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Stage Beauty

United Kingdom/Germany/United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 10/8/04 (limited)
Running Length: 1:45
MPAA Classification: R (Sexual situations, brief nudity, violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Cast: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Zoe Tapper, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Richard Griffiths
Director: Richard Eyre
Producers: Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Hardy Justice
Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher, based on his play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty"
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: Lions Gate Films

Stage Beauty takes us back to the 1660s and the beginning of the English Reformation. King Charles II (Rupert Everett) has just come back from exile in France and his return heralds change. One of many of the ramifications of Charles' moral laxity is the allowance of women to ascend to the stage and play their own gender; previously, male actors played both sexes. This has potentially grave consequences for men who were trained from boyhood to play women, such as the popular thespian Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who sees his roles go to the upstart actress Maria, a.k.a. Mrs. Hughes (Claire Danes), who used to be his dresser.

Director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting from his stage play) create a world that is part-fact, part-fiction. Many of the characters in Stage Beauty bear the names of real people and several of the events have historical roots. But the essence of the film - a meditation on gender differences and the fluidity of sexuality merged with a romance - is the filmmakers' contrivance. Don't expect to find Maria in the history books; she never existed. And don't believe Stage Beauty's version of how King Charles came to allow women to act on British stages - that's another area in which significant dramatic license was taken.

Hatcher's storyline contains its share of peaks and valleys. The romance between Ned and Maria is a sore point. With the exception of a nice scene in which the two characters engage in some sexual role playing (with Ned, who is used to having sex "as a woman," trying to take the dominant, male part), the love affair often seems as if it was grafted on to the rest of the story to boost mainstream appeal. This also has the unfortunate affect of pushing the more interesting aspects of gender confusion into the background.

Stage Beauty includes a pair of embarrassingly over-the-top scenes that should never have made the final cut in their current form. One is Maria's initial audition. She performs one of Desdemona's soliloquies from "Othello" with the least amount of competence imaginable. An amateur could have done better, and Maria is presented as someone who has studied the theater for years and even appeared in "underground" productions. The other scene is a mirror of this, as Ned, who is used to playing women, attempts to play a scene as the masculine Othello. He begins speaking in a high-pitched whine and uses effeminate hand gestures. Yes, the actors are supposed to be awkward in these scenes, but there's no excuse for them being this awful.

As Ned, Billy Crudup is moderately convincing as a man who is as confused about his sexuality as his gender. (It is apparent that he sleeps with members of both sexes, although his preference may run more to men than women.) Unfortunately, Claire Danes (who formed an off-screen relationship with Crudup during the filming of this movie) is outside of her comfort zone. She seems like Scarlett Johansson in Girl with a Pearl Earring crossed with Reese Witherspoon, although her level of effectiveness is closer to that of the latter than the former. One wonders whether the filmmakers had someone else in mind but settled on Danes because she was the only one willing to waive the "no nudity" clause in her contract. (The nudity is minimal: a couple of brief breast shots.) Supporting performances come from such reliable names of British cinema like Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, and Ben Chaplin. Zoe Tapper leaves a distinct, favorable impression as Charles' saucy mistress, "pretty, witty" Nell Gwynn.

From a visual standpoint, Stage Beauty is an impressive production, doing an excellent job reconstructing the look and feel of 17th century England. Costumes and set design are superlative. This goes part of the way towards limiting the damage caused by some of the script's least credible moments. From time-to-time, an unevenness in tone is evident, as the movie swerves between bawdy farce and melodrama. However, to Eyre's credit, Stage Beauty makes effective use of "Othello" as it builds dramatic tension during a surprisingly compelling climax.

There is a 20th century analog to what happens in Stage Beauty. After women were allowed to act on stage in England, men whose sole function was to play females found themselves unable to continue their careers. Likewise, when talkies replaced silent movies, many stars of the earlier era were unable to adapt and became human relics. Perhaps such obsolescence is built into the creative process. Call it "artistic Darwinism." While this isn't a main point of Stage Beauty, it offers something to ponder.

For every thing that Stage Beauty does right, it fumbles at least one other element, resulting in a movie-going experience that is of the glass half-full/half-empty variety. The exploration of gender - how men see women, women view themselves, and women see men who portray women - is amongst Stage Beauty's most fascinating and underused themes. Those who are looking for a love story along the lines of Shakespeare in Love may be disappointed - Stage Beauty is neither as romantic nor as endearing.

            

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