Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, is a fictionalized account of Edward “Ned” Kynaston’s life and struggle with gender identity after Charles II (Rupert Everett) lifts an 18-year ban prohibiting women from performing on stage. Born in London in 1640, Kynaston is widely considered the last and possibly the best male actor to play female roles during the Restoration period.
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. The film is best enjoyed as a 17th-century cat fight between “the last man of his kind” and “the first woman of her kind.” 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. And he 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 voracious sexual being—except, that is, for Ned and Maria. He’s never slept with a woman, while she’s never slept with a man, and when they get into bed together and try to figure out what to do with 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 has the air of an academic what-if…or a Paula Abdul song.