London, 1660. The most popular form of entertainment is the theater. Shakespeare’s plays are playing at a number of different venues, some respectable, some less so. Due to Royal decree, all female roles are played by men. Of these men, Kynaston (Billy Crudup), is widely regarded to be a star, having made the role of Desdemona, in “Othello”, his own. Kynaston’s dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), watches his performance from the wings every night, mimicking his every affected move, wishing the accolades were for her as well. Maria sneaks off to a makeshift theater most evenings to perform in a more rudimentary performance of “Lear”. News of this soon reaches King Charles II (Rupert Everett). At the urging of his new mistress, Nell (Zoe Tapper), he soon decrees that female roles should only be played by females. Kynaston is unsure what he can do, now that he is no longer allowed to practice the craft he has so long perfected.
“Stage Beauty”, directed by Richard Eyre (“Iris”, one of my least favorite film biographies of all time), is a well-produced film with engaging performances.
The film revolves around the two central characters. It is the story of their relationship, their craft, and their troubles. The film is only as good as their performances. And they are quite good. But there is a flaw in each, which detracts from the film.
As Kynaston, Billy Crudup credibly creates a character that is very believable. He is a man who has made a career of playing female roles. He even takes to dressing as a woman when he goes out on the town, to the delight of his admirers, because he feels it is important to maintain the charade. He practices hand movements, inflections, walking, all to simulate the female form. He has perfected the art of dying as a female. All of these ‘technical’ aspects of the role are easily handled by Crudup, one of the best actors working today. He also seems to easily don wig, makeup and dress, to become a woman. When the King opens up the theater to women, therefore robbing him of his roles, we feel Kynaston’s loss and shock.
There is a scene early in the film in which two female admirers rush backstage to meet Kynaston. Ogling him, they eventually get him to agree to a ride in their carriage. This scene is a bit funny, but it is also unfortunate, because it serves to highlight all of the ways in which Crudup’s character doesn’t resemble a woman. Sitting next to the two women, we see that he wears too much makeup, his face is far too angular, and he doesn’t resemble a woman. How did he fool these other women? In order for something like this to work, we have to feel that he could fool his adoring public. If he can’t fool us for even a second, how can he fool them for years and years? Yes, they may have been less knowledgeable about these things in the 1660s, but I find it difficult to believe they would buy Crudup as a woman. He looks like a tarted-up whore.
Claire Danes plays Maria. She is very devoted to her job, but also longs for something more. She wants to act, not for the stardom, necessarily, but for the challenge. After helping Kynaston change clothes, she rushes to a makeshift theater to perform, as Desdemona, in a more rudimentary version of “Othello”. Much to her surprise, word of her performance begins to travel, causing everyone to rethink the rules. During the course of the story, Maria shifts from a confidant, willing to sneak in a performance here and there, to a woman interested in becoming the star. The shift is not a gradual one and it is a bit jarring. A more natural, longer transition would have aided the role and the film considerably.
Smoother transitions in both of the main characters would have added to the film immeasurably. I almost got the sense that the film was trimmed, perhaps due to budget restrictions. The film is a bit short for a period drama. I think it runs about 100 minutes. It was also produced independently, so perhaps this theory is plausible. If these two problems had been worked out, the film could easily qualify as a great film. Most people watching this film won’t be bothered by this.
The supporting cast is also very good. Of the group, Tom Wilkinson, as Betterton, the owner of Kynaston’s theater, is the least memorable. Rupert Everett clearly has a grand old time playing Charles II. Lounging in bed with a dozen yapping dogs, dressed as a woman for a play with his mistress, who is dressed as a man, and more, Everett clearly relishes playing Royalty for the fool. It is a funny and amusing performance. Richard Griffiths is also very good as a pompous, bored member of the upper class. As Sir Charles Sedley, he walks around trying to create amusement for himself. Ben Chaplin plays George Villars, the Duke of Buckingham, Kynaston’s closeted lover. He and Crudup are quite good verbally sparring with one another in public.
“Beauty” is a beauty to look at. The stage, backstage areas, the Royal palace, a country estate. Everything looks authentic, adding greatly to the quality of the film.
“Stage Beauty” is a very good film. If a little more attention had been paid to the main characters, it would have been a great film. All in all, definitely worth renting.