January 20, 2005 -- “Stage Beauty” is a film reminiscent of “Shakespeare in Love,” in that it has a lot of Shakespeare in it, it takes place in England, and it has a lot to do with that old practice of men playing women on stage. “Stage Beauty” isn't nearly as funny as “Shakespeare in Love,” however. It is more like a deadly serious version of “Victor Victoria.”
The story concerns a young woman, Maria, played by Claire Danes of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” who would like to be an actress, but women are not allowed on stage. She therefore goes on stage anyway, at an obscure theater, where she languishes in forced anonymity. Her idol is Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup of “Almost Famous”), considered the best drag queen on the London stage. He is so good as a female impersonator that many people think he's a woman. When they meet, Kynaston imperiously tells Maria that she does not know how to play a woman on stage.
Because of some hard-core sexual politics, the rule is reversed and women are allowed to appear on stage. Not only that, but men are no longer allowed to play women. Suddenly, Kynaston finds himself out of a job. Maria steals his role as Desdemona in “Othello.” But, even though she is the toast of the London stage, something is missing from her performances.
Since Kynaston no longer can play women on stage, he must play male roles if he wants to keep acting. The story would have us believe he's been playing women so long he can't act like a man. Now that's a stretch. Circumstances throw Kynaston and Maria together as they try to help each other be better actors. Miraculously, they discover method acting 300 years before Marlon Brando popularized it, another stretch.
The story overworks the sexual role-playing angle, in fact, it beats you over the head with it until you are beaten, bloodied and bored. The film is slow-paced and overlong, but is rescued by great performances by Daines and Cruddup, who both turn in perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cruddup is amazing. This is one of those roles that actors kill for, and Cruddup hits it out of the park. An underrated actor, he should get more good scripts after this performance. Also good is Tom Wilkinson of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” as the stage manager, Betterton. The film also benefits from beautiful sets and costumes and a nice musical score as well by George Fenton (“Sweet Home Alabama”). This film rates a B.
For more information on this film, including trailer, the plot, the players, the premiere, views, click on this link to the official home page of Stage Beauty.