Edward Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the most celebrated actor in London. He's a sensation, a one-man cult, a rock star for the aristocratic elite, who line up each night to watch his acclaimed performance in Othello. Kynaston, however, isn't playing Iago or the jealous Moor. Under pounds of makeup and a huge curly wig, he plays Desdemona, willowy victim of treachery and hubris, delivering his lines in a high, fluty voice of breathy coyness. During Desdemona's big death scene, what audiences cherish far more than his recitation of Shakespeare is his protracted study of feminine gesture and soul. Stage Beauty is set in the 1660s, when women, by law, weren't allowed to appear on stage. The movie presents cross-dressing actors as an everyday part of the theater, yet there's nothing ordinary about the way that crowds drink in Kynaston's celebrated nightly gender flip-flop. He's an artist and an unlikely sex bomb. Even his lady groupies like to flirt with him in costume.
That the Bard was once performed by all-male casts is the sort of thing you hear about, without much ado, in high school English classes. Stage Beauty, with its boisterous stabs at backstage intrigue, would like to be a companion to the sublime and enlightening theater-world soap opera that was Shakespeare in Love. Kynaston, who's presented as vaguely bisexual but basically gay, has a lovelorn dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), who follows his every move, and mimes his every line, from the side of the stage. She longs to perform herself and after hours she does so, stealing his costume to portray Desdemona in an underground production at a local tavern.
For contemporary audiences, there's a lavish irony at work: It's women performing as women who are forced here to come out of the closet. I wish I could say that Stage Beauty finds something resonant about this dramatic shift in art and life, yet the movie is an odd amalgam of high spirits, lively ambition, and botched execution. At a royal gala, Charles II, played by Rupert Everett in a luscious turn of jaded foppery, decrees a reversal of the famous law. Henceforth, women will appear on stage and, what's more, it is soon declared illegal for men to play women.
The hook of the film should be rooted in the psychological effect this change has on theatergoers. But Stage Beauty approaches the transformation in a scattershot way. Crudup, who displays a sneaky and winsome charm when he's appearing as Desdemona, plays the grousing has-been Kynaston with an aesthete's snobbery that never quite connects, and Maria turns out to be, of all things, a terrible actress. Why give Danes the thankless role of a feminist artist who happens to be no good at what she does? Late in the game, there's an unconvincing flare- up of romance between these two, followed by a performance of Othello that blazes a trail less for women on stage than for the anachronistic glories of Method acting. It's one of many half-baked resolutions in Stage Beauty, a celebration of the theater that tends to drag the moment it's out of drag.