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
"All the world's a stage," wrote the Bard, "and all the men and women merely players that strut and fret their hour upon the stage."
"Stage Beauty" is set in the world of seventeenth-century Restoration theatre, but the stage serves as a microcosm for life itself, and the roles played by the actors before the public mirror the roles they play in their private lives. The question is, do they create their roles, or do their roles create them?
Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is an actor who takes on women's roles, since real women are not permitted to do so. He has been thoroughly trained and schooled in the then highly stylized technique of portraying women -- to such an extent that any trace of masculinity seems to have been drummed out of him.
His dresser Maria (Clare Danes) yearns to be an actress herself, but is prevented from doing so by the narrow conventions of Puritan England -- until Charles II is restored to the throne and decrees that, henceforth, real women shall play women's roles on the stage. A whole new world opens up for Maria, but it looks like curtains for Ned.
What happens next is pure anachronism: Ned and Maria are able to rise above the limitations and constraints of their era. Not only do they transcend their gender or sex roles, but they overcome their classical training and, in effect, engage in Method acting, a technique still three hundred years away in the far-distant future. When he teaches Maria how to break the mold and play Othello's Desdemona in a whole new, natural way, Ned becomes a seventeenth-century Stanislavsky.
But, by George, it works. Their performance of the celebrated death scene from "Othello" sends shock waves through an audience accustomed to pantomime and exaggerated gestures -- and it electrifies us as well.
Not since Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love" have an actor and actress so shimmered and shone simultaneously on stage and screen. One hopes that Billy Crudup and Clare Danes will be remembered for their luminous performances at the 2005 Academy Awards.
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