Stage Beauty (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

We felt this film was underrated, although we are at a loss to define the target audience. Whatever it is, we both seem to be in it.

Scoop's notes in white:

The 17th century was a period of turmoil for England. The enlightened rules of Elizabeth and James, the age of Shakespeare, ended early in the century, to be replaced shortly after by a grim and ugly period in which England had no king at all. Oliver Cromwell fomented a civil war, deposed the king, beheaded him, and established a rule of strict Puritan rectitude. It was scarcely more than a generation after the colorful pomp of Elizabethan glory when England degenerated into a place where clever social badinage, lavish wigs, outlandish make-up, colorful costumes and sexual misadventures had about as much place as they do in the Amish community at harvest time. In fact, England was transformed into Amish heaven.

Well, you just knew that wasn't going to last, so eleven years after the king was beheaded, the Puritan revolt crumbled and Charles's son was invited back from the continent to assume the monarchy once again. Freedoms were not only restored, they were expanded. The period after the Puritan republic is called the Restoration, and it was marked by the kind of excessive behavior that inevitably occurs when a period of severe repression is followed by newly permitted freedoms.

If you have a decent education, you have undoubtedly come across the knowledge that in Shakespeare's time the stage roles of women were played by men. When The Restoration came about, the people were hungry for new thrills and new forms of bawdy abandonment - like seeing a beautiful woman's cleavage on stage, for example. The result was a royal edict permitting women to take the stage as women, followed soon after by a proclamation forbidding men to play female parts.

Which brings us to our story.

There was en entire generation of actors who were schooled specifically in the art of portraying women. They were great stars, celebrated by all classes of society. When the new ideas took hold, these actors found themselves cast aside overnight, stripped not only of glory, but of their very livelihood. In truth, this change did not happen in a weekend, as portrayed in the film, but the time-frame compression gave the story a much sharper focus.

The film is about the last of the great male actresses, Ned Kynaston, a real historical character whose story was documented in Pepys's Diaries. It is also about the first of the celebrated female actresses, Mary Hughes, who is purely fictional. As the screenwriter would have it, the two of them also overcame many obstacles, not the least of which was his confused sexuality, to become lovers. In addition to the boy-meets-girl element of the film, the dramatic conflict comes from the fact that Kynaston is laughably unable to act the male parts and Hughes simply can't act at all, and has become a star simply because of the novelty of her gender.

The premise is a spectacularly good one, but the film doesn't dig in as deep as it might. It has an excellent story to tell, and delivers some pretty solid comedy along the way, but the romantic angle really seems cobbled into the story and that makes the film quite uncomfortable in spots.

It seems to me that the story would have worked much better if Kynaston had been pictured as a highly educated and refined man whose job of playing sophisticated ladies was suddenly lost to the unsophisticated prostitutes and tarts who succeeded him in the roles (similar to the would-be actress who played the king's mistress in this film). He would then have been needed to teach the ladies how to be ladies. Indeed, that's pretty much the way it really happened. When the script introduced a fictional Mary Hughes and made her a nice, star-struck middle class girl, it lost all contact with reality. That fantasy is a product of 20th century dreams, not 17th. Movie scripts usually require a bit of contrivance, but it was much too contrived to stretch the truth in that fundamental way, and then also make her a sexual innocent,  and then Kynaston's lover as well.

In a way, this film makes me feel disempowered as a reviewer, because I liked it. It sparkles from time to time, reflecting its obvious inspiration, Shakespeare in Love, which was also about the English stage and gender confusion. But this is not Shakespeare in Love, despite some of the same cast members. (Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett, for example.)  

  • It's too campy and sexually ambiguous to please the people who might enjoy a heartfelt  romantic comedy as a date film. Shakespeare in Love had a great romance targeted at universal audiences. ("This is not real, Will, 'tis a stolen season".) Stage Beauty has confused sex involving contestants in a Cher look-alike contest.

  • Having shut out the date crowd, the film also made the boy-meets-girl element too damned sappy and mainstream to please the arthouse crowd.

Game over.

I don't know why the author felt it necessary to bring these various mismatched people together as lovers, but the resulting script resulted in a good movie that simply has no audience to speak of. As much as I enjoyed the spectacle and the humanity of it, I just can't picture anyone I'd recommend it to, except movie critics, and even then not British movie critics. (See below.)

Frankly, the story probably should have been told on Masterpiece Theater rather than in a theatrical release.



  • Claire Danes shows her breasts twice: her left breast when posing for a painting, her right breast in a downblouse during a sex scene. The side of Danes's hip is also seen in that scene.
  • Zoe Tepper shows her bum.
Tuna's notes in yellow:

Stage Beauty is a British film loosely based on a chapter of history.

Charles II made several changes to the theater, first reopening it after Puritan rule had shut it down, then lifting the ban on women performing on stage, and finally making it illegal for men to play women's roles. This film deals with those events, and includes many real people and situations, but strict historical accuracy was not the goal, and the film includes many things that would have happened many years before or after the time the film takes place.

Billy Crudup plays Edward 'Ned' Kynaston, the best of the female impersonators, and is wowing audiences as Desdemona in Othello. His dresser, Claire Danes, is clearly in love with him, and wants desperately to be an actress. It is her appearance in a tavern as Desdemona that causes Charles II (Rupert Everett) to lift the ban on women on stage. Her desire for Kynaston doesn't seem as promising, as he is having a homosexual relationship with a lord.

With women playing women's parts, Kynaston suddenly finds himself unemployable. Dames is the flavor of the month, but performs her parts mimicking the performances of Kynaston. Finally, Kynaston is persuaded to tutor her. The triumphant ending scene is yet another performance of Othello, with Danes as Desdemona and Kynaston as Othello.

The film is not really a costumer or a historical reenactment, although sets and costumes were excellent. Rather, it is all about love, acting, and sexual identity. Brilliant performances from all of the principals, and excellent editing brought this tale alive. I enjoyed every moment of it.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus two and a half stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

  • British consensus: two stars. Mail 4/10, Telegraph 4/10, Independent 4/10, Guardian 4/10, Times 6/10, Sun 6/10, Express 8/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Arthouse distribution, minimal gross (less than a million dollars). It must have lost money because it was obviously made with a solid budget.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. (Both reviewers.) It is a good yarn beautifully photographed, but will find a very tiny audience.

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