"Stage Beauty," 11/08/04
Last night we went to the Oriental Theatre to see "Stage Beauty." We enjoyed the film and found it to be better than reviewed, although not without flaws. Part, I think, of the allegations of miscasting stems from the movie's misquoting of Samuel Pepys as having supposedly written that Edward Kynaston was "the most beautiful woman on the London stage," when what he actually wrote, describing a particular performance, was that Kynaston was "the prettiest girl in the room," which is quite different. Given 17th century standards of health and beauty, I could accept that Billy Crudup might pass that muster in a small assembly. Unfortunately, it is quite plain in the first scene that he doesn't reach the higher standard, since Mark Letheren, who plays Emilia to Crudup's Desdemona, is a better looking woman than Crudup. Ironically, in his male guise, Crudup's sharp profile, long jaw, and Cro-Magnon brows aren't so obvious. Where Crudup excels is in voice, mannerism, and gesture, which has very few faults when he is "in character" as his female persona. His portrayal of Edward Kynaston is somewhat undercut by the fantasy notions of the script, in which he alleges that he was ruthlessly schooled by his old master to purge masculine gestures and nuances. Nevertheless, when in male guise offstage, he seems quite a "normal" man. It is only in an excruciating scene where he first tries to act the man's role onstage that it appears he cannot surpress his litany of feminine actions.
I can't find any fault with Claire Danes as the ambitious Maria, Kynaston's ambitious dresser, who steals his gowns, props, role and eventual place on stage to become the first authorized actress. Her fresh natural beauty is a great contrast to the artificial image created by Kynaston and one can see why playgoers might have appreciated it, were it not that in reality, on stage in those days, she would have been just as covered in harsh makeup as he was.
The plot takes great liberty with historical events. King Charles did indeed permit women on stage, but that was eight years before meeting Nell Gwynne, whom the film plays as a major instigator of the King's new edict.
The plot deals sensitively with the upheaval in the lives of Ned, who's become a has-been, and Maria, who's become a star while doubting her actual worthiness. That they deal with this in part by basically inventing method acting 350 years before its time is another one of the fantasies, although the final "Othello" death scene is in fact electifying.
A great supporting performance was given by Rupert Everett as King James. He manages to make stalking the palace halls in long curly wig and high ribboned shoes, preceded by his pack of fluffy spaniels, formidable and kingly. Other stong supporting performances by Richard Griffiths ("Uncle Vernon Dursley" in the Harry Potter movies) as the spiteful Sir Charles Sedley, Zoe Tapper very sprightly as Nell Gwynne, and Fenella Woolgar ("Bright Young Things") and Alice Eve as a pair of spoiled and ignoble young noblewomen.
The film was technically generally very good, and shows research into the acting conventions of the time. Glitches were small--the density and color of character's makeup varies from scene to scene in the same sequence more than differences in lighting account for, which I found disappointing, but shruggable.
Includes some minor nudity, and a very long, mostly suggestive, and rather funny sex scene in which Maria "makes a man" of Ned. Recommended for fans of the theatre who are not purists.