“Stage Beauty” explores the boundaries between reality and performance. It’s the 1660s, and Edward ‘Ned’ Kynaston is England’s most celebrated leading lady. Women are forbidden to appear on stage and Ned profits, using his beauty and skill to make the great female roles his own. But King Charles II is tired of seeing the same old performers in the same old tragedies. Since no one will take him up on his suggestion to improve Othello with a couple of good jokes, he decides to lift the royal palate by allowing real women to tread the boards. In a slightly less progressive spirit, he rules that men may no longer play women’s parts. I find it hilarious, that such a prudish society who are against homosexuality and such things as women acting, will find it ok to have a bunch of men pretending to be women and having, well not physical love scenes, but professing romantic poetry to other men. The film, is really about two things at once: The craft of acting, and the bafflement of love. It must be said that Ned is not a very convincing woman onstage although he is pretty enough; he plays a woman as a man would play a woman, lacking the natural ease of a woman born to a role. Curiously, when Maria takes over his roles, she also copies his gestures, playing a woman as a woman might play a man playing a woman. Only gradually does she relax into herself. "I've always hated your Desdemona," she confesses to Ned. "You never fight, you only die."
Ned is most comfortable playing a woman both onstage and off. But is he gay? The question doesn’t precisely occur in that form, since in those days gender lines were not rigidly enforced, and heterosexuals sometimes indulged their genitals in a U-turn. Certainly Ned has inspired the love of Maria his dresser, who envies his art while she lusts for his body. We see her backstage during one of Ned’s rehearsals, mouthing every line and mimicking every gesture; she could play Desdemona herself, and indeed she does one...
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