Born in London in 1640, Edward “Ned” Kynaston is widely considered the last and possibly the best male actor to play female roles during the Restoration period. Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, is a fictionalized account of Kynaston’s life and his struggle with gender identity after Charles II (Rupert Everett) lifts an 18-year ban prohibiting women from performing on stage. Billy Crudup is Ned, the star of an ongoing production of Shakespeare’s Othello, and Claire Danes is Maria (pronounced Mariah), the dresser who longs to follow in her employer’s fabulous footsteps. Despite a one mannered tic too many, Crudup’s performance as a man empowered by his grip on the public consciousness but who no longer knows what it means to act like a man is impressive. The film itself is best enjoyed as a 17th-century cat fight between “the last man of his kind” and “the first woman of her kind.” Both Crudup and Danes are so good together, especially during a scene where a famous Maria finally understands the tragedy of Ned’s gender divide, that it makes it all the more unfortunate that Stage Beauty plays out as a prissy dissertation on identity politics in Shakespeare’s time from a modernist perspective. Everyone in Eyre’s London is a tart, except that is for the film’s Adam and Eve: Ned has never slept with a woman, Maria has never slept with a man, and when they get into bed together and try to figure out the politics of their bits and pieces, you get a sense that the Freuds, Foucaults, and Rupuals of the world may just spill out of the woman’s uterus. And though Crudup and Danes’s closing scenes together are nothing short of intense, the film would have us believe that realism in the theater was born at this exact moment. It’s all very interesting, but it still feels like a cut-and-dry homework assignment…or a Paula Abdul song.
- Richard Eyre
- Jeffrey Hatcher
- Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Rupert Everett, Edward Fox, Derek Hutchinson, Mark Letheren, Hugh Bonneville, Alice Eve, Fenella Woolgar, David Westhead, Nick Barber, Richard Griffiths, Stephen Marcus
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