Thursday, February 16, 2006

#38 – Femininity as Performance: MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS & TRANSAMERICA * 2/16/06 * The poet Adrienne Rich argued in a classic feminist essay that sexuality really – that is, naturally – is a continuum that we all shuttle back and forth along, and not the rigid boxes that society works so hard to enforce precisely because they are not natural. “White-boy thinking,” she called it. Some movies remind us just how close to performance femininity can be, & also what an enduring tradition that notion has been in our culture. First released theatrically in October 2004, Richard Eyre’s STAGE BEAUTY went into DVD last year. It’s doing well enough that it’s still in the two-day rental sections locally. Set in 17th-century England when male actors played all dramatic roles, STAGE BEAUTY is based on the historical figure of British actor Ned Kynaston. His legendary portrayal of a swooning Desdemona is recreated on-screen, & as Kynaston, actor Billy Crudup shuttles back & forth along that continuum Adrienne Rich spoke of pretty convincingly. Kynaston was also a disciplined craftsman, & STAGE BEAUTY presents his indignant conviction that as such, he & his colleagues were better at playing female roles than real women. This was an age that literally took gender as a made thing, one whose success would be publicly confirmed by applause. Although Kynaston is thrown over by his female challenger (played by Claire Danes) & that exclusionary theater system toppled, there are delicious & astute scenes in which they play out which is the more knowledgeable & the more able to express femininity. STAGE BEAUTY is an intriguing precursor for what’s available on Central New York screens this weekend, and “delicious” is a Dame Judi Densch kind of word you’ll hear in one of the two films that are Oscar-nominated for best actress – films that again remind us how femininity shades into performance. Director Stephen Frear’s MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS has been doing quite well at the Manlius Cinema & makes the multiplex cross-over by opening tomorrow at Carousel Mall. In a role called “Oscar-bait,” Densch plays Laura Henderson, an upper-crust widow who buys a rundown London theatre in the 1930’s & teams up with theatre manager Vivian Van Dam. Based on real figures, between jousts they put on musical revues with naked women & get past the censor by passing them off as artistic still-lifes. In the 1930’s & 40’s (for the story continues into the London Blitz of World War II), advancing in English society required closeting one’s Jewish one’s background. As played superbly by actor Bob Hoskins, Van Dam has got his own role of Gentile down, though Mrs. Henderson figures him out as once. Also opening tomorrow at The Westcott is writer/director Duncan Tucker’s feature debut film, TRANSAMERICA, with Oscar-nominated Felicity Huffman as Bree. Her last minute, reluctantly undertaken detour to meet her long-lost son Toby before gender reassignment surgery generates a road trip from New York to LA by way of the hills of Kentucky and the swimming pools of Arizona. Toby is a surly, scruffy former hustler who discovers Bree’s sexual condition in one of the most ungainly moments imaginable. Then a wolf in hippie’s clothing steals their vehicle & they land on Bree’s parents’ doorstep. If ever a mother offered a feminine role model to rebel against, actress Fionnula Flannagan as Bree’s theatrically hypercontrolling, hysterical mother Elizabeth is that. Now a waffling ad campaign can kill a movie. When THE VILLAGE was opportunistically packaged last year as a monster movie to capitalize on director M. Night Shymalian’s previous films, audiences just felt ripped off. There’s an analogous unease about these movies’ billing. Fortunately, both are strong enough films to survive that, though you may not realize it until you’re still thinking about them days later. In a 2002 interview, the year his DIRTY, PRETTY THINGS was released, the serious Mr. Frears remarked that he couldn’t imagine doing a film set in Britain about the upper-class. But MRS. HENDERSON is really more than a whimsical bit of dance hall nostalgia. Beneath all those tart quips is a story about the prerogatives and missteps of her class and the strain of anti-Semitism among our British cousins that is way closer than is comfortable. Next to that, what does it mean to be “ a lady”? Likewise, TRANSAMERICA was gingerly billed in this morning’s paper as a “dramedy” – as if the hybrid nature of its heroine mirrored the film’s own form. Perhaps it’s that we don’t really know what to do here yet with transsexuals in a mainstream movie. But when I saw this film in January in New York City, even that worldly audience gasped collectively when Bree’s son catches her in the rearview mirror, peeing behind the car, skirt hiked up & girdle pulled down. Bree must learn to speak, walk, dress, move “like” a woman, recalling Ned Kynaston’s craftsmanship in the conscious construction of performance. Yet losing her hormone pills on the road creates panic, & creates a reminder for us that some of this isn’t made up. Interviewed yesterday afternoon on National Public Radio, Felicity Huffman said this tension is what intrigued her enormously about the role – far more than the obvious “transsexuals are people too” message, which she said still left two hours of movie to fill. Both films also use the male body as a foil in their exploration. In one scene at Mrs. Henderson’s theatre, the entire stage crew has gotten naked to make the rehearsing actresses more comfortable, including Van dam. “You ARE Jewish!” notes Mrs. Henderson, glancing at him immediately when she walks in on this. Now it takes being old enough to know that most Gentiles weren’t circumcised in that era to appreciate this line. But it’s Laura Henderson’s class that overrides the decorum of femininity & grants her permission to say it out loud to Van Dam in the presence of others. It’s from a different sense of who she is later that she keeps his secret, after she causes some damage that money & being on a first-name basis with the Lord Chamberlain won’t fix. Just as Bree had tried earnestly to execute her role as Stanley, Laura Henderson makes a serious stab at learning what she’s supposed to do as an aristocratic widow in 1930’s London. Both fail. Both have to sidle over & make a new space for themselves. This necessity is directly the source of each woman’s eventual deep compassion for the struggles of others – Bree for her son Toby & Mrs. Henderson for Van Dam. Now, there might be a lesson in that. * (1,087)