By John H. Foote


When Harrison Ford strode to center stage to present the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) had already won Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Director, so naturally everyone in the audience and around the globe felt the winner would be Saving Private Ryan, his visceral stunning WWII epic that changed the way we viewed combat. How could a film possibly not win after winning the awards it had won? Since its release the previous summer, Saving Private Ryan had seemed destined on the path to Best Picture, given the rave reviews and the huge box office.

Instead, looking rather sheepish, Ford read the three words that were not Saving Private Ryan but Shakespeare in Love, the upstart Miramax comedy directed by John Madden.

Outrage, anger, rage, shock ran through my body like an electrical shock. Gradually it became known that Harvey Weinstein had changed the face of the Academy Awards with a stronger campaign than that of DreamWorks for Saving Private Ryan. Did he buy the Best Picture award? Not exactly but he certainly spent enough to make sure more people saw it. Spielberg believed, perhaps with some arrogance, that his film did not have to campaign as it could win on sheer merit (which it should have) but he was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Holding his second Academy Award for Best Director in five years, Spielberg angrily left the ceremony, refusing to meet the press after winning his Oscar, making clear his rage.

In hindsight over 20 years later, of course Saving Private Ryan should have won Best Picture, it is a film for the ages, whereas Shakespeare in Love was a lovely frolic about the writing of one of the greatest plays in the history of the theatre, Romeo and Juliet. It is both a love story and love letter to the world of the theatre. Jaunty, fast paced, filled with “in” theatre jokes, nicely acted by the entire cast, and frothy, Shakespeare in Love had kicked around for years as one of the finest unproduced scripts in the business. It was set to go once with Daniel Day-Lewis and Julia Roberts, but it fell through at the last minute when Roberts got cold feet acting next to Day-Lewis.

Though I am not a fan of the pretentious Gwyneth Paltrow, an ultra-superior snob, she was a delight in the film, which must be said and cannot, by virtue of her performance, be denied. I do not share in the idea that Paltrow was any great beauty or the movie star that Harvey Weinstein set her up to being one, but she was damned good in this film and a couple of others and deserves that praise from one who does not care for her either as an actress or a human being.

The film was written by Tom Stoppard who brought to the screenplay many references to the work of Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) both before 1593, the year in which the narrative takes place, and after. If you are a theatre person you will get the many in jokes and smile along with the film. If you know anything about Romeo and Juliet you will adore the comparisons drawn to the play and the narrative of the story, as Shakespeare is inspired by Viola (Paltrow), their love story reflecting many of the scenes he will create for the play. The beleaguered writer is constantly tormented by the many issues he has with the theatre, with his new obsession with Viola, and the troubles in working with actors. Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) sees himself as a leading man, not a supporting character, but in his mind believes Mercutio is the lead character. Whatever works right?

When Shakespeare realizes that Thomas Kent and Viola are the same person, the film becomes a full-fledged farce, maintaining its love story until the bitter end. And it is bitter, as Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) intervenes and sends Viola off to America with her smug husband Lord Essex (Colin Firth), leaving Shakespeare to be inspired to write Twelfth Night, one of his most famous works.

Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow

Paltrow truly is radiant in the film, especially after a night of lovemaking with Shakespeare in which she appears to be awakened sexually the next morning, announcing to her maid “It’s a new world” with orgasmic delight in her eyes. Love has overtaken her and she portrays that love to absolute perfection. I will never agree with her deserving the Academy Award for Best Actress she won over Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998), but I cannot deny her work in the film was utterly transformative. Paltrow as Viola looked in love, with every graceful movement, with every glance or turn of her head she was in love and knew as she walked away from Shakespeare at the end of the film, that she would never love like this again. He was it, the love of her life and the sadness with which they part is heartbreaking though to Shakespeare she becomes immortal as the inspiration for his present and future work.

Joseph Fiennes is the younger brother of Oscar nominated brother Ralph, Lord Voldemort himself, so brilliant as Goth in Schindler’s List (1993) and so many other films. This marked the zenith for Joseph, nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor, and a Golden Globe, he never again came close to the popularity he enjoyed as Shakespeare. Hands covered in ink, stains picked up from the quills he writes with, observing, always observing, seeking ideas, inspiration, he captures who and what a writer is in his fine performance. With 13 Academy Award nominations, Fiennes was not a nominee for Best Actor, something of a slap in the face, but the actor never publicly complained.

Harvey Weinstein did, enraged and loudly. Was this what set him on the path to ensuring the film won the Academy Award? It might have been because Harvey does not get slighted and if he made a promise to Fiennes about getting nominated, he would be, to say the least, furious.

Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench both earned nominations for Supporting Actor and Actress respectively and come Oscar night the film went into the night as the underdog.

Saving Private Ryan grabbed early glory, but slowly Shakespeare in Love caught up with wins for Best Costumes, Musical Score, Production Design, Original Screenplay, and then Best Supporting Actress. Paltrow’s win seemed to signal a change had happened, favor was suddenly in the favor of the Miramax film and sure enough it won Best Picture.

It remains one of the greatest upsets in Oscar history, but I think Saving Private Ryan can be consoled with being remembered more than 20 years later as a masterpiece while Shakespeare in Love is not remembered really at all. That is simply not fair as it is a beautifully written romp through 1593 England, with outstanding performances from a Who’s Who of British actors, and solid turns from both Paltrow and Ben Affleck as the pompous actor Ned.

Sadly the film has faded from popular opinion, and it seems it is in danger of becoming a footnote as the movie that beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. While I believe Saving Private Ryan deserved Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love, while not the best of the year, is a fine film and deserves its place among the finest 30 of the decade.

As love stories go it is one of the finest I can recall, a film that is able to show what it is to be in love and so few films, so few stories can say they have accomplished such a thing. Made with care and genuine affection, it was a pleasure to watch the first time and the tenth. Shakespeare in Love can and does shine with the glory of creation. You cannot watch it and not be moved unless your heart is made of stone.

Viola’s words echo in my ears, realizing she is in love, “It’s a new world.”

When in love, it certainly is.

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