'Stage Beauty': Gender-bending play gets disappointingly conventional movie version
Despite elements in common with A Star Is Born, All About Eve, Farewell My Concubine, and the several versions of Victor Victoria, veteran theater, opera, television (Tumbledown), and movie (The Ploughman's Lunch, Iris) director Richard Eyre's and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's Stage Beauty – based on Hatcher's 1999 play Compleat Female Stage Beauty – feels, more than anything, like a Shakespeare in Love reboot.
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.
This important detail, however, may go unnoticed by those eager to be fed, no matter how absurd, big-screen fantasy romance, and who enjoy superficial gender-bending humor with a sprinkle of juvenile sexual situations.
The prettiest leading lady of the 17th-century British stage & other notable personages
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 the Puritans and their radical Christian worldview.
After watching Kynaston's portrayal of the Duke's sister in John Fletcher's tragicomedy The Loyall 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 Eyre's and Hatcher's film, Ned (not Edward) Kynaston, as played by 35-year-old Billy Crudup, is a not-all-that-young actor widely admired for his stage portrayals of female characters.
Offstage, he enjoys/suffers through a love-hate relationship with Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser and an aspiring stage 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.
Transgendered Restoration romantic comedy-drama
Among the 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 character); his lover, notorious actress Nell Gwynn (Zoë Tapper), unhistorically depicted as an actress-wannabe; and George Villiers II, Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), as Kynaston's lover (in real life, their purported relationship 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 is 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, intelligent, and still very much relevant transgendered 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 unique, honest insights into both gender and sexual roles, Richard Eyre and Jeffrey Hatcher have instead focused their big-screen adaptation on the creation of an old-movie romance between two actors who, their off-screen relationship notwithstanding, have little on-screen chemistry.
Having not seen or read the play, I can't tell how much has been changed – or dumbed down – to please the palate of your average moviegoer. What's evident on screen is that whenever Stage Beauty bothers to tackle the plight of gender-based social constraints, the filmmakers' approach comes across as a ploy for potentially tantalizing sexual encounters.
As the story came to a close, this viewer was left even more confused than the pretty befuddled Ned Kynaston.
Is he a bisexual man living in an era when the label – and its multifarious definitions – didn't exist? 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 stressed out throughout much of the film.
Even so, apart from Richard Griffiths' appropriately 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 – Billy Crudup is easily the most effective element in Stage Beauty.
Unlike Claire Danes, who finds herself stuck in a role that alternates between outrage and dewy-eyed sadness, Crudup – described in the film 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, the Almost Famous and Big Fish actor displays the required lightness as the flirtatious off-stage Desdemona (possibly the real-life Margaret Hughes' first stage role), and has a particularly memorable moment of despair, when he unsuccessfully tries to play a male part for the first time. (In real life, the adult Kynaston would enjoy a lengthy career as an actor in male roles.)
Although 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 made a point of saying it, without worrying too much about pleasing the moviegoing masses. Else, they might as well have stuck to conventional, gender-bending-wannabe 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.