Starring: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Richard Griffiths, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, and Tom Wilkinson
Director: Richard Eyre
Writing Credits: Jeffrey Hatcher
Distributor: Lions Gate Films (US 2004)
Rated: R for sexual content and language

If you thought boys-dressing-up-as-girls for fun and profit started when RuPaul proclaimed himself "Supermodel of the World" and climbed the pop charts a decade ago, you're off a four hundred years, give or take. As Richard Eyre's romping new historical drama STAGE BEAUTY attests, there was a time in merry old England when girls were always played by fact, it was illegal for theatres have women performers at all. Many male actors achieved widespread fame in women's roles during the reign of King Charles II; when the hedonistic monarch finally removed the misogynistic ban, however, many of these same actors found themselves out of work, out of the public eye, and outcast from the society that once worshipped them.

And thereby hangs a tale, to paraphrase the Bard. STAGE BEAUTY, based on screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's award-winning play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, vividly captures the end of one social era and the beginnings of another, replete with the attending sexual confusion, gender issues, and powdered wigs (on both sexes) that give the film atmosphere and bite. Leaning heavily on Shakespeare to add some much-needed melodramatic heft, Hatcher and Eyre have created an entertaining but stilted view of an era when men were men, and so were the women.

If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare In Love covered much of the same historical ground, dabbling in gender swapping to enhance its swoony, Oscar-winning romanticism. STAGE BEAUTY is less articulate but more passionate about its subject, trading winsomeness for treacle and witty zing for dramatic substance. The tradeoff is a fair one, I suppose, but what it means is that Eyre has fashioned a historical portrait with blunt, forceful intensity and plain, no-frills metaphors. It is, perhaps, too forceful and too plain.

'Plain' is not, however, a word one would use to describe STAGE BEAUTY's leading man (and lady) Billy Crudup (Almost Famous), who is often astonishing as Ned Kynaston, the last of the period's famous actors who portrayed female characters. Glamorous and vain, Kynaston is also undeniably magnetic and unabashedly sexual; in Crudup's talented hands, it is easy to see why both men and women fell at the celebrated performer's feet. Hatcher frames Kynaston within a modern conception of bisexuality, and the pull between his masculine and feminine selves is often revelatory in showing us the boy inside the man -- a boy who was trained from a very early age to remove all traces of manliness from his demeanor, in order to become a star.

Crudup is a very good actor with a chameleonic flair, but there's a steely quality at his core that often seems impenetrable; perhaps this cool edge makes his revealing final moments in STAGE BEAUTY tolerable, when Eyre finally gives in to the screenplay's melodramatic tides. Whether facing empty relationships, battling with former dresser-turned-rival Maria (Claire Danes), or forcing a rather implausible feel-good ending onto the story, Crudup is both the rudder and the ballast that keeps STAGE BEAUTY afloat. Although the film is a period piece, there's still something troubling about its regressive politic...a subtextual message that girly boys turn gay against their will, and that the love of a good woman will return them to the straight and narrow (pardon the pun). The necessities of romantic comedy aside, STAGE BEAUTY is at odds with itself -- it argues for a deeper understanding of our complex sexual selves...and then acquiesces into a reaffirmation of age-old stereotypes.

Perhaps because of these problems (not to mention an irritating tendency towards cartoonishly overblown comic strokes), STAGE BEAUTY is undoubtedly at its best in its quieter moments, including a transcendent wordless scene where Ned and Maria explore the sensual possibilities of feminine gesture in a remote country house. Defying convention in these brief moments, the film wends through the signifiers of male and female patterning as if they were second skins one could try on or take off at any time. In these rare scenes, one can see the potential in the idea of STAGE BEAUTY, as well as the lines that demarcate Eyre's moderately good film from the extraordinary one it could have been.

Sporting a game supporting cast (especially a hilariously hammy performance by Rupert Everett as King Charles -- you decide for yourself whether it's right or not for the film), STAGE BEAUTY is energetically paced and vivaciously performed, accompanied by George Fenton's galloping score. Though the plot and social conscience of STAGE BEAUTY falters -- there are certainly better plays (M. Butterfly) and better films (Farewell My Concubine) that explore similar issues -- it is nevertheless a film that is hard to completely dislike, despite its flaws. Like the broken and fragile Ned Kynaston, it is best when the light isn't shone directly on it, reducing the harsh glare to a hazy soft glow. Check your critical scorecard at the door, and STAGE BEAUTY can reward you with an afternoon of thoughtful entertainment.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews & the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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