17th Century blogger Samuel Pepys called stage actor Edward Kynaston 'the loveliest lady that ever I saw'. Ned Kynaston's career playing women ended abruptly when King Charles II decreed that women, for the first time on English stages, could perform the women's roles. Richard Eyre's film Stage Beauty—written by Jeffrey Hatcher from his play Compleat Female Stage Beauty—examines the vicissitudes of fame for two dedicated actors: one on his way out and one on her way in.
Billy Crudup plays Kynaston with a lithe, confident sensuality. To modern ears, his falsetto delivery will takes some adjusting, but Crudup's performance skillfully evokes what we may imagine a Kynaston performance to be. Claire Danes plays Maria, Kynaston's dresser and an actor moonlighting with an underground tavern company. Petty politics benefit Maria, and soon Ned and Maria are bitter rivals, despite their flowering sexual tension. The climactic embrace of method acting is nothing if not historically dubious, but Eyre taps the exuberant vein of Shakespeare in Love to reasonably good effect.
Eyre allows Hatcher to lay the themes on a bit too thickly, but there are plenty of fine witticisms and gender-bending ironies. Maria must learn how to act the part of a woman by studying the great actor's movements. Sexuality becomes not only fluid but hopelessly confused, onstage and off. By the final fadeout, a lack of personal gender identity qualifies as a personal triumph.