‘Stage Beauty’: Gender-bending & identity-questioning tale gets conventional movie adaptation
Despite elements in common with A Star Is Born, All About Eve, Farewell My Concubine, and the several versions of Victor Victoria, the Germany/U.K./U.S. co-production Stage Beauty – directed by theater, opera, television (Tumbledown), and movie (The Ploughman’s Lunch, Iris) veteran Richard Eyre and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own 1999 play Compleat Female Stage Beauty – feels, more than anything, like a graver-minded Shakespeare in Love rehash.
Like its predecessor, this Restoration-set romantic comedy-drama about cross-gender impersonations on the British stage of centuries past may even succeed in becoming a critical and box office hit – in spite of itself. For Stage Beauty is as much of a calculated crowd-pleaser as John Madden’s 1998 Best Picture Oscar winner, minus the sporadic superlative moments and audience-friendly denouement.
These important details, however, may go unnoticed by those eager to be fed, no matter how absurd, big-screen fantasy romance, in addition to a large dose of superficial gender-bending humor with a sprinkle of juvenile sexual situations.
The loveliest leading lady of the 17th-century British stage
The premise of Stage Beauty was inspired by the life of 17th-century British theater actor Edward Kynaston (c. 1640–1706), one of the young male performers cast in female roles at a time when women were banned from the stage, courtesy of “Protector” George Cromwell and his authoritarian, military-Puritan government. After watching Kynaston’s portrayal of the (unnamed Russian) Duke’s sister in John Fletcher’s tragicomedy The Loyal Subject, noted diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), later in life a Member of Parliament and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, described the actor as “a boy” who “made the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life,” one whose only drawback was a “not very good” voice.
In Stage Beauty, Ned (not Edward) Kynaston, as played by 35-year-old American actor Billy Crudup, is a not-all-that-young performer widely admired for his portrayals of female characters, most notably the unlucky Desdemona in William Shakespeare’s Othello.
Offstage, Ned enjoys/suffers through a love-hate relationship with Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser and an aspiring actress who – as Margaret Hughes (c. 1645–1719), the English stage’s reputed “first professional actress” – eventually usurps both his roles and his social standing.
Notable mid-17th-century personages in ‘transgender Restoration romantic comedy-drama’
Among the other notable 17th-century personages seen in the film are King Charles II in the form of Rupert Everett (who has a little too much fun with his royal character); the king’s lover, notorious performer Nell Gwynn (Zoë Tapper), unhistorically depicted as an actress-wannabe; and George Villiers II, Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), shown as Kynaston’s reticent lover (in real life, their purported liaison was lampooned/rumored).
Best Actor Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, 2001) brings to life noted actor and stage manager Thomas Betterton, while Samuel Pepys is played by Hugh Bonneville. Tom Hollander pops up as portrait painter to the court Peter Lely.
Add to the fictionalized historical proceedings a dose of sexual fluidity and a touch of sexual and identity confusion, and we could have had in Stage Beauty a complex, daring, and still very much relevant transgender Restoration romantic comedy-drama – surely the first of its kind.
But despite some modernistic (and jarring) handheld camera shots and George Fenton’s inappropriate hipish score that sounds more techno than baroque, Stage Beauty is in fact a woefully conventional effort.
Timid & muddled approach to gender constraints
Instead of offering unflinching insights into both gender and sexual roles, Richard Eyre and Jeffrey Hatcher have chosen to focus their feature film adaptation on an old-school romance between two actors who, as it happens (and notwithstanding their off-screen relationship), display little on-screen chemistry.
Having not seen or read Hatcher’s play, I can’t tell how much has been changed (or dumbed down?) to please the palate of your average moviegoer. But what’s evident on screen is that whenever the filmmakers bother to tackle the issue of gender-based social constraints, their approach comes across as a cheesy ploy for potentially tantalizing sexual encounters.
Ultimately, this viewer was left even more confused than the befuddled Ned Kynaston. Who is he? A bisexual man living in an era when the label – and its multifarious definitions – didn’t exist? Or is he a gay man trying to pass for straight? Is he, perhaps, a heterosexual man who happens to be attracted to other men because of all the female roles he has played?
Could it possibly be that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, only able to act like the woman he really is while on stage? If so, is Kynaston’s attraction to Margaret a form of lesbianism? Would the young actress have perceived her own feelings that way?
No wonder Billy Crudup looks so desperately stressed out during much of the film.
Even so, apart from Richard Griffiths’ slimy patron of the arts Charles Sedley and an excellent bit by veteran Edward Fox (The Day of the Jackal, A Doll’s House) as Charles II’s Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde – Fox is so snottily good that he almost makes a cheap shot against the French funny – Crudup is the most effective element in Stage Beauty.
Admittedly, he is much too old for the part and at times looks and acts like a 21st-century performer. Yet unlike Claire Danes, who finds herself stuck in a role that alternates between outrage and dewy-eyed sadness, the Almost Famous and Big Fish actor is given the chance to sink his teeth into a more multifaceted character.
And that he does, coming off particularly well in a couple of radically different sequences: acting all flirtatious as the off-stage Desdemona (possibly the real-life Margaret Hughes’ first stage role) and, later on, falling into utter despair while unsuccessfully trying to play a male part for the first time. (In real life, the adult Edward Kynaston would enjoy a lengthy career as an actor in male roles.)
‘Stage Beauty’ much too concerned with pleasing moviegoers
In all, though hardly a complete failure, Stage Beauty is brought down by the filmmakers’ unwillingness to follow through with their thematic goals. If director Richard Eyre and adapter Jeffrey Hatcher had something new and/or unique to say, they should have made a point of saying it, without worrying too much about pleasing the moviegoing masses.
Else, they might as well have gone all the way to achieve their commercial goals, sticking to the formula of traditional, would-be-gender-bending romances à la Shakespeare in Love. Hollywood happy ending and all.
Stage Beauty (2004)
Dir.: Richard Eyre.
Scr.: Jeffrey Hatcher. From his play Compleat Female Stage Beauty.
Cast: Billy Crudup. Claire Danes. Tom Wilkinson. Ben Chaplin. Rupert Everett. Zoë Tapper. Richard Griffiths. Edward Fox. Hugh Bonneville. Tom Hollander. Alice Eve. Nick Barber. David Westhead. Stephen Marcus. Fenella Woolgar. Mark Letheren. Hermione Gulliford. Clare Higgins. Isabella Calthorpe.
Stage Beauty movie cast info via the IMDb.
Claire Danes and Billy Crudup Stage Beauty images: Lionsgate Pictures.
“Stage Beauty Movie: Gender Identity Issues & Gender-Based Social Constraints Get Conventional Treatment” last updated in April 2019.