Theatre in Film: Stage Beauty (2004)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

December 7, 2016

Welcome back to Theatre in Film, our weekly featurette on a film that showcases a life in the theatre. In Part VI of Theatre in Film, we focus on films from 2003 to 2008 that feature characters overcoming internal and very personal struggles to find their happiness in a life of theatre. This week, we feature Stage Beauty from 2004, a film based on Jeffery Hatcher’s play The Compleat Female Stage Beauty.

Stage Beauty (2004)

Director: Richard Eyre
Starring: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Zoe Trapper, and Tom Wilkinson

What happens:

Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is one of the most well-known actors of the Restoration period, playing female characters in Shakespeare’s dramas, mainly Desdemona in Othello. When his loyal dresser, Maria (pronounced “Mariah”) (Claire Danes), sneaks away to play the same role of Desdemona at a small tavern, she tempts rebuke by society and her home theatre if she is discovered. At a dinner party Kynaston attends, he brings with him a pamphelet bearing the name Margaret Hughes. At the party, Maria, not knowing Kynaston is there, is introduced by her stage name — Margaret Hughes. Once her secret is revealed, Kynaston despises her and accuses her of attempting to steal his job. Little by little, and with the coaxing of his mistress Nell (Zoe Trapper), also a would-be actress, King Charles II (Rupert Everett) creates decrees that women’s parts may only be played by women. Thus begins Maria’s journey into a life on the stage instead of one behind it.

Why it matters:

Though the film takes liberties with some historical relationships and features the anachronistic realistic acting method (first developed later in the 19th century), Stage Beauty encourages us to take a hard look at the challenges and limitations of theatre, both those we place on ourselves and those that are placed upon us.

Like in Shakespeare in Love, the main character in Stage Beauty runs into the problem of institutionalized sexism — the inability for women, by law, to perform onstage. It is not until King Charles II proclaims that women are permitted to act (and men forbidden to play women’s parts) that Maria is given a fighting chance at playing a role that matches her gender.

However, Stage Beauty also presents viewers with a male actor’s dilemma after Charles II’s newly mandated gender regulations. This appears in Kynaston’s failure after he’s lost his role to Maria. Due to Kynaston’s training from an early age, he is incapable of successfully playing male roles even though he is a man. This causes him to resort to performing in bawdy, risque tavern drag shows where he is routinely humiliated. Similarly, Maria is incapable of performing her Desdemona without completely copying Kynaston’s performance, inflection for inflection and gesture for gesture. It is not until Maria needs coaching for a performance which the king will attend that Kynaston and she discover the key to breaking free from their individual “actor traps”.

Maria and Kynaston participate in an acting exercise, a rehearsal, where Kynaston tests her and asks her how she would react if she, herself, were in the position of Desdemona. This is where revelations are made by both actors — Kynaston discovering that he can play a man and Maria discovering that she is able to truly act instead of depending on her memory of Kynaston’s Desdemona. The technique of naturalistic acting saves not only their relationship but their jobs as actors. The truth of the moment, and the honest reactions to that truth, are the elements of Maria and Kinston’s performances that end up bringing the audience to their feet at the end of that evening’s performance of Othello.

This film is the second featured in Part VI of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part VI.

  • Camp (2003)
  • Being Julia (2004) (Coming soon.)
  • Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) (Coming soon.)
  • Me and Orson Welles (2008) (Coming soon.)


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).
Check out Part Vand start with An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Stage Beauty. Copyright © Lionsgate 2004.