“Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls ...”
That godforsaken Blur song could be the theme song for Stage Beauty. This gender-bending, frilly-frocked period piece doesn’t feature any Brit-pop — have mercy — but those lyrics basically summarize the plot of this muddled but amusing take on theater in 17th-century London.
Billy Crudup plays Ned Kynaston, an actor hailed for his Desdemona and known as the most beautiful “woman” on the English stage, as no real woman was legally allowed to perform.
However, the actor throws a hissy when his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), inadvertently starts a theatrical revolution after playing Desdemona in a pub. “A woman playing a woman. Where’s the trick in that?” Kynaston asks.
Maria, who’s been mad-crushing on Kynaston, sparks a royal upheaval that ends with the king not only allowing women on stage, but forbidding men from portraying women.
Kynaston is left washed up. Years of training himself to act as a woman have left him unable to embrace himself as a man. But Maria isn’t much better off. She’s so accustomed to watching men act as women that her Desdemona is a ridiculous masculine version of Kynaston’s portrayal. She’s a girl acting like a boy acting like a girl.
For those of you thinking, My So-Called Shakespeare in Love: This movie doesn’t ooze as much humor, charm and romance as the Oscar-winning Paltrow/Fiennes production. Stage Beauty is also more tragic than its Elizabethan predecessor. But there are many funny moments, especially those involving the bawdy King Charles II (Rupert Everett) and his naughty mistress Nell (Zoe Tapper) — let’s just say Nell knows how to work the crown to get what she wants.
Crudup is dynamic as he takes Kynaston’s overinflated ego on a nosedive; he twists and contorts while struggling to act in a man’s role. It’s as if he’s attempting to physically wring the Desdemona out of his body. In the end, his gender and sexual preference are uncertain. When Maria asks him, “What about now, are you a man or a woman?” Kynaston replies with an honest, “I don’t know.”
As brilliant as Crudup is, the movie’s Hollywood ending feels contrived. It seems unlikely that Kynaston’s bruised ego could heal enough for him to forgive and fall in love with Maria. Crudup’s Kynaston is much more fully developed than Danes’ Maria, who falters between naïveté and feistiness.
Crudup is overdue to steal the spotlight. His turns in Almost Famous and Big Fish were notable but did not give him room to be outstanding. While Stage Beauty may not be Oscar-worthy, at least Crudup proves he is.
Showing, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].