It's London in the 1660's when women were forbidden by law to appear on the stage. Female roles were played by male actors who were raised and trained for this specialty. The greatest of them is Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) and we meet him on stage while he's playing Desdemona's death scene. Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser, wants two things...to be an actor and to have Ned. When Charles II issues a decree that henceforth women only may play women's roles, Ned's world crashes to the ground. As Ned says, "Where's the art in a woman playing a woman?" Maria's world changes just as radically.
Stage Beauty is a clever movie about theater and gender. Kynaston is a man who plays women who now must learn to play men. He's gay, he's straight, he's bi, and he doesn't think seriously about all that...only that he must act. Maria is a woman who wants to play women but only knows how to play men playing women because that's all she's ever seen. Eventually, Ned shows Maria how to be a woman playing a woman, and Maria shows Ned how to be a man playing a man. And while Ned's nature may not make him a candidate for heterosexual monogamy, it's likely that Ned and Maria will enjoy each other's pleasures and company for a while, as well as new fame.
"Who are you now?" she asks him, after their triumph on the stage, she as Desdemona to his Othello. "I don't know, I don't know," he says, and they both laugh and kiss.
Crudup does an extraordinary job. He plays Desdemona in full costume, he plays Othello, he plays bi, he plays straight, he plays gay. He's believable. Crudup has the looks, the masculinity and the screen presence to become one of Hollywood's pretty star leads like Tom and Brad and Leo, but he spends his time acting in New York and occaisionaly taking quirky screen roles like this one.
Claire Danes brings innocence, ambition and directness to her part, and is excellent.
Stage Beauty also is full of the kind of memorable character actors that only Britain seems to produce, such as Tom Wilkinson, Edward Fox and Rupert Everett. Richard Griffiths almost steals the show as an obese, condescending, malicious, superficial and lascivious old noble who becomes Maria's sponsor and winds up helping both Maria and Ned.