One of the biggest surprises in Oscar history occurred the night of March 21, 1999 when Shakespeare in Love beat out the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan to win Best Picture. It was an interesting year in that two Elizabethan films (Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, both incidentally starring both Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes) went up against three World War II dramas (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line & Life is Beautiful). Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan boasted what was considered at the time to be one of the most intense opening sequences ever put on film as it depicted the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. It was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and was a certified WWII epic. Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand was a romantic comedy, and more of a feel-good movie. Under normal circumstances in Oscar history it seems hard to imagine that Shakespeare in Love would have stood a chance against Saving Private Ryan, but alas at the end of the night the producers of the former were holding the statues and Spielberg was once again left out in the cold.
Personally, I love Shakespeare in Love, and I am an unabashed Shakespeare fan. I mentioned that several months ago when I wrote about the year that Hamlet won Best Picture. The thing that’s interesting about Shakespeare in Love is that it’s obviously not an historically accurate representation of Shakespeare’s writing of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s also obvious that it isn’t trying to be. The filmmakers weren’t setting out to make a classical Shakespearean masterpiece, but they were trying to make an entertaining film and they accomplished that with gusto. I applaud Shakespeare in Love because it does what most adaptations of Shakespeare fail to do, and that is make Shakespeare accessible to a mass audience. What this film did that was so effective was that not only did they just bring the material to a mass audience, but director John Madden and screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard also showed Shakespeare’s greatness and made that dynamic one of the emotional pillars of the film.
Even people who don’t read Shakespeare are at least generally aware of not only his existence, but also of his greatness even if they fail to recognize it. There isn’t a ton of information available about Shakespeare’s actual life, so creating a fictional account of him really offers up a blank page and Madden used his full palette to fill that page. When we first meet Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) he is a second-rate writer who is struggling to come up with new material. He is a womanizer and a drinker who has claimed to have lost his muse. The words no longer come to him, and he’s at a loss for how to find them. Then he happens to meet the noble Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow in an Oscar-winning performance), and her beauty inspires him. He falls in love with her and the words she inspires him to write become the poetry that would stand the test of time by staying relevant into its sixth century.
As the story progresses we see how Shakespeare’s greatness is recognized by his contemporaries. There is some truly great film making going on in this film because, other than Viola, no one ever says to Will, “Boy, you’re great!” We are shown how great everyone thinks he is by seeing their reactions to witnessing the material. We hear the eloquent lines being recited and we see the other actors and later the audience just riveted to what they’re seeing and hearing. We see the expressions of total immersion on their faces and we can see that Shakespeare’s greatness is being recognized.
Not only is that great film making technique, but it is also subtle film making in a film that was largely over the top and boisterous in its tone and style. It had wonderful art direction and production design, as well as superb costume design. In fact, Costume Design and Set Decoration were two of the seven awards that Shakespeare in Love would take home on Oscar night. There was little that was subtle about this film, which is what makes the subtle techniques that they use throughout the story so effective.
Shakespeare in Love also had an amazing cast. As mentioned above, Paltrow won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Viola, and Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress as well for her performance as Queen Elizabeth. Geoffrey Rush was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Joseph Fiennes gave a very good performance as well. Beyond that, this film had a cast of actors who would go on to become stars, superstars, or at the very least recognizable. From people like Geoffrey Rush and Ben Affleck and Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson to Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter series) and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) and Mark Williams (Harry Potter series), there are actors and actresses sprinkled throughout this film whose faces you will recognize. However, it isn’t just that these actors were famous, or at least nearly famous. The entire ensemble gave a wonderful performance. In fact, the cast of this film was set up much in the same manner that the cast would have been set up in one of Shakespeare’s plays. That is to say that there are a couple of main characters and then an ensemble of incredibly talented actors who develop chemistry by sharing the stage, or in this case the screen, and becoming a tight-knit group of players who not only perform well, but look like they’re genuinely enjoying the performance they’re giving.
