You won't have to brush up your Shakespeare to enjoy Stage Beauty, which revolves around a series of productions of the final scene of Othello, in which the furious Moor kills Desdemona, his eternally mortal beloved. But don't let that scare you off. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his play, and directed by Richard Eyre (Iris), Stage Beauty is a whirlwind discourse on theatrical art and all kinds of identity -- sexual, gender, cultural, personal. It's also one of the smartest, most entertaining and most nuanced costume dramas I can recall.
The titular star of Stage Beauty is Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the most celebrated actress in the London theater, circa 1660s. Yes, actress: For this was a time when English law forbade women from performing in public, and so, as every survivor of a Shakespeare class knows, men played women's roles.
That is, until one convivial night, when King Charles II (a splendid Rupert Everett), bored by the stuff he sees at the theater, decrees that women must play women, and that men may no longer do so at all. This obliterates Ned's career but swings open a door for his servant girl, Maria (Claire Danes), who turns out to be a peer. She'd only donned the guise of theater waif to watch Ned perform, and she's mastered his every gesture and inflection.
Call it All About Eve meets Stage Door meets Shakespeare in Love, but without the retrospective camp of the former and charming pretense of the latter. Ned has a lover in Stage Beauty: His name is George (Ben Chaplin), and he's a closet case who ultimately marries a woman. But Ned is an actor, so he likes to experience things: In bed one night with gal pal Maria, they talk about what men do with each other and perform a playful Kama Sutra of sexual positions, each time deciding who's the man and who's the woman. It's an inspired scene, and it calls into question the meaning we attach (in this century, at least) to who's on top and who puts what where.
Hatcher's script is tight and elegant and packed with all sorts of epigrams and bon mots. (How can you not love a movie where a buxom sow of an actress in a hoi-polloi cabaret shouts, "Give me back my merkin!"?) It's funny, ribald and very wise about the paradox of the thespian, a person who gets paid to display myriad emotions but has trouble understanding them in "real life."
And so Ned and Maria become the world's first Method actors, performing the murder of Desdemona with a stunning level of intensity and suspense. It's wonderful cinema-theater, made perfect by the leading actor of his generation. From flamboyance to sadness, and at every imaginable sensation in between, Crudup's work in Stage Beauty is sublime -- a seamless master class in screen acting. He is a woman. To even think of calling this "the best performance of the year" would cheapen it like a bag of socks.