Stage Beauty (2005)
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"Who thought all this crud up?"
Stage Beauty is a fascinating look at London in the mid 15th Century. A time when female roles in the theater were performed by men and it was unlawful for women to perform on stage. The story centers around a real actor named Ned Kynaston who was celebrated as the finest and most beautiful actor to portray women of his age. Jeffrey Hatcher adapts his own play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" into a lively and moving film filled with humor, insight and a saucy dose of British ribaldry.
Billy Crudup is Kynaston, something of a Prima Donna who is waited upon hand and foot by his doting dresser Maria (Claire Danes). Maria watches her mentor from the wings, studies his every move and has Shakespeare well memorized. As we begin Kynaston is starring as Desdemona in a big production of Othello, who is portrayed by the theater's owner Betterton (Tom Wilkinson). One night after the play two young female fans of aristocratic station beg their way backstage and invite Kynaston out for a ride etc. etc.
After a bit of randy business in the carriage, Kynaston is dropped off and at once accosted by the girls uncle, a lecherous patron of the arts played by Richard Griffiths. The Uncle mistakes Kynaston for a prostitute and even after discovering "a guardian at the gate" as Kynaston describes his own male member, still expresses an interest in making the actor his mistress. Kynaston turns the naughty nobleman away with a barb or two, but will pay for his sharp tongue in the second act.
Meanwhile Maria has dashed off to a pub-turned-theater where she is playing the part of Desdemona to raves from a drunken audience unaccustomed to such high brow theater. No sooner does she take her bows, than she has to dash back to the Theater to help Kynaston off with his costume. King Charles the II (Rupert Everett) is also a great man for the theater and has fallen under the spell of one of his young mistresses who regularly performs for his Nibs and aspires to a career as an actress. Using her womanly talents she managed to prevail upon the King and before you can say "happy ending" has convinced him to overturn the law against women in the theater.
The concept of women in the theater spreads like wildfire and it isn't long before Maria has replaced her mentor in Betterton's production of Othello and Kynaston (along with his fellow female-part actors) are soon out of work. Another more personal consequence hits home for Kynaston when his lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) is no longer interested. In one of Crudup's more affecting scenes, Chaplin explains to him that he never considered their relationship to be homosexual, because he never made love to him anywhere but in a stage bed with Crudup in costume. Robbed of his profession and his love, Kynaston hits the skids and after an unsuccessful bid at playing men's parts, he winds up on a seedy burlesque stage where the character hidden beneath his bloomers is the star of the show.
Credit Crudup for making this fanciful business believable and real. This is a fun and juicy role and he wrings every last delicious drop from it. The part calls for callousness and sensitivity, confidence and vulnerability and in a perfect world his performance would fetch award nominations. For an actor who could very well have taken the lucrative route to the kind of stardom enjoyed by a Ben Affleck or Colin Farrel, he's instead gone after more interesting roles. Occasionally he pops up in higher profile film (Almost Famous, Big Fish) but for the most part his film choices bespeak someone more interested in being an actor than a star.
In fact all of the players in this most impressive cast turn in terrific performances, particularly Danes who doesn't shy away from some sexually aggressive scenes that call for nudity. The scenes in which she and Crudup explore the many subtleties of sexual identity are well played and Hatcher's writing is not only strong but manages to raise a number of thought-provoking insight into such matters.
By establishing Kynaston as a homosexual, Hatcher at least for a time sidesteps the obvious cliché, whereby Crudup and Danes engage in the obligatory conflict and then find that they can't live without each other. Danes does eventually track him down and rescues him from his besotted state, and takes him to an out of the way farmhouse where he can sleep of his newfound fondness for strong spirits. Kind of an Elizabethan rehab. Eventually the story does veer back into these well worn grooves and the resolution does come off as a bit pat. The plot converges as circumstances force Kynaston and Maria onto the stage together playing Desdemona and Othello according to their gender. And though it smacks of a Hollywood ending, it's somewhat more satisfying due to the metamorphosis they both undergo as actors.
As a result of these two people being at such vulnerable points in their lives, their passion propels them beyond the rigid strictures of the acting methods of the day and together they stumble headlong upon real acting. All of which comes as a great shock, not only to themselves but to everyone in the audience - including the King himself. So do the two star-crossed thespians, walk off into the sunset? Banish the thought, faithful and cherished partisan, O' that I should cobble at thy sweet and sacred spoils, alas sever the hand unto such horrid treachery wouldth labor. A scholar of Shakespeare I'm not.
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