Girl Power Challenges Gender-Bending Restoration Actors

Actorly foo-faw: Crudup and Danes
photo: Clive Coote

The screen adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty takes many a historical liberty in yoking together the real-life figures of Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), one of the last men to tread the English boards in drag before Charles II (Rupert Everett) put the kibosh on theatrical gender-bending, and Mrs. Margaret Hughes (Claire Danes), one of the first women to play a woman's role on the Restoration stage. Here, young Maria (as she's known) begins as the pretty-boy star's adoring, somewhat covetous dresser until their fortunes swiftly reverse, though without unduly hindering a cross-dressing backstage romance in the collapsed vein of Shakespeare in Love. Director Eyre indulges all manner of actorly foo-faw and thickly sliced exposition, as when a seedy theater manager paws a nearby breast and growls, "It's illegal to have these onstage." Such straight-talking exigency only lays the groundwork for painfully bawdy panto distractions like Chas's bosomy cockney mistress Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper) and Richard Griffiths's lecherous powdered dandy. Most frustrating, Stage Beauty fumbles XX/XY politics at every turn, from Maria and Nell's anachronistic Girl Power outbursts to the bizarrely retrograde Kynaston character. Surely it can't come as news to the filmmakers that a distinction exists between gender and sexuality?

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