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Sex change
Stage Beauty isn’t just skin deep

Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty lives up to its terrific subject: the moment in theatrical history when women were finally permitted to act on the professional stage. The setting is England during the Restoration, and — as Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay (based on his stage play, The Compleat Stage Beauty) has it — Charles II (Rupert Everett) commands this revolutionary change at the urging of his working-class mistress, Nell Gwyn (Zoë Tapper). But as fine as Everett and Tapper are (especially Everett, whose long, clownish face and elegant basso intonations are oddly reminiscent of a younger Jeremy Irons), Nell and the king are supporting characters in Eyre’s movie. It focuses on Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the last of the great Shakespearean female impersonators, whose career is dismantled by the royal decree, and on his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), whose illicit duplication — born of a long-time adoration — of his celebrated performance as Desdemona, in a tavern playhouse, provokes the uproar that initiates a new era. (There was indeed a Ned Kynaston; Maria, I assume, is Hatcher’s invention.)

Crudup’s delicately impassioned performance is at the heart of this witty and surprisingly plangent examination of the gender joke that Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies swirl around: where is the boundary between the sexes, and just how far can we dare to cross it (and what happens when we do)? Ned embodies a woman so bewitchingly that he has a loyal following among the nobility, among them ladies who invite him out in drag and challenge him to show them proof of his manhood, then lash out when they feel that this low-class actor has made a fool of them. And he has a titled lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), whose attraction to him turns out to be illusion: in bed, he fantasizes about making love to the idealized heroines Ned is famous for enacting. Stage Beauty is like As You Like It or Twelfth Night with its theatrical underpinnings exposed, but it isn’t merely a postmodern conceit; its vision of gender as an open-ended adventure makes it robustly funny, generous of spirit, affecting. When Maria, who rescues Ned after she’s inadvertently robbed him of his livelihood, finally gets him in bed, their explorations of the overlap between hetero- and homo-eroticism are ticklish and full of wonder. This scene takes us a step beyond the marvelous comic moment in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman, in drag, makes a pass at Jessica Lange and scares the hell out of her. (The gifted Danes is at her best in this episode; her acting is on strongest ground — it feels most natural — when she’s playing the comedy in the script.)

The admirable cast includes Tom Wilkinson as the manager of the theater Kynaston is attached to, Hugh Bonneville as the actor’s most eloquent admirer, Samuel Pepys, and the indispensable Richard Griffiths as a vengeful aristocrat. But it’s Crudup’s movie, and he gives a breakthrough performance. I was knocked out when I saw him play Solyony in Three Sisters in New York early on in his career, and his first starring role, in the lamentable Inventing the Abbotts, suggested he might be a striking and unconventional leading man in better material. But movies haven’t been kind to him: his role as the rock star in Almost Famous was badly written, and in Jesus’ Son and Big Fish, he came across as languid and a little sour. In Stage Beauty, he uses his accomplished theatrical technique to pry open the character. As Crudup plays it, Ned’s Desdemona is all flourishes. You might wonder that he could convince anyone he’s a woman, but the performances of the day are thickly stylized, and the movie makes sure we view him in context. Charles’s decree — which not only invites women to act but forbids men to play female roles — challenges Ned to forge an original approach to acting. He coaches Maria to play his old part out of her own experience rather than just recycle his performance; then he partners her on stage. His frightening Othello crashes through the decorum that the presence of real women in the theater has implicitly made démodé. Shakespeare practically invented psychological realism; Crudup’s Kynaston dramatizes the exciting moment when acting caught up with him.

Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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