Being a woman is a tough act to follow in this shallow period piece.
Rated R for sexual content and language; 110 minutes.
Opening today at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.
Is acting about putting your inner self onstage? Or is it about putting on a mask and playing pretend?
Those opposing viewpoints slug it out for dominance in the period comedy-drama "Stage Beauty." Unfortunately, nobody wins.
It's 1660, when Charles II (Rupert Everett) is on the British throne and the English theater is the private domain of men, as women are barred by law from public performance. The hottest actor in London is Edward Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who plays female roles - Desdemona is his specialty - so well that his fans wonder if he's really a dude. His dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), knows for sure; she has a crush on Kynaston, as well as a desire to act.
Maria performs Desdemona in a guerrilla theater that catches the king's fancy, so he decrees that women can perform onstage and, when Kynaston's objections offend the king's mistress (Zo' Tapper), bans men from playing women's parts. Instantly, like a squeaky-voiced silent-movie actor after "The Jazz Singer," Kynaston is out of a job. Meanwhile, Maria, based on her novelty as the first "actress," becomes a star - though, she fears, she's not very good.
Crudup, always a fascinating and expressive actor (see "Almost Famous" or "Jesus' Son" for proof), masters the feminine flounces of 17th-century cross-gender acting. Take away the corset and rouge, though, and there's not much there for Crudup to play, as director Richard Eyre ("Iris") and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting his play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty") never get past Kynaston's surface details.
Hatcher's script does a lot of historical name-dropping, from the scenes within Charles II's court to the fly-on-the-wall snooping of diarist Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville). And, like the similarly themed "Shakespeare in Love," this movie features some nice bits of irony, like Charles privately performing in drag or Maria (echoing current movie stars) complaining that posing for a bare-breasted portrait might harm her reputation as "a serious actress."
But while the names and places are authentic, the byplay between Kynaston and Maria is not. Their romance seems arbitrary, particularly after Kynaston's affair with a duke (Ben Chaplin) has been well established. Their big onstage finale - with Maria as Desdemona and Kynaston as Othello, after apparently inventing Method acting in a single afternoon - comes off as unintentionally comic. "Stage Beauty," for all its lofty pretensions, turns out to be all dolled up but rather empty inside.