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‘Stage Beauty’ (2004): A favorite Restoration drama (Saturday Film Review)

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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.

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The affection Kynaston has for his pretty young dresser is evident, but his attentions are divided.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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 Sir Edward Hyde (Edward Fox) listens as King Charles II (Rupert Everett) issues a proclamation that from hitherto, all female roles will be played by women–a great blow to “stage beauty” Kynaston.

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?

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Maria takes in Ned after his Fortune turns an unfavorable face on him.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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.

OT: Need a feel-good fantasy film? Catch “Stardust”

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Are you looking for a feel-good movie that has wit, charm, humor, intelligence, a bit of swashbuckling derring-do and sweet romance? A film offering beautiful location scenery (Scotland, England and Iceland) and a talented cast of Brit and American actors giving memorable performances?

Then might I suggest 2007’s Stardust, a delightful fantasy film centered around the magical kingdom of Stormhold. There’s a race by scheming witches, fratricidal princes and a young man infatuated with the village beauty to capture a star which collided and bonded with a gem as it fell to earth. The witches want the star in order to reclaim their long-ago lost youth; the princes want the gem so they can become the next king of Stormhold and the young man, Tristan, wants to capture the star for the girl he fancies to prove his devotion to her.

The original theatrical poster for Stardust.

There’s a problem: Tristan (Charlie Cox) lives in the village of Wall, and he is never supposed to cross over the wall into Stormhold.  His father Dunstan (Nathaniel Parker) reveals that Tristan’s mother was from Stormhold, and she left a Babylon candle for her son, which will allow him to travel to any desired destination.

He lights it and is transported to the location of the star. Much to his surprise, it has a human form, that of a lovely young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes).  Much to Yvaine’s dismay, Tristan takes her prisoner, intending to return to his sweetheart Victoria with Yvaine as her gift.

Of course, things do not go as the young man has planned, and a great adventure gets underway that involves a magical inn, a flying ship of pirates who capture lightning, led by Captain Shakespeare (Robert DeNiro) and more.

Yvainne (Claire Danes) and Tristan (Charlie Cox) are served by Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) as they enjoy a meal upon his flying ship.

Danes is absolutely incandescent as Yvaine, even without the help of special effects (her bleached-out eyebrows do take some getting used to, I must admit). Cox is a sweet and likeable hero who undergoes an attractive physical transformation in the course of the film.

Michelle Pfeiffer has great fun as the eldest witch, Lamia, who uses what is left of the three witches’ last captured star to restore her beauty as she tries to chase down the celestial body.  Mark Strong is a villain to watch as Septimus, the prince who is pitted against the other remaining brother Primus (Jason Flemying)  in an effort to capture the throne. The other five brothers, including Rupert Everett and Julian Rhind-Tutt, are now ghosts (having done each other in) who look in as a sort of Greek chorus and provide amusing commentary on the proceedings.  And the narrator for the film is none other than Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen.

Mark Strong as bad boy prince Septimus.

The film is based on a 1998 book of the same name by Neil Gamain. Gamain gave his approval to trim portions of the rather large novel to keep the film a reasonable length. The author said he also agreed to a larger dose of whimsy and humor in the film than is found in his book. The author said he preferred the filmmakers depart somewhat from the book and craft an enjoyable film, rather than attempting to slavishly follow the source material and ultimately fail.  I have not read the book but I can certainly attest to the creation of a very enjoyable movie.

The film is currently airing on Showtime in the U.S., and is available through Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. It is also available on DVD and Blu-ray at very reasonable prices through Amazon.

It’s something the whole family could enjoy together and it’s definitely not just a chick flick. I could easily see Mr. FL sitting down with me to watch Stardust.  This romantic fantasy-dramedy really has a magical quality all its own. Highly recommended.

Danes as Yvaine.