'Beauty' stages a war of the sexes

When Charles II allows women onstage, one man isn't happy

The notion of acting in an effeminate way has become commonplace in pop culture, with TV shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" high in the ratings. Just one century ago such behavior would have been banned, suppressed, or both.

A few centuries further back, though, drag acts were more than permissible, they were mandatory. I'm thinking of Shakespeare's time, when women weren't allowed to perform in plays, since that was considered immoral. This stricture persisted for decades until King Charles II decided the English theater needed a new look in the 1660s. He issued a decree allowing female characters to be played by actual women.

In the marvelous "Stage Beauty," this giant leap for (English) mankind becomes a personal disaster for one Englishman: Edward Kynaston, known to his friends as Ned and to all of London as the best living performer of women's roles. How's he supposed to make his living now that real women can compete with him?

It's a sad situation, and Ned might despair if it weren't for Maria, a dressing-room assistant who reassures him both professionally and romantically.

Then it turns out she's on the road to stage success herself - more competition to block Ned's possible comeback! Unless he can overcome his fears, of course, and accept her as a partner, not a rival. That sounds like a good idea, but it isn't easy when you're burdened with the ego of a celebrated star.

Billy Crudup delivers his usual excellence as the troubled Ned, helped by Claire Danes as his dresser, Rupert Graves as the king, and plenty more.

English theater of bygone years is in style at the moment, with Annette Bening arriving in the more modern "Being Julia" next week and Jeremy Irons joining Al Pacino for "The Merchant of Venice" later this year. In the popularity sweepstakes, "Stage Beauty" may earn top honors, outdoing the overrated "Shakespeare in Love" as a dramatic comedy about life and love in an era more naive - but hardly more innocent - than our own.

Rated R; contains sex and vulgar language.

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