The Unicorn Scale: Stage Beauty
I’ve been on a bit of a costume drama kick and so it seemed like the right time to dive into Richard Eyre’s 2004 film, Stage Beauty. When writing about this movie, I had to remember to separate my love of pretty movies from my critical look at how bisexuality is represented in the media. If you’re unfamiliar with The Unicorn Scale, we try to rate movies based solely on the quality of their bi representation, because sometimes, no matter how good or bad the film is, you just want to see someone who’s bi like you. Here’s a breakdown of the scale.
If you’re worried about spoilers, stop reading now and go watch Stage Beauty.
The movie follows Maria Hughes (Claire Danes) and Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), two actors who play Shakespeare’s famous women. Set in 17th century England when all roles were played by men, Kynaston is the most acclaimed female impersonator on the stage. Maria Hughes, Kynaston’s dresser, is about to change it all when she dares to put on a play starring herself. Lots of politicking follows and women can act on stage once again. This puts female impersonators like Kynaston out of job. Along the way, the two fall in love, Kynaston learns how to play men’s roles, and they invent method acting.
What I Liked:
Kynaston is clearly bi in this movie. Early on, he is approached by female fans who ask him to ride with them through St. James. They specifically ask him to stay dressed as a woman and they are forced to walk past a small group of male admirers to climb into the carriage. There they ask him to prove that he is a man (and not a castrati) and shenanigans follow. He seems to relish the experience and clearly has played this game more than once. As he leaves the carriage he is propositioned by a man who is surprised, but not turned off, when he learns that Kynaston is not female. Kynaston is clearly used to his femininity being fetishized and enjoys the attention by men and women, but is also conflicted about being treated as a novelty. Beyond establishing that he is bi, I also really appreciate that this is a historical drama that emphasizes there have always been kinky folks and queer folks. Maybe we talked about it differently in the day, but everything wasn’t always decorous just because it happened 400 years ago.
Later that night he meets with George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), his male lover. They banter and clearly have more of a relationship than a quick tryst. Kynaston tells George about being approached by a man on the street earlier in the evening.
“Once he found my cock, off he went” “Wasn’t the case with me,” was his lover’s response.
As they start to have sex, George hands Kynaston a wig and says, “Ned, put this on will you… I like to see a golden flow as I die in you.”
Kynaston asks, “Would you ask your lady whores to wear a wig to bed?”
To which George responds. “If it made them more a woman”
The true seem to have a real affection for each other, but it is also clear that George has a very narrow idea of who Kynaston is. He loves the man he sees dressed as a woman prancing on stage, he loves the contract, he loves Kynaston’s carefully constructed femininity.
As he transitions from playing Desdemona to playing Othello, Kynaston and Maria begin to fall in love. One of my favorite scenes shows Ned trying to explain sex to Maria. His star has fallen and he is stuck being humiliated, putting a peep show, while she is the most popular actress in England. She finds him and pulls him off a stage, rescuing him from the taunting crowd. The two end up in a bedroom together with her cleaning off his stage makeup and tucking him in.
He needs sleep and she says that she will sleep with him, and wearing a very modest underdress goes toward the bed.
“I’ve never slept with a man before.”
“I’ve never slept with a woman… except for myself.” He goes on to clarify “Never slept”
Maria climbs into the bed and soon asks,
“What do men do”
“With Women?” he asks.
Kynaston explains that it depends on who is being “the woman,” even when the sex is between two men. This leads to my favorite scene in which they model potential sex poses asking questions like “Am I the man now, or the woman?” Although I cringe a little at breaking down sex roles to male and female, it allows them to play with different traditional roles while getting to know each other and is charming.
“Am I the man now or the woman?”
Stage Beauty asks us to think about what it means to be “feminine” or “masculine.” The parody of what’s feminine used by Kynaston only serves to emphasize how artificial our gender norms are. In the end, it isn’t a gesture or a garment that defines the person, Kynaston is still a man in a dress. He is a man who can appreciate grace and beauty, but he’s still a man. He loves playing women because everything they do is practiced and beautiful. He thinks that true feeling, that passion, ruins the controlled grace that defines femininity. Maria is outraged by his viewpoint,
“I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought, you just died beautifully. No woman would ever die like that. A woman would fight.”
What I Didn’t Like:
This is a big one. Kynaston starts off being portrayed as a bit or a broken and corrupted figure. He is sexually deviant and clearly conflicted about his relationships. He enjoys sex, but doesn’t really have love. He has the capacity to love men, it seems like he really loves the Duke of Buckingham, but it is made clear that George does not love him. Kynaston accepts the semblance of love that he can get from George. He hates being seen as a novelty, it makes him cynical, misogynistic, and mean.
As he comes to love Maria, he learns to play male roles on stage and he is “fixed.” In the end, he gets on stage as Othello across from Maria’s Desdemona. They wrestle on stage in her dramatic death scene as he overpowers her and seems to murder her. The audience is made to wonder for a second if he really let his rage overtake him until a gasp proves that Maria is still alive.
He has finally learned to be a “real” man. He is assertive, he is aggressive, he is honest, and he finally has sex with Maria. By behaving like a certain kind of man and assuming “masculine” traits he seems cleansed and happy. After he learns to play a man on stage, Maria can truly love him. Being a woman had corrupted him, learning to be a straight man saves him. He is rewarded with applause, acclaim, and finally sex with the woman he loves.
The “happy ending” is Kynaston being saved from his bisexuality, from his gender non-conformity, from his “deviance.”
Stage Beauty really does bring up some interesting questions about how we chose to portray gender and Kynaston is legitimately attracted to men in the beginning. I also like that he doesn’t seem especially ashamed by his attraction to men, nor does he choose to disavow it in the end. Maria knows about his old relationship with George. But his “femininity” (including an attraction to men) is still shown as something corrupting and that he needs to overcome.