- Directed by Richard Eyre and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own play, the uncertain Restoration comedy-drama Stage Beauty tiptoes around the issues of human sexuality and gender identity.
Stage Beauty movie review: Filmmakers’ conventional + hesitant approach dilutes effectiveness of Restoration-set tale spotlighting gender-identity conflicts
Despite elements in common with A Star Is Born, All About Eve, Farewell My Concubine, The Dresser, and the several versions of Victor Victoria, the Germany/U.K./U.S. co-production Stage Beauty – directed by theater, opera, television, and movie veteran Richard Eyre (The Ploughman’s Lunch, Iris) 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.
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 quality 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-boyish, not-all-that-lovely performer who, nevertheless, is widely admired for bringing to life stage 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 the reputed “first professional actress” of the English stage, Margaret Hughes (c. 1645–1719) – eventually usurps both his roles and his social standing.
Notable Restoration personages
Among the other noteworthy 17th-century personages seen in Stage Beauty 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 entertainer 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 rumored/lampooned).
Best Actor Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, 2001) incarnates 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 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, the film is in fact a woefully conventional effort. And a demure one at that.
Timid & muddled handling of gender constraints
Instead of offering insights into gender and sexual orientation constructs, Richard Eyre and Jeffrey Hatcher have chosen to focus their 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, this reviewer can’t tell how much has been changed to please the palate of your average moviegoer. But what’s evident on screen is that whenever the filmmakers bother to deal with the issue of gender-based social constraints, they use it as a ploy for potentially tantalizing sexual encounters. As a consequence of their meandering trepidation, this viewer was left even more confused than the seriously befuddled Ned Kynaston.
Who is he? A gay man trying to pass for straight? A bisexual man living in an era when the label – and its multifarious definitions – didn’t exist? 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 while on stage? If so, is Kynaston’s attraction to Margaret a form of lesbianism? And would the young actress have perceived her own feelings that way?
No wonder Billy Crudup looks like he is a man on the verge throughout much of the film.
Billy Crudup showcase
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 Stage Beauty component.
Admittedly, there’s one major problem with his casting: notions of female beauty and dramatic liberties aside – the anti-actress ban was lifted in 1660, when Kynaston would have been about 20 or so – the Almost Famous and Big Fish actor looks much too old for the part of a youthful stage seductress. Compounding matters, at times he looks and acts just like an early 21st-century performer.
Yet unlike Claire Danes, who finds herself stuck in a role that alternates between petulant outrage and dewy-eyed sadness, Stage Beauty gives Crudup the chance to sink his teeth into a difficult, multifaceted character.
He comes off particularly well in a couple of disparate sequences: acting all flirtatious as the off-stage Desdemona (possibly the real-life Margaret Hughes’ first role) and, later on, falling into 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 in male roles.)
Stage Beauty much too concerned with audiences’ palates
In all, though hardly a complete failure, Stage Beauty is brought down by the filmmakers’ unwillingness to follow through with their thematic purpose.
If Richard Eyre and Jeffrey Hatcher had something new and/or unique to say, they should have said 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, faux-gender-bending romances à la Shakespeare in Love. Hollywood happy ending and all.
Stage Beauty (2004)
Director: Richard Eyre.
Screenplay: 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.
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“Stage Beauty Movie Review” endnotes
John Dryden quote via The Image of Manhood in Early Modern Literature: Viewing the Male, edited by Andrew P. Williams.
Stage Beauty movie cast info via the IMDb.
Ben Chaplin, Claire Danes, and Billy Crudup Stage Beauty images: Lionsgate Pictures.
“Stage Beauty Movie Review: Gender Identity Issues Get Conventional + Muddled Treatment” last updated in August 2020.