U.S. Release Date: October 8, 2004
Distributor: Lions Gate
Producer: Michael Dreyer, James D. Stern (executive)
Composer: George Fenton
Cast: Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Tom Wilkinson, Alice Eve
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (sexual content and language)

What Women Don't Want
by Scott Holleran

Claire Danes, putting her sense of anguish in its proper place, radiates in Lions Gate's strange Stage Beauty. Also playing this odd story to the hilt are Billy Crudup, Tom Wilkinson and Zoe Tapper.

Crudup, who played Albert Finney's son in Big Fish, is miscast as a borderline transvestite with whom Danes falls in love. Stage Beauty is essentially their story, set in the English theater under the rule of King Charles (Rupert Everett). With women banned from acting, Crudup's fake female is the toast of the town, while his dresser, Danes, yearns to take the spotlight herself. They share a love for acting—Othello is the movie's centerpiece—and, in the right circumstances, they could share a lot more.

But Crudup is sleeping with the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) and, when he wears a dress, he fancies himself better than the real thing. The extent of his proclivity makes it hard to believe that Danes wants him.

The actress who played Shakespeare's Juliet convinces the audience otherwise, watching him from the wings with a wide-eyed romanticism that anyone who's watched a girl swoon over an effeminate guy will instantly recognize. Not pretty enough to be the center of male attention, too pretty to be the Ugly Duckling, she is free to be herself, which means being focused on what she wants—and she wants only to act, to be good and to love a man she worships. Danes dominates this peculiar motion picture with vitality.

Stage Beauty sags, alternating between period piece and romance and it hobbles along like an imitation of the dry, overrated Shakespeare in Love. Historical emphasis on the King Charles, who allowed actresses on stage and banned men from playing women, suffocates the talented Crudup in a strained psychodrama.

Director Richard Eyre fails to sufficiently set the tone for Crudup's character (based on a real actor of the era). The central conflict—whether Crudup will overcome his fixation with femininity—depends upon his ability to play a man playing a woman and Crudup is too masculine. It doesn't help that Eyre goes by the book, relying on hand mannerisms to portray women, as was the custom for male actors portraying female roles. Crudup manages to keep his character's credibility.

Good performances by Tom Wilkinson as the theater owner and Zoe Tapper as the King's mistress keep it from becoming utterly maudlin, and writer Jeffrey Hatcher is sure to rile militant homosexuals with his bizarre love triangle's politically incorrect ending. At its worst, it's a self-pitying Shakespeare in Drag. But, at its best, Stage Beauty shows how a woman might bring out the best in a man who is not quite manly—with Claire Danes playing woman enough for them both.

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