Claire Danes and Billy Crudup as theatrical dresser Maria and celebrated actor Edward “Ned” Kynaston in the 2004 American-British-German production “Stage Beauty.” Their characters are based on the real Kynaston and Margaret Hughes, who become the first woman to take on leading female roles in the period.
Set in early 1660’s England during the reign of Charles II, this sumptuous, sometimes bawdy and often thought-provoking romantic costume drama focuses on the changes wrought in the lives of a proud and narcissistic actor known for his “stage beauty” roles, and a star-struck young female dresser who longs for what is forbidden at the time: a career on stage.
There is an obvious attraction between Ned and Maria, who can barely conceal the clear adoration she feels for the actor. Ned, however, is a charming flirt who dallies with both men and women and is currently involved with handsome, dashing George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin).
Kynaston’s sexuality in the film is ambiguous. Taken off the street as a small child by a “tutor” who trained many young boys in the art of playing a stage beauty, he seems most comfortable playing the female on stage and in life. His lover Buckingham clearly sees him as a woman, asking him to wear Desdemona’s flowing fair locks during their liaisons. Ned is proud of his ability to convince audiences it is quintessentially a woman they see on stage whenever he performs.
The affection Kynaston has for his pretty young dresser is evident, but his attentions are divided.
Following a tryst, Buckingham (Chaplin) shares a copy of the broadsheet promoting Mrs. Hughes with his lover, Ned Kynaston,
However, the times, they are a-changing. Ned is surprised to learn a certain “Mrs. Hughes” is appearing at a London tavern, playing the very Shakespearean female roles for which he is famous, and drawing crowds. But surely she can hardly be a threat to the celebrated Ned, so schooled in all the arts of playing a woman? And anyway, women are forbidden to appear on a legitimate stage. Why should he worry?
At a dinner, Kynaston discovers the mysterious Mrs. Hughes is, in fact, his own Maria, who has been moonlighting at the tavern. An arrogant Ned is quick to display his incredulity that his dresser could possibly play the part of Desdemona with any believability. “What is the art in a woman playing a woman?” Ned asks.
However, the King’s feisty mistress, former orange-seller Nell Gwynne (Zoe Tapper, pictured above) champions Maria’s cause and encourages Charles to not only allow the dresser to play the role on stage, but to also consider banning men from playing any female roles.
Maria, as the first of her kind, a genuine stage beauty, becomes the toast of London, admired by luminaries such as diarist Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) and immortalized on canvas by court portraitist Sir Peter Lely (Tom Hollander).
Ned’s fortunes, however, take a definite turn for the worst. Shut out from playing the only types of roles he knows, beaten for making a foppish aristocrat look a fool and reduced to performing bawdy songs in a seedy burlesque theatre to earn a crust, Ned has fallen far from grace. Maria reaches out to help the man for whom she still cares deeply.
Will Maria be able to help Ned resurrect his career and will he help her with her own weaknesses as a performer? And can Ned learn to find satisfaction in playing masculine roles on stage–and perhaps, in life?
Maria takes in Ned after his Fortune turns an unfavorable face on him.
The chemistry between Danes and Crudup is palpable; the two actually left their respective partners for each other and for a time became an item offscreen during the filming.
At the time Stage Beauty premiered, many reviewers targeted is as another film where a gay man is “turned straight” by the love of a good woman. This is a simplistic view. In a time when sexual roles were not so clearly defined and intimate attachments could be formed with members of the same sex without necessarily experiencing society’s reprisals, Ned in the film isn’t defined as being “straight” or “gay.” The character’s sexuality has a certain fluidity, shall we say. The film also closes on an ambiguous note that is perfectly in tune with the rest of the script.
Stage Beauty is an entertaining fictionalized account of some real-life figures during a fascinating period of English history. It offers a witty, literate script, strong performances by the two leads, and many fine supporting performances by faces familiar to those who love British/period drama. It’s one of my favorite films and one too frequently underrated by the critics.
And now, for the real Kynaston and Hughes . . .
The real Edward Kynaston (1640-1712) was thought to be a bisexual who had liaisons with both women and men, including the Duke of Buckingham. Later, he married and had children. Unlike in the film, Kynaston actually played both male and female characters earlier in his career, but was particularly noted for playing a convincing female (in spite of some issues with his voice). He was described by Samuel Pepys as “the prettiest woman in the whole house” and “the handsomest man.” He also continued to have success on stage even after the introduction of actresses into the theatre.
Margaret Hughes (c. 1645-1719) described as a “mighty pretty woman” by contemporaries, has frequently been credited as the first professional actress on the English stage. Hughes played Desdemona in a performance of Othello in 1669 seen by Pepys. She was 25 at the time her portrait was painted by Lely, a scene featured in the film. Margaret had several lovers, but the most famous was Prince Rupert, Duke of Cumberland, also known as “Rupert of the Rhine.” She had a long-term affair with the Duke and bore him a daughter, Ruperta, whom he acknowledged. For years, Margaret lived a lavish lifestyle with her lover, who left the bulk of his estate to Margaret and Ruperta. Her continued love of gambling and the good life led to rather straitened circumstances later in life.
The film is based on the play The Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, who also wrote the film’s screenplay.