Stage Beauty (9/10)

by Tony Medley

This is based on the true story of the person 17th Century diarist Samuel Pepys called “the prettiest woman in the whole house.” Who was it? Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), a man. In those days, just post-Cromwell, the puritanical dictator who overthrew Charles I, beheaded him, and rammed his morality down the throats of the English, women were not allowed on the stage, so men played all the roles, including female roles.

Ned is the toast of London when we join the story in 1660, performing as  Shakespeare’s female leads, most notably, Othello’s Desdemona. Then disaster struck, Charles II (Rupert Everett, playing Charles as a foppish playboy), who had taken over when Cromwell was deposed, decreed that women could play women on the stage and, further, that men could not, terminating Cromwell’s decree, which had been in effect for 18 years. Ned finds himself without a profession. In addition, almost as bad, his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), is his successor, as she becomes the first woman to appear on the London stage!

Director Richard Eyre recreates 17th century London beautifully. A set was built on the grounds of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a building that dates from around 1690. It offered a courtyard where they could recreate the streets of London. Interestingly, not much is known of London in 1660 because the Great London fire occurred in 1665, so much of the set is supposition. Still, it’s effectively realistic.

Eyre doesn’t just present a typical period piece. He creates a frenetic pace by the use of hand held cameras, resulting in a light-hearted, almost comedic ambience.

Danes and Crudup are supported by a terrific cast, with Tom Wilkinson as theater owner, Betterton, and Edward Fox as the King’s counsel, Sir Edward Hyde, Richard Griffiths as the venal Sir Charles Sedley, and Hugh Bonneville as Pepys, among many others.

Kudos will go to Crudup for his scintillating interpretation of Kynaston, but Danes is his equal. Maria is in love with Ned, but she’s also ambitious and the conflicting emotions wreak havoc with her.

One weakness of the film is the speculation of a homosexual relationship with George Villiars (misspelled in the cast; the correct spelling is Villiers), Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). I’m not aware of any evidence that either Kynaston or Villiers was gay, other than the fact that Kynaston played female roles on the stage. On the contrary, Villiers, for his part, was an arrogant womanizer, who was married. In fact, he was notorious for an affair with the widow of the Duke of Shrewsbury, whose husband Villiers had killed in a duel. The playing of female roles was a male job under Cromwell. Actors are actors, and good actors can portray women without being gay, much like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982) and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). Similarly, they can portray homosexuals without being homosexual, like Williams in The Birdcage (1996). So I think this film would have been stronger if they had left out the vague possibility that Kynaston might have been homosexual. The story would be even more appealing if Kynaston were portrayed as a heterosexual male playing female parts. After the decree of Charles II denied him his profession as a player of female roles, the real Kynaston became a leading actor portraying male roles, married, and had children. Finally, diarist Pepys said that that Kynaston was also “the handsomest man in the house.”

Although not much detail is known of Kynaston’s life, he is mentioned in several historical documents in addition to Pepys. This film uses what is known efficaciously, including his brutal beating in a park, instigated by Sedley.

Eyre didn’t consider himself a prisoner of the period, so the film is startlingly contemporary. Clearly, the Method-style acting we see of Ned and Maria in the film’s climactic performance of Othello, looks more like it came from the 20th Century’s Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler than from 17th Century Shakespeare.

On the negative side, the film loses its pace somewhat in the second half with some slow scenes. Cut 15 minutes from the 105-minute running time, take out the gratuitous speculation about a homosexual relationship with Villiers, and you have something approaching the perfect movie.

October 12, 2004

The End