For virile but bored Stamp, drag-queen role a beauty

September 19, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

All right, Terrence Stamp, you're one of the most handsome men ever born, you've had a distinguished career on stage and screen, you've been seen in the company of some of the world's most beautiful women, and there you are, standing on a bar in the rude and bumptious land of Outback Australia in six-inch heels, pantyhose, a ton of makeup and a wig that cascades to your shoulders. Your lipstick is perfect but your bra strap is really cutting.

What are you thinking?

"Well," says Terrence Stamp, still handsome at 56, "at that moment, I was thinking, 'What am I doing here? I was the great Iago of my generation!' But that was the moment I'd pierced the fear. I'd mastered it."

"It," of course, was his performance as Bernadette, the wise, dignified, older transsexual who is one-third the attraction in Stephan Elliott's just-opened "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen the Desert."

The comedy-drama, now playing at the Rotunda, follows three ** men who make their living dressing as outlandish women on a trek through the desert of Australia to perform a campy stage review at a resort in the inland city of Alice Springs. But Stamp's role of Bernadette is slightly different from those played by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. They're drag queens, or cross dressers; Bernadette is surgically altered, an authentic transsexual.

It's an astonishing turn for an actor who has in past roles -- the angelicly beautiful sailor in "Billy Budd," the neurotic obsessive in "The Collector," the villainous Kryptonite General in "Superman II" -- stood for a kind a heterosexual male pathology.

Stamp admits taking the role not merely for the challenge, but as a career move as well, knowing it would create the kind of sensation apt to get him talked about again.

"It would be kind of fun to get a crack at the kind of roles I haven't been offered lately," he says wistfully.

By that he means he wants to escape the dreariness of his later career, where in such films as the recent "Real McCoy" or even in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" he plays a character of stock English aristocratic villainy.

But Stamp didn't approach Bernadette as just another campy turn. It was essential for him to get inside the head of the character -- in a way, he somewhat acidly says, that the last famous star female impersonator didn't quite get.

"As an English actor, I would categorize 'Tootsie' as a painted man. Never a real woman. [Dustin Hoffman] works from the outside in."

For his part, he could only do it out of "a kind of commitment."

"I happened upon a book -- 'Conundrum' by Jan Morris, a masterpiece -- which contained an insight at a very profound level. It was a very fortuitous start."

(Jan Morris was born James Morris and lived her first 47 years as a man, a successful, Oxford-educated British journalist and family man; then she had her sex altered surgically, and has written ever since as Jan. Her 1974 'Conundrum' is a chronicle of her decision to make the change.)

"The thing that struck me was that she had a very powerful sense that she was a woman. The body was a mistake. Before that I couldn't understand how a person could undergo the agonies of genital change."

Thus, having made a mental adjustment, he found it easier to get through the physical necessities.

"The prelims were not fun," he says somewhat primly. "Full body wax, et cetera, et cetera. Had to shave twice a day, in the morning and at lunch. I had a terrible time with the high heels. Additionally, the undergarments tend to keep you in character."

Stamp insisted on a first-class wig.

"The wig was the key. It had to look right. If it looked like a wig, the whole thing would be absolutely frightful."

Stamp is a majestically calm man, and in a posh Washington restaurant commands attention even if he is no longer widely recognized. His hair is shocking white, his cheekbones as knife-sharp as they were all those years back, and his eyes as blue and clear as bottles of Windex. A few picturesque wrinkles have attached themselves to the otherwise pink skin, but there's none of this nasty aging stuff that assails the rest of us -- the general surrendering of the face to the gravity of the passing years.

Still beautiful then, he can indulge himself in the luxury of a long view on a career that's had its share of ups and downs.

In a sense, he was the Sixties: he broke in in 1962 with "Billy Budd," followed it up with "The Collector," and was very much a part of the hip British scene in that period, hanging out with rock stars and models. On his first trip to Australia, in 1965, his traveling companion was the supermodel Jean Shrimpton.

But he says he knew it would all go away.

"I realized that artists in movies had a lull. When the Sixties ended, and I ended with them, part of me thought: 'This is the lull.' But it coincided with my decision to explore other parts of me. I didn't miss my career; I was exploring my inner landscape. When I came back in '77, I'd been out eight years."

Since then it's been the pleasant life of a cinematic icon, wandering the world in search of interesting roles (he was terrific in Stephen Frears' "The Hit") or stopping, reluctantly, for the occasional bit of Hollywood fluff to keep the mortgage paid ("The Real McCoy.")

"The villain is generally badly written. He's only there to compel the plot line. You have to provide your own subtext. It's so hard to do that over and over."

He confesses to a distinct lack of driving ambition at this point: "There's not a huge engine that's driving me. I just want to have fun."

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