The storyline itself is not a particularly complex or complicated one, but it’s very well-written and very entertaining. From a structural standpoint, the story is a typical romantic comedy and it hits all of the necessary beats for that genre. There is forbidden love mixed with a love triangle and we fear that the lovers will not end up together. What makes Shakespeare in Love rise above most other romantic comedies is the fact that they added particular sophistication to it with the Shakespearean themes and language. I’ve mentioned before that romantic comedies rarely do well at the Oscars, with only It Happened One Night and Annie Hall being previous winners that really fit hat genre. I would say that Annie Hall is the most similar to Shakespeare in Love in that in Annie Hall Woody Allen added a different type of sophistication that was a more post-modern intellectualism. Romantic comedies are generally escapism films that are highly entertaining, but shallow thematically. Annie Hall and Shakespeare in Love demonstrated that romantic comedies can cross over into more a more respected and respectable class of film making. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not dissing romantic-comedies. In fact, a little over a year ago I wrote a blog espousing the virtue of the romantic comedy and how there is generally more to it than people think. But there is a perception that romantic comedies are shallow, star-driven vehicles that have a one size fits all formula and are all essentially the same story that is just painted a slightly different color. A film like Shakespeare in Love resonates because it takes the romantic comedy model and adds the sophistication that many people feel is missing from the genre. Another way of putting it is that it has depth in the story that many people feel is lacking from the genre as well.
Another thing that I loved about this film was the references to Romeo and Juliet that pop up throughout the film. For example, near the beginning of the movie when we’ve just been introduced to Will and learned of his writer’s block, he passes a preacher who is speaking out against the immorality of the two rival theaters in the film, yelling, “A curse on both their houses!” As he walks by, Will seems to take a mental note of the line, and then he continues to move on. Then there is the relationship that grows between Will and Viola, and it parallels the relationship that grows between Romeo and Juliet, complete with balcony scene, but with a slightly different payoff. Although it doesn’t end nearly as tragically, it still ends with a sort of bitter sweetness that sets Will off on the path to his future greatness. This dual narrative is just one more example of how the filmmakers were expertly opening up the genius of Shakespeare for mainstream audiences whom otherwise would not have been interested.
The dual narrative also helped Shakespeare in Love succeed where in my opinion Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet did not. Luhrmann attempted to modernize Shakespeare by taking the play and setting it in a modern day city with modern-day settings while still using Shakespeare’s original dialogue. I always applauded the effort, but the result was too disjointed and the problem still remained that the average viewer still had a hard time processing the dialogue. Shakespeare in Love works because Madden embraced and romanticized the 16th Century and gave us a similar love story without the tragic ending. The dialogue was stylized to fit the times, but still rendered in an understandable way. Even the excerpts that were shown from the play highlighted the poetry in the dialogue so that even if you didn’t understand what they were saying you could still appreciate the beauty in the language. Truly, Shakespeare in Love is a deep and well-crafted film that uses modern storytelling techniques to effectively update a classic and tell us that classic in a new and entertaining way.
Did the Academy get it right?
Well, there’s the rub. Many people vehemently disagree with the Academy’s decision for this year. Most people like Shakespeare in Love for many of the reasons I mention above, but look at a film like Saving Private Ryan is an epochal cinematic masterpiece. And you know what? It is. Should Saving Private Ryan have won Best Picture? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it should have won. Steven Spielberg did win Best Director or the film, and he created a brutal, no holds barred look at the ugliness of a war that has been largely glorified since it ended. Now, there’s no fault in glorifying World War II. It was a seminal time in our history and catapulted the United States into being in the position of the greatest country on earth. But many movies about that war glamorized it to the point where it looked more like an adventure than a war. Saving Private Ryan took a hard look at WWII and showed the real violence, the real devastation and the real emotional toll that the war took on the men who fought in it. It did this in a way that brought the audience in to an emotional meat grinder where the tension was non-stop, because that’s how it is in a war. People left the theater emotionally exhausted and beaten down after seeing Saving Private Ryan. To put it in context, there have been many instances where a feel-good film has beaten a superior film for Best Picture that had more depressing overtones. It happened in 1944 when Going My Way beat Double Indemnity. It happened in 1951 when An American in Paris beat A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. It happened in 1958 when Gigi beat Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Then it happened again in 1998 when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes the Academy just gets it wrong. But to be perfectly honest with you, my favorite movie of 1998 was Life is Beautiful.