A female theatre dresser creates a stir and sparks a revolution in seventeenth century London theatre by playing Desedmona in Othello. But what will become of the male actor she once worked for and eventually replaced?
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Based in the 1660's of London's theaters, this film is about the rules of gender roles in theatre production, and means to change them for everyone's benefit. Ned Kynaston is the assumedly gay cross-dressing actor who has been playing female parts in plays for years, particularly Desdemona in Othello, he also has a close relationship with a member of the Royal Court, the Duke of Buckingham. One day however, the rules of only men playing women could change when aspiring actress Maria auditions as Kynaston's praised role, Desdemona, and soon enough, King Charles II decides to make the law that all female roles should be played only by women. Maria becomes a star, while Ned finds himself out of work. But after a while, Ned finds it in his nature to forgive Maria's aspiration, they may even fall in love, and Charles may proclaim women will be played by either gender. Written by
Inspired very loosely by true events, with many characters based on actual personalities from the seventeenth-century stage. Ned Kynaston did play female roles, but also played male roles before and after women were allowed on stage. He would have been 20 in 1660, when the first woman appeared on stage. Margaret Hughes (Maria) is supposed to have been the first woman to appear in a stage production, aged 30. She did appear as Desdemona in Othello, on December 8 at the theater on Vere Street operated by the King's Company, whose manager was Thomas Killigrew, not Thomas Betterton as the film shows. Betterton was a successful theater manager later, but was only 25 in 1660. Other characters also were not historically the age that they appear to be in the film - Nell Gwynn would have been 10. See more »
When Samuel Pepys is telling Kynaston to play a man's role, Kynaston's lips are out of sync with his speech in some shots. See more »
King Charles II:
My astronomers tell me that a star's light shines on long after it has died, even though it doesn't know it.
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A Fascinating Search for What Is Male/Female On Stage
"Stage Beauty" is a clever and moving combination of the period feel of "Shakespeare in Love" and the themes of "A Double Life." In the latter, Ronald Colman is an actor who immerses himself into his role as Othello and, as in "Beauty," continually repeats and reinterprets the murder scene, with increasing realism.
The emphasis here is on male/female gender roles on stage from just before to just after women are allowed on stage. Playwright/screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's choice to use "Othello" as his prism is significant on many levels.
All the characters agree that the productions of the play at this time in the 1660's already included the artifice that the Moor is portrayed in blackface, though this is a serious drama of passion and not one of the lighter comedies or romances with hidden or mistaken identity. The final presentation of the key scene does have the on-screen audience terrified that the actors' animosity has led to all pretense being abandoned.
Hatcher simplifies the gender issues by focusing on a play where the leads, "Desdemona" and "Othello," are unambiguous in their sexual poles, which makes Billy Crudup's "Ned Kynaston" tortured self-discovery to move from one role to the other particularly fascinating. The movie includes a brief, comic debate about the ramifications of "Rosalind" in "As You Like It" in a time where a male actor would be portraying a Shakespearean heroine disguised as a man, in what we now consider 'trouser roles' (like "Portia" in "Merchant of Venice" or Viola in "Twelfth Night").
Set in the period of the Stuart Restoration when kings are in and out of exile and a brash cockney mistress masquerades as the queen, though Nell Gwynn's influence is doubtless exaggerated, the mise en scene is a society where all are play-acting in wigs and make-up. Ben Chaplin's Duke of Buckingham, in a much more leonine role that his milquetoasts in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" or "Birthday Girl," wryly demonstrates as he cynically moves from an affair with "Kynaston" to a rich marriage.
Claire Danes's contrasting naturalness is luminous as she has no doubts about her femininity, but is frustrated in getting Kynaston to perceive it, and not just as another artifice. While it is an asymptotic flirtation as his sexuality is left indeterminate, it is marvelous to watch "Kynaston" tentatively and painfully learn to explore his masculine side that was suppressed since childhood, on stage and off.
The conclusion seems a cri de coeur for audiences to accept gay actors as "Stanley Kowalski" in "A Streetcar Named Desire," to get across that no matter how naturalistic the acting, it is still pretend.
Director Richard Eyre's camera work swirls around a bit too much to animate the choice dialogue, but there are also outdoor scenes of dirt, violence and cruelty that open up the action from the play, thus showing the theater as a refuge from reality.
George Fenton's score sounded marvelously appropriate to the period.
Crudup's and Danes's British accents are unfortunately a bit too bland, but convincing.
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