Sometimes, popular culture shifts in such a way that it leaves whole classes of entertainers gasping for relevance. Someone brings sound into motion pictures, and the unemployment lines fill with expressive faces with no gift for dialogue. Dylan goes electric, and wispy-voiced protest singers head back to the coffee shops in confusion. The English Restoration brought a similar change to the theaters of London: After being closed by Oliver Cromwell, they reopened under the returned Charles II, and they soon abandoned the legal restrictions that prevented female actors from taking the stage, much to the distress of the men who'd made their names as women.
Edward Kynaston was such a man. Samuel Pepys' diary remarks on Kynaston's remarkable craft, and history notes that he later made the successful transition into male roles, though it records little of how he did so. Adapting Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Iris director Richard Eyre attempts to fill in the blanks. His film, Stage Beauty, gives Kynaston (Billy Crudup) a female dresser (Claire Danes) who harbors a desire to tread the boards herself, and ties it all into the colorful private life of Charles II, played with gusto by Rupert Everett. As historical speculation, it's clever enough. As a film, it glows with flop-sweat.
Miscasting carries much of the blame. Elsewhere, Crudup has proven himself a sensitive actor, but androgyny has never been one of his gifts. Even when he's in full drag, his feminine wiles seem unlikely to have any allure outside of prison, and even there, he'd probably have some competition. Danes' greatest strength, an ability to convey vulnerability that makes her look constantly on the verge of tears, works against her here. As an actress, she never seems to possess the self-confidence needed to play an actress.
The film lacks confidence, too: It emphasizes elaborate costumes and sets over dramatic intimacy, robbing Hatcher's dialogue of its snap. Eyre treats all but the most obviously comic situations as moments of high seriousness, and, since the most obviously comic moments involve newcomer Zoe Tapper playing royal mistress Nell Gwynn in a shine-yer-shoes-guv'ner accent, this doesn't work out so well. Stage Beauty looks pretty and suggests that much could be done with the sexual ambiguities intrinsic to the Restoration stage. But all that will have to wait for another movie.