Stage Beauty (2004): Richard Eyre’s Historical Tale of Cross-Dresser, Starring Billy Crudup

Hovering between theater and cinema, didactic sociology and genuine drama, Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty is an anachronistic period piece with higher goals on its mind that the depiction of the turbulent life of Edward Ned Kynaston, the most successful cross-dressing actor in seventeenth-century England.

Despite brisk pacing and efforts to open up the story, in form, Stage Beauty is still a turgid single-set play.

The film tries to cash in on the success of such lavish theatrical properties as Dangerous Liaisons, which was good, nasty entertainment due to its sharp banter, and particularly Shakespeare in Love, a witty romantic comedy that offered an inside look at the theater with Gwyneth Paltrow in a dual part.

Nonetheless, despite these ambitions, Stage Beauty is hampered by endless lectures about sexual politics, gender roles, and the real nature of masculine and feminine behavior.

In the 1660s, Edward “Ned” Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is England’s most celebrated and accomplished “leading lady,” based on his female impersonations of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, Juliet, Ophelia and particularly Desdemona. Benefiting from the rule that forbids women to appear on stage, Ned uses his androgynous beauty and feminine skills in tackling all the classic female roles. But King Charles gets tired of seeing the same old performers in the same old tragedies. To enliven the situation, he allows real women to perform, ruling that men can no longer play women’s parts.

The monarch’s mistress, a saucy Cockney named Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper) is delighted, for she’s stage-struck with ambitions of her own. The new rule also benefits Maria (Claire Danes), Ned’s lovelorn young dresser who, up until then, has been secretly performing at a seedy tavern in lavish costumes borrowed from her employer. Maria is now groomed as the first female star.

For Ned, however, the king’s dictate is bad news, the termination of his career. “What’s the trick of a woman playing a woman,” Ned keeps protesting. Virtually overnight, he plummets from his exalted position as London’s most desirable actor to a nobody. Cast out of the spotlight, Ned is headed for burlesque obscurity, until Maria, now a star, takes it upon herself to make a real man out of him, on stage (as Othello) and off (as a lover).

The filmmakers don’t treat Stage Beauty as a reconstruction of the eccentric life of a sexually confused man, but as a semi serious-semi-droll, semi-comic-semi-tragic occasion to comment on contemporary gender issues, the arbitrary nature of identities as a result of social conditioning. Eyre has a number of serious things on his mind, none of which is expressed with deep insight or real interest. He doesn’t trust his material so he forces the basic situation into a series of conventionally dramatic confessions and revelations. The language is anachronistic, with dialogue that isn’t in period but it isn’t consistently out of period either.

The film’s weakest, borderline banal, scene is when Ned and Maria go to bed, and she asks him, “What do men do in bed” His vague explanation is followed by a literal demonstration of homosexual and heterosexual practices, with Ned on top as a woman, Maria on top as a man, and so on.

With the exception of the actor-manager Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson), none of the secondary characters are appealing. They include King Charles II (played by Rupert Everett in a droll mode), a randy, unselective courtier (Richard Griffiths), a conservative minister (Edward Fox), and George Villiars, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a hypocritical man who has an on-and-off sexual liaison with Ned.

It is not the basic facts in Stage Beauty that are doubted, it’s the way they’re presented. One of the basic problems of the film, which was scripted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his stage play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, is that only at rare intervals does the picture lose its hammering obviousness and the characters express themselves in ordinary human speech. For the most part, the dialogue is unduly declamatory, with the characters making big, long speeches.

The early scenes between Ned and Maria have some edge and are even kinky. But instead of being a teasing and clever divertissement, the movie is heavy-handed. Stage Beauty should have been a snappy film with curlicues of black humor and sharp irony. According to the press notes, Kynaston (ne in 1640) was tutored in the craft of female impersonations by a former actor. We are also told that Kynaston played many male parts and had a long theatrical career, during which he married Maria and became the father of six children.

As good as actors Crudup and Danes are, they can’t overcome the unnatural, false-sounding dialogue, which aims at profound meaningfulness. Too many interminable conversational confrontations are so atrocious that they have to be heard to be disbelieved.

Stage Beauty lacks the wit and eloquence that made Shakespeare in Love so entertaining, and the polished bitchiness that contributed to the fun of watching a movie like Dangerous Liaisons.