'Stage Beauty' Movie: Billy Crudup Unsatisfying Gender Confusion

Stage Beauty Billy Crudup female dragStage Beauty with Billy Crudup in female drag.

'Stage Beauty' movie: Gender-bending play gets disappointing film version

Despite elements in common with A Star Is Born, All About Eve, Farewell My Concubine, and the several versions of Victor Victoria, the movie Stage Beauty – based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty – feels, more than anything, like a reboot of Shakespeare in Love.

Like its predecessor, this 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, directed by Richard Eyre and adapted to the screen by Jeffrey Hatcher (from his own play), is as much of a calculated crowd-pleaser as John Madden's 1998 Best Picture Oscar winner – minus the magical moments. This important detail, however, may go unnoticed by those eager to be fed fantasy romance, superficial gender-bending humor, juvenile sexual situations, and cheap jokes at the expense of the French and the clergy.

'Stage Beauty' plot

The actual premise of Stage Beauty, which happens to have been inspired by real-life characters, is quite interesting: Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), an actor admired for playing female roles, has a love-hate relationship with Margaret Hughes (Claire Danes), an actress who eventually usurps both his stage roles and his fame.

Add to that a dose of sexual fluidity and a touch of sexual confusion, and we could have had an intelligent, transgendered Restoration romantic comedy-drama – surely the first of its kind. But despite some modernistic (and jarring) handheld camera shots and an oh-so-hip score that sounds more techno than baroque, Stage Beauty is in fact a woefully conventional effort.

Stage Beauty movie Billy Crudup'Stage Beauty' movie with Claire Danes and Billy Crudup.

Tame, confusing approach to gender constraints

Instead of offering unique, honest insights into both gender and sexual roles, Richard Eyre and Jeffrey Hatcher have instead focused their efforts on the creation of an old-movie romance between two actors who, their off-screen relationship notwithstanding, have as much on-screen chemistry as oil and water. When Stage Beauty bothers to tackle the plight of gender-based social constraints, that is used as mere ploy for potential sexual encounters.

In the end, I was left even more confused than the befuddled Ned Kynaston. Is he simply bisexual? Or is he a gay man trying to pass for straight? Or 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 when on stage? If so, is Kynaston's attraction to Margaret a form of lesbianism? No wonder Billy Crudup looks so burdened throughout much of the film.

Billy Crudup: Flirtatious Desdemona

Even so, apart from Richard Griffiths' appropriately slimy patron of the arts and Edward Fox's excellent bit as Sir Edward Hyde – Fox is so snottily good that he almost makes the cheap shot against the French funny – Billy Crudup is by far the best element in Stage Beauty. Unlike the intelligent-looking Claire Danes, who is stuck with a role that alternates between outrage and dewy-eyed sadness, Crudup – as “the prettiest woman in the whole house” – is given a more complex, multifaceted character. Although he is too old for the part and at times looks and acts like a 21st-century actor, he has excellent moments of lightness as the flirtatious off-stage Desdemona, and a brilliant moment of despair, when he unsuccessfully tries to play a male role for the first time.

Though hardly a complete failure, Stage Beauty is weighed down by its own pretensions. If Richard Eyre and Jeffrey Hatcher had something new and unique to say, they should have said it. Else, they might as well have stuck to conventional, gender-bending-wannabe romances à la Shakespeare in Love. Happy ending and all.

Stage Beauty (2004).
Dir.: Richard Eyre.
Scr.: Jeffrey Hatcher. From his own 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. Mark Letheren.

Stage Beauty movie cast info via the IMDb.

Claire Danes and Billy Crudup Stage Beauty images: Lionsgate Pictures.

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