It’s a dubious honour for a film to be voted, as it was by Phoenix film critics, the most overlooked film of the year. But by the time Richard Eyre’s film got to Phoenix, it was already struggling in the wake of Shakespeare in Love, which pretty much ticked everyone’s literary/period box for a while. That’s a pity because Stage Beauty is an unusually literate drama which has a cool take on the war between the sexes.
Based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, the subject is the ban on women performing on-stage during their reign of King Charles II (Rupert Everett). The talented Maria (Claire Danes) works backstage, but knows she could take the spotlight, which is otherwise occupied by Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), whose female impersonation makes him an ideal Desdemona for Othello. When the King’s attitudes are changed, albeit not for any noble reason, Maria’s career flourishes while Ned’s languishes in the doldrums; the pattern of A Star is Born offers a few amusing parallels.
Support is top drawer, with Edward Fox dispensing a couple of choice lines, Tom Wilkinson as Othello (‘I’m not actually black’ he confesses to little attention), Tom Hollander, Ben Chaplin, Alice Eve and Hugh Bonneville making up the backbone of a strong starting eleven. Stage Beauty has quite a pedigree, a BBC production with Robert De Niro amongst the producers, and maybe it proved too highbrow for the masses, yet it’s romantic, acerbic and has something interesting to say about how men perceive women and vice versa.
Eyre is seen as something of a national treasure in the UK, and yet his two best films (this and The Ploughman’s Lunch) are arguably his least celebrated. And while Homeland has made Danes a deserved household name, Crudup is awards-worthy in his performance, utterly convincing as a female impersonator. He’s an agile, under-rated actor, always just off the front rank, who really shouldn’t be overlooked by critics or audiences for this kind of peerless work. This is a classy, super-smart film that’s been scandalously overlooked until now; hopefully that will change soon, but getting an proper streaming release would help.