Synopsis

The true story of two performers whose careers were changed forever by a shift in gender roles on the British stage comes to the screen in this adaptation of the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher. In London, in the latter half of the 17th century, Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is a noted star of the legitimate theater with an unusual specialty -- at a time when it was considered unseemly for women to work as thespians, Kynaston specialized in female roles, and was described by one writer as the most beautiful woman on the London stage. With the help of his faithful dresser, Maria Hughes (Claire Danes), Kynaston can turn himself into a striking actress in front of the footlights, and is starring opposite Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson) in a production of Shakespeare's Othello when, while still in costume after a performance, he is propositioned by theatrical impresario Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths). The sexually open-minded Sedley isn't discouraged to learn Kynaston is a man, but he is bitterly angered by the actor's flip rejection of his advances. Sedley takes revenge against Kynaston by hiring a gang of criminals to beat him up. With Betterton's production of Othello closed while the leading "lady" recuperates, Hughes sees an opportunity and stages an underground version of the play, casting herself as Desdemona. While she lacks Kynaston's dramatic skills, the daring of her appearance on-stage creates a sensation, and King Charles II (Rupert Everett), a noted theater buff, is so taken with Hughes that he declares women should play women from now on. But as Hughes' star rises, Kynaston's quickly falls, and he becomes a bitter, forgotten man. When the novelty of Hughes' gender wears off and her failings as an thespian become obvious, she turns to her former friend Kynaston, hoping he can teach her to be as good an actress as he was. Stage Beauty's supporting cast includes Ben Chaplin, Edward Fox, and Hugh Bonneville. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

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