldn't think of any reason why the movie's plans for itself should be difficult to realize, but still Mayer & Co. seem to be at a complete loss. The kinds of events that become plot points for this film are the kinds of traumatic crises, or else the kinds of dewey Hallmark moments, that 99% of people respond to in exactly the same ways. So, we keep being prodded to understand Bobby, Jonathan, and Clare as very special people, living out a very unique arrangement, even though all we really learn is that they're stunned in the face of illness and death, googly-eyed when they look at cute children, and pouty when they aren't the center of attention. Do tell.

This is a peculiar lapse for Cunningham to fall victim to, especially since one of the strengths of his novel The Hours (and of Stephen Daldry's admirable film version) is its knack for suggesting the mundane rhythms of its characters' lives even as fairly decisive events take place. We are witness in that book to unannounced visits, significant domestic spats, suicides, and near-suicides, but the emphasis is still on tiny stuff: icing cakes, buying flowers, thinking of sentences, making the crab thing. No one in A Home at the End of the World ever just makes the crab thing. (Maybe they do in the novel; I couldn't say.) Sissy Spacek's mommie dearest comes closest when she teaches Bobby to make a pie, but even this isn't just "making a pie": it's her way of telling him, hey kid, it's cool with me that you, my adopted son, and Jonathan, my biological son, are jerking each other off behind closed doors. In one way, it's a relief to be in a movie that doesn't see mutual masturbation or adolescent experimentation as some colossal Sturm und Drang. But on the other, it's just another way in which the film dissolves all possibility of dramatic conflict. The narrative episodes have almost no relation to each other, and nothing really challenges anything else. This pattern makes the characters worse than enigmas; it makes them the last people imaginable from which you expect or even desire to learn anything. You just watch all their loosely bonded and improbably rosy mornings and evenings and you keep wondering, how far is the planet Earth from here?

Stage Beauty, by contrast, is so full of characters and conflicts that it never emerges from all of them with any kind of identity. The signature scene in the movie, which kind of initiates a romantic bond between Ned and Maria (but doesn't really) and kind of sets the tone for the climactic dialogues about gender (except that sex is hopelessly confused here with gender), is a long interlude in bed when this beautiful man and woman roll around on top of each other, chastely miming all kinds of sexual geometries and coyly asking, "What am I now? What am I now?" As in, am I a woman just because I'm, as they say, on the bottom? Am I a man just because I'm sitting astride? Clearly, this is when the film is trying to clarify its status as a teasing inquiry into sex/gender modalities. But I'd say that what Stage Beauty mostly reveals, especially in this sequence, is how the whole question of what "male" and "female" mean, what "gay" or "straight" might mean, too often collapses into some juvenile giggling about tops and bottoms and bedroom gymnastics. If the film itself radiated some confidence in these scenes and ideas, it might at least be a worthy failure. Unfortunately, the sheepish and unpersuaded looks on Crudup's and Danes' faces lets all the air out of the movie's heart and fatally lodges that air right in the movie's head. "What am I now? What am I now?", the characters in Stage Beauty continue to repeat, all the way to the conclusion. They could well be speaking for their movie—for either movie, really—and the truth is, neither film, for different reasons, has any idea at all. Grades: Stage: C–; Home: D+

Awards for Stage Beauty:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

Awards for A Home at the End of the World:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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