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Melancholy Danes

The Shakespearean stage is off-limits to a wannabe actress in 'Stage Beauty'

By Richard von Busack

THE ENGLISH RESTORATION is an especially cinematic era. Yet there have been scarcely any popular films about the age. Perhaps audiences have trouble getting past the clothing and the hairpieces (it was an era in which the ruling class were literally bigwigs). Stage Beauty, director Richard Eyre's cross between Shakespeare in Love and All About Eve, also includes disturbing nuggets (why?) of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract. It has its moments. So did the last cinematic visit to the period, Restoration, but not enough to save that one, either.

Based on Jeffrey Hatcher's play, Stage Beauty concerns the legalization of women on the English stage. The popular transvestite actor Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is a public favorite, particularly as Desdemona in Othello. After hours, Ned is also the secret "mistress" of the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chapin), prime minister and best chum of the king. Maria (Claire Danes), Ned's dresser, loves the actor hopelessly. She also nurses an ambition to act. When the ban is lifted against actresses, Ned becomes obsolete, reduced to performing smutty songs in taverns. Ironically, Maria may be a woman, but she's an untried actress. The two must coach each other. She teaches him how to be a man onstage—and to be a man in the bedroom. While the love scene between Danes and Crudup is ardent enough, there's something about this plot to disquiet gay and straight audiences alike.

The film is well art-directed, anyway, with the mucky crowd scenes, shadowy palaces and rickety, septic theaters. All praise for Richard Griffiths, playing a 1660 version of his deathless Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. With powdered face and cloudlike wigs, Griffiths looks like a vastly obese and lecherous standard poodle. Playing his majesty (with a yapping pack of King Charles spaniels skittering around his feet), Rupert Everett is amusingly jaded and preoccupied.

Danes is constantly improving, and what an attractive visual contrast between the translucent face and that street-fighter's nose. She has learned a lot about Shakespeare since Romeo + Juliet. Still, the play scenes are anachronistic. A real challenge for a director would be to try to show what was in it for the audiences when Shakespeare was acted as he was in the 1600s, complete with artificiality of gesture and intonation. In those days, the actors didn't tear themselves apart onstage, in any case. When Ned changes his roles from leading lady to lead actor, his Othello is strictly post-Olivier, with clipped, spitted-out words.

Yet Crudup is one covert actor. He is one of the best-looking men in the movies, but he is as furtive as Bud Cort. The films that Crudup has picked are almost all worthwhile: Jesus' Son, Waking the Dead, The Hi-Lo Country, World Traveler. If these titles are unfamiliar, part of the reason is Crudup's recessiveness, the way he watches the world from behind impassive black eyes. He's crucially miscast in Stage Beauty. Despite how hard he's worked—and despite the risk he takes—it's hard to get him as the androgynous toast of London. They needed David Bowie, and they got James Taylor.

Stage Beauty (R; 105 min.), directed by Richard Eyre, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, photographed by Andrew Dunn and starring Claire Danes and Billy Crudup, opens Fridat at selected theaters.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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