Stage Beauty

Everyone knows, if only from watching “Shakespeare in Love,” that female roles in plays were performed by men in Elizabethan England, and women did not appear on stage. Jeffrey Hatcher’s play “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” which he has adapted into a new film that is called “Stage Beauty” and which is directed by Richard Eyre, shows what happened next: In the 1660s, King Charles II lifted the ban, women began acting, and the men whose expertise was in playing female roles were suddenly out of work.

It’s an historical event brimming with comic and dramatic possibilities, and “Stage Beauty,” a droll, tart-tongued film, explores many of them. We find Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), a real-life person who was widely regarded as the finest, most beautiful female performer of his day. His specialty is Desdemona, her death scene drawing standing ovations every night. Kynaston isn’t the lead — that would be Othello, played by Betterton (Tom Wilkinson), the troupe leader and theater owner — but he is the one with the adoring fans and admirers.

Out of his makeup and wigs, Kynaston aggressively defends his heterosexuality, making it clear to all that his femininity ends when the curtain falls … for the most part, anyway. There is the matter of a relationship he has with a certain Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), but the movie hedges its bets on what THAT means.

At any rate, Kynaston’s dresser is a woman named Maria (Claire Danes) who helps him out of his costume when the show’s over then dashes across town to play the same role (she even borrows some of his props) in another production in a seedy little pub. It’s a risk she and the producer are taking: If it’s discovered that the man playing Desdemona is actually a woman, they’re all in trouble.

Well, it is discovered, but King Charles II (Rupert Everett), a foppish man surrounded by small dogs and a “mistress” whose duties I am skeptical of, decides the no-girls-allowed rule is old hat and repeals it. Effectively immediately, women can act onstage!

And with that, Kynaston heads steadily toward unemployment. Women are pouring into the theaters, and no one needs a man to play a female role anymore. Trouble is, that’s how Kynaston was trained. He has all the gestures, all the affectations of femininity down pat. He couldn’t play a man to save his life. And it’s all Maria’s fault.

One of the things I like about the film is that Kynaston is established as something of a homosexual fairly early, thus eliminating the inevitability of him and Maria falling in love that would otherwise be ever-present, the way it always is in films when a man and a woman spar. That said, what disappoints me is the way both of their stories are eventually resolved in that department. I haven’t seen the play it’s based on, so I don’t know if it’s a change, but it sure feels like a “Hollywood ending” to me.

But the film’s treatment of “Othello” is quite enjoyable, including Kynaston and Maria’s eventual discovery of how to make it work in real terms — not with grand, theatrical gestures, but with naturalistic acting. “Method Acting” was a few hundred years off, but still. The underlying principle works, and it works within the film.

Billy Crudup, who was supposed to be the Next Big Thing a few years ago but chose to take interesting roles rather than lucrative ones, reminds us of his potential with a wonderfully funny and believable performance as Kynaston. He truly does play Desdemona with enviable daintiness, and his struggle at maintaining masculinity even when his personal life sometimes contradicts it and his professional life leaves no room for it is touching.

Claire Danes invites comparison to Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love,” and while the comparison is not especially favorable, Danes does give the role the passion and gravitas it needs. More interesting are the supporting roles, including Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon in the “Harry Potter” movies) as a lecherous “patron of the arts,” and Rupert Everett, having the time of his life in a sly performance as the king.

It really is the sort of film that an actor can have fun with. It’s light-hearted enough to let even Serious Actors flex their comedic muscles, but it has enough heart to make it all mean something. We all have to find our roles, don’t we, whether on stage or in life.

B (1 hr., 48 min.; R, some profanity, a little sexuality, brief partial nudity, some mild violence.)