THE Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

By Christian DiMartino

This is, admitted, a very delayed segment of “The Best Picture.” I missed my deadline this weekend, and oops. So you’ll get the next two the next two days.

There had to have been quite the critical backing for John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. If you look at the original reviews, yeah, there is undeniable praise, with a plethora of critics swooning over how charming and wonderful it is. You wouldn’t know it today though, because usually when people talk about Shakespeare in Love, they mostly associate it with its Best Picture win, and how absurd it was.

In another year, sure, Shakespeare in Love might have been a worthy winner. However, Shakespeare in Love‘s Best Picture win is mostly notable because it won the Oscar over Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. It was at this point, we probably all turned our backs on Shakespeare in Love. Even the people who swooned over it were probably a little baffled, because the magnitude of how great Spielberg’s film is is hard to compare. It makes for one of the Academy’s most notoriously boneheaded decisions.

Said boneheaded decision has, over time, caused people to call Shakespeare in Love crappy. The decision is crappy, but is the movie? I decided to revisit it recently, and while the Academy was dead wrong (they rewarded Harvey Weinstein too, so good going), I’ll say that the movie is better than the credit it receives, but also not worthy of the credit it received. Shakespeare in Love is a good movie- funny when it needs to be, finely acted, charming, great-looking. Yet at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite wow in the way that it should. Not in the way that, say, Saving Private Ryan did and still does. It’s just a light, enjoyable little movie that people blew out of proportion.

The setup for the film follows Philip Henslowe (the always wonderful Geoffrey Rush) as he struggles to make it week by week, and the plays he is producing at the time aren’t making much of a splash. In fact, the plays are usually a big hit if they include a scene with a dog (eh, it was a simpler time). William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is also struggling, not only not make cash and to make the next masterpiece, but also to impress the likes of Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench). So as he begins writing his next great comedy, a beautiful young woman named Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) catches his eye.

Shakespeare is quite smitten with her, but she is currently engaged, by arrangement, to a Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Meanwhile, he begins rehearsing his next play, but is quite impressed by a newcoming actor named Thomas. Turns out, Thomas and Viola are the same person, and soon, Shakespeare’s play, known as Romeo &… well something, begins as a comedy and soon finds itself as a tragedy, as does the romance that is blossoming between Viola and William.

The central storyline of Shakespeare in Love is actually one that holds you pretty well. It’s engaging, yet it mostly clicks because of the writing, but also the chemistry between Paltrow and Fiennes. Paltrow has developed her haters over the years; I am not one of them. While her Oscar wasn’t fully deserved, I can’t say it wasn’t, either. She does hold her own here, and she does deliver a charming performance. Just about everything works decently in Shakespeare in Love, but in particular, the film is visually luscious. The production and costume design are pretty amazing.

Yet that production and costume design, the score too, are about the main things about Shakespeare in Love that could be considered “great.” That’s not to knock the movie, which is pretty good, but most of it is just… pretty good. Nothing remarkable, but rather, this is a film that is likable, that some people just took the hype for, and blew it way, way out of proportion. I remember when I saw Green Book a few years ago. It was a film released in a rather lackluster year for movies, and yet here was a movie that was, overall, pretty enjoyable. Not amazing, not one of the year’s best, but also, it didn’t feel like a film that was set out to win Oscars, either. It was just trying to tell a charming story… and it just so happened to win Oscars.

Some movies are, quote-on-quote, “Oscar bait.” Perhaps Shakespeare in Love was, but there aren’t too many instances where it feels like it. It’s mostly just light, fictional entertainment. Yet the Academy, thanks to the power of Harvey Weinstein’s tremendous Oscar campaigning skills, took that “light, fictional entertainment” all the way to the top, and transformed the film from one that was admired to one that people usually just talk about with their eyes rolled. Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, and The Thin Red Line. Truth is, while I like the movie, I like all of those movies more. It also nabbed Paltrow and Dench Oscars- Dench’s Oscar is a little absurd, since she’s in it 10 minutes, but since she has an Oscar, eh. Yet while we’re on the topic of absurdity, something must be mentioned.

So, this film won Best Picture over all of those, with Saving Private Ryan being the obvious choice. Spielberg’s film has passed and surpassed the test of time; John Madden’s film is, again, in infamy. Yet the most absurd thing about this Oscar race is the fact that not only was it nominated for Best Picture over The Truman Show, but it won Best Original Screenplay over The Truman Show. No. No. No no no no… no. You couldn’t have insulted the legacy of Peter Weir’s masterpiece more. Sure, Shakespeare in Love was cute and all… but The Truman Show is as brilliant and original as films get (the fact that it had Jim Carrey was just an added bonus). We can enjoy Shakespeare in Love for the good, entertaining entertainment it is… but it doesn’t hold a candle to Saving Private Ryan, or The Truman Show. The Academy, to you, on this one, I say, boy bye.

Shakespeare in Love: B+

Best Picture

Did Win: Shakespeare in Love

Should’ve Won: Saving Private Ryan

Best Director

Did Win: Steven Spielberg- Saving Private Ryan

Should’ve Won: Spielberg

Best Actor

Did Win: Roberto Benigni- Life is Beautiful

Should’ve Won: Ian McKellan- Gods and Monsters

Best Actress

Did Win: Gwyneth Paltrow- Shakespeare in Love

Should’ve Won: Paltrow or Cate Blanchett- Elizabeth

Best Supporting Actor

Did Win: James Coburn- Affliction

Should’ve Won: Coburn

Best Supporting Actress

Did Win: Judi Dench- Shakespeare in Love

Should’ve Won: Brenda Blethyn- Little Voice

Best Original Screenplay

Did Win: Shakespeare in Love

Should’ve Won: The Truman Show

Best Adapted Screenplay

Did Win: Gods and Monsters

Should’ve Won: Gods and Monsters or A Simple Plan

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