Crossed stars and dressers

Times Staff Writer

Lovers aren't quite as star-crossed these days as they used to be. Writers used to have things like arranged marriages and class barriers to keep their characters apart. Today, they have to make do with psychological love barriers, such as egos, identity confusion and job envy. These days, characters don't have problems so much as issues.

That's what makes Richard Eyre's "Stage Beauty," adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his play, "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," such a sly and witty extended anachronism. The story of a pair of semi-amorous, semi-competitive thespians in Restoration England foiled, among other things, by royal edict, "Stage Beauty" gives us Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), an actor of female roles famous for his exquisitely expiring Desdemona (who dies with the delicacy of a wilting lily), and his adoring dresser Maria (Claire Danes), who harbors secret theatrical ambitions of her own but is barred from the stage by law.

If "Shakespeare in Love" pitted its lovers against harsh and unfair 16th century mores to keep its passion galloping, "Stage Beauty," which is set in the years after King Charles II gets his throne back after an 18-year Puritan interregnum, is strictly contemporary in its love-thwarting. Tarting itself up in poodle wigs and painted-on beauty marks, the movie playfully blends fact, fiction and rampant anachronism to explore modern love, the cult of stardom and sexuality as role play.

Watching Kynaston practice his feminine gestures from the wings, Maria imitates him imitating a girl. To see them in action is to know they don't call them gender roles for nothing.

So, how do you solve a problem like Maria's? She wants to act, but there's no one to teach her. She wants Kynaston, but she wants his job more. This, of course, would present a problem for him. Future drag queens will appreciate Kynaston's looming predicament: He's about to get cast as Bette Davis in the 17th century version of "All About Eve."

After King Charles (Rupert Everett in a cascading mane and pencil mustache) fails to persuade theater owner Mr. Betterton (Tom Wilkinson) to lighten up "Othello" with a few good gags, the king decides to decree some affirmative action instead, just to spice things up. Played by Everett as the epitome of casual omnipotence, slightly amused, slightly annoyed, Charles decides to allow women on the stage as a sop to the church. ("They say actors playing girls' parts promotes sodomy," he says. "Well they know, Kynaston, they're priests.") But Kynaston contemptuously refuses to act with Maria, or any woman for that matter. What he doesn't realize is that the king's lover Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper) has witnessed the diss. Gwynn returns to the palace in a huff, and one very convincing sex act later, his royal highness has barred male actors from playing ladies' roles.

As a love story, "Stage Beauty" is somewhat logier than "Shakespeare in Love," but then that's bound to happen in a romantic tale about the career-obsessed. Once things between the lovers start to simmer, though, Crudup and Danes display a palpable chemistry. Trained by his tutor to be a man in woman's form or a woman in man's form -- he can't remember which -- Kynaston has the "five positions of feminine subjugation" down pat, but he's exiled from his own emotions. Eyre has compared Kynaston's banishment from the stage to the exile of silent movie stars from the screen after the advent of sound in film, and it recalls the plight of anyone whose world has been yanked out from under his feet.

"Stage Beauty" alludes to all sorts of things -- from women in the workplace to drag. Kynaston's lover, the duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), loves the idea of sleeping with an "actress" -- and "Desdemona, Juliet and poor Ophelia" -- better than he loves Kynaston. But the movie is at its breeziest when lightly jabbing at show business. Kynaston is accosted by "fans" who prod and poke each other into speaking to him first, and make bets with each other to reach up his skirt. Maria wants to be "taken as a serious actress," but she's talked into baring her breast for an oil painting and easily takes up with the powdered, bewigged, egg-shaped "arts patron" Sir Charles Sedley (the ever squeal-inducing Richard Griffiths). Finally, there's the cruel brevity of an actor's heat: When Kynaston finally brings himself to ask if his former dresser is any good, Betterton shrugs, "She's a star. She did what she did first. You did what you did last." (Yet no sooner has Maria taken to the stage than a pack of rivals starts scrapping for her thunder. Kynaston may be out, but she's five minutes ago.)

At times, it might seem that "Stage Beauty" is implying that all it takes to make a gay man straight is a romp in bed with Claire Danes. But identifying Kynaston as gay is slightly off the mark. The film seems less concerned with sexual orientation than with the effects of warping stereotypes. Crudup does a great job of pulling off the complicated feat of playing an actor playing a version of womanhood so stylized it's practically Kabuki. As a female impersonator, he's (purposely) several notches below RuPaul. As a man who loses everything but finds himself, he's quite convincing.

Danes too, has a dual role as a strong-willed woman with not-so-strong acting skills, but her "real life" scenes are slightly lackluster. Unlike Tapper, whose bouncy-haired exuberance sucks the attention from the room like a Shop-Vac, Danes drifts wanly between mopiness and resoluteness.

Ultimately, Maria teaches Kynaston to be a man by teaching him to be a woman and Kynaston teaches Maria to be a Method actor more than two centuries before Stella Adler. And once they get the gender roles out of the way, they bring down the house. It's unclear what that's supposed to mean exactly, but it's nice to see the two of them as a couple of Shakespearean actors in love.

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'Stage Beauty'

MPAA rating: R for sexual content and language

Times guidelines: gender-bending sex scenes

Billy Crudup...Ned Kynaston

Claire Danes...Maria

Rupert Everett...King Charles II

Tom Wilkinson...Mr. Betterton

Ben Chaplin...Duke of Buckingham

Hugh Bonneville...Samuel Pepys

Richard Griffiths...Sir Charles Sedley

Zoe Tapper...Nell Gwynn

Lions Gate Films, Qwerty Films and Artisan Entertainment present a Tribeca Production. In association with N1 European Films Produktions GMBC & Co. KG, BBC Films and Artisan Entertain-

ment. Director Richard Eyre. Executive producers Eyre, Michael Kuhn, James D. Stern, Amir Malin, Rachel Cohen. Producers Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Hardy Justice. Screenplay Jeffrey Hatcher. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editor Tariq Anwar. Costumes Tim Hatley. Production design Jim Clay. Art directors Jan Spoczynski, Keith Slot. Set decorator Caroline Smith. Music George Fenton. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

In selected theaters

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