Deliberate bad acting can be tough to pull off. Playing Maria, an enthusiastic but talent-free actress in Richard Eyre’s new costume drama, “Stage Beauty,” Claire Danes does it pretty well. She’s physically graceless, her line readings are dead, and even though she becomes a star, she clearly stinks up the stage when she tries to play Desdemona.
Her co-star, Billy Crudup, is required to do deliberately brilliant acting, especially as the film reaches its finale, and he doesn’t quite pull it off. Cast as Edward “Ned” Kynaston, who played Shakespeare’s female roles in 17th Century London, he must transform both his character and the stage role his character is playing.
It may be that the part is unplayable. Still, Crudup gives it a try, and the effort is worth saluting. The movie itself is also worth a look. For all its patchiness, it’s an attempt at something completely different that nearly works.
The diarist Samuel Pepys claimed that Kynaston was “the loveliest woman on the stage” in 1660; he was trained from youth to suppress his masculinity and emphasize the feminine. When King Charles II (Rupert Everett) lifted the ban on women playing women on the stage, Kynaston was prohibited from playing females.
The movie portrays him as suddenly bereft, rejected by his dresser (Danes), who is secretly infatuated with him, and by his male lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), who claims to have loved him because he could fantasize that he was making love to Juliet or Ophelia. Only by abandoning his training and becoming a “straight” actor can he restore his career.
Comedy of errors?Functioning almost as a sequel to “Shakespeare in Love,” Eyre’s film is based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play, “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” (a more telling title). Hatcher also wrote the script, which replaces the innocent cross-dressing of “Shakespeare in Love” with a bawdy emphasis on female impersonation.
Brazenly stealing “Othello” from the rest of the cast, Crudup’s Kynaston plays Desdemona as if he’d been taking lessons from Tim Curry in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The actor playing Emilia is so tired of being upstaged by Desdemona’s flamboyant death scene that he stomps off the stage, wailing “Emilia dies too, you know.”
In the early scenes, in which she’s not supposed to be acting badly, Danes glows with confidence. Mouthing Desdemona’s dialogue from the wings, she makes Maria’s love for Kynaston (and his art) evident and understandable. She doesn’t yet know that he’s been sleeping with another man, or that he’s been pursued by a bisexual courtier (played by Richard Griffiths with the same anything-goes randiness he brought to “Withnail and I”).
Eyre directed Jim Broadbent to a supporting-actor Oscar in “Iris,” and once more he’s done wonders with the supporting cast. Everett makes Charles’ wig seem an essential part of Charles; when he’s caught without it, he’s unrecognizable. And Edward Fox is hilarious as a grumpy would-be censor who complains that all the corrupting influences in England come directly from France.