Award for Most Unfairly Maligned Best Picture Winner: Shakespeare in Love

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for a list of the other posts for Week 4: Pictures and Directors.

I knew my declaration in last week’s post, naming the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility the best adaptation of Jane Austen’s work, would be a tad controversial. (Though not nearly as much, it turns out, as I thought it would be. Nice to know I’m not alone in my regard for that film.)

THIS WEEK, however, I’m certain some people will want to sharpen their pitchforks.

I’m going to defend Shakespeare in Love’s 1998 Best Picture win.

(Get your torches lit!)

In the years since Shakespeare in Love, written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman and directed by John Madden, won an upset victory as Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, the film’s reputation has degenerated exponentially. While there are other Best Picture upsets that anger some people (i.e. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, Crash over Brokeback Mountain) Shakespeare in Love gets extra dollops of disdain.

I do get the reasons for some of the outrage. Let’s tick them off:

1. The Weinsteins (at the time owners of Miramax Films, today of The Weinstein Company) waged an unfairly aggressive Oscar campaign.

I won’t disagree with that.

To this day they still wage aggressive campaigns for their films, and some of their tactics are sort of underhanded, in my opinion. (One they’re famous for is to smear biographical and historical films as inaccurate–a tactic which should only be used against documentaries–again, in my opinion.)

However, that’s not the FILM’s fault. It’s also not the fault of the many talents who created the film.

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2. We hate Gwyneth Paltrow.

Grrr. Gwyneth.

GRRRRRRRR!

GWYNETH!!

We can’t stand her!!!

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!

I’ll admit it. I’m not so fond of her, either–as a human being. I agree with the general consensus. She’s kind of obnoxious and smug and needs to get over herself.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a fantastic actress who gave a fantastic performance.

Maybe some people can’t see past their personal dislike of her to fairly assess her performance, but I don’t see how anyone can honestly dispute she gave a great one. Sometimes life is unfair that way. Not everyone who is talented is likeable.

Once again, it’s not the FILM’s fault that its lead actress isn’t terribly likeable in real life.

3. Shakespeare in Love is “just a comedy” so it’s not as “important” a film as Saving Private Ryan.

Here is a problem inherent to pitting films against each other. It can become a real “apples and oranges” conundrum.

It’s funny how people often bemoan how few comedies win major awards at the Oscars–and then when one wins, it’s not “important” enough of a film to win.

I don’t agree that comedy can’t be as “important” as drama. I’m not even sure a movie has to BE “important” or “weighty” to be worthy of an Oscar win.

Just for the record: would I have been upset if Saving Private Ryan had won instead of Shakespeare in Love?

Nope.

In fact, there are times I WISH Saving Private Ryan had won, because if it had, Shakespeare in Love would almost certainly be a much more highly regarded film right now.

(Saving Private Ryan did win a very deserved Best Director award.)

So why do I think Shakespeare in Love is so wonderful and so unfairly maligned?

1. It is both a love letter to and a devastating satire of Hollywood–without ever mentioning the word “Hollywood.”

Hollywood didn’t exist in 1590, but one of the awesome conceits of Shakespeare in Love is how it shows that the entertainment business has never really changed. Hollywood is famous for hating movies that make fun of Hollywood (they rarely get any Oscar love). But this one tweaks the industry in a distant time and setting.

The movie masterfully mixes what we know about Shakespeare and his time with aspects of modern Hollywood. For instance, Mr. Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), a street thug who is owed money, becomes the backer of the play and “invents” the concept of giving actors a cut of the profits, a joke about Hollywood “creative accounting” that often keeps actors from their cuts of the profits.

It also uses the real-life rivalry Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) had with Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), who was more popular than Shakespeare in their time but is not nearly as famous as Shakespeare is now. (Every actor who auditions for Will uses the same reading from a Marlowe play.) In a bar, he and Marlowe brainstorm the initial idea for Romeo and Juliet, a nod to the theorists who claim Marlowe was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.

2. It is a rare major film with dual male/female protagonists where the heroine drives the main plot and also has a significant character arc.

I may not like Gwyneth much, but Lady Viola is one of my favorite characters, ever. She is a woman in a time and circumstance with very little say over her own destiny, yet she manages to accomplish every one of her stated goals: fall in love, become an actor, and have excitement in her life. She grows from a star-struck girl to a mature woman who faces her life–including the part that wasn’t her choice–with grace. She’s flawed, she’s complex, she’s funny, she’s passionate–she’s great.

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3. It is one of the best films ever made about the artistic process.

Most films about writers are BO-RING. That’s because film is a visual medium, and watching someone write is tedious. The story-within-a-story structure of the movie has certainly been used before Shakespeare in Love, but rarely this well, and rarely with this much insight into the creative process.

For instance, the aforementioned scene with Marlowe–that’s how many writers create stories, by brainstorming with others. There are tons of “Easter eggs” peppered throughout the movie–items and fragments of dialogue that end up in many of Shakespeare’s plays–but that’s another nod to how a writer’s life and environment influences his or her work.

The story also shows how writers “find” their story through a long and often unpredictable process. The play is initially supposed to be a comedy called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Believe me when I tell you that many times writers set out to write one kind of story and end up in an entirely different place from where they started.

(By the way, this was entirely invented for the movie. Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is an adaptation of an existing story.)

4. It is a rare romantic comedy that doesn’t tack on an unbelievable happy ending.

Nothing irritates me more than a romance–comedy or drama–that forces a happy ending where it doesn’t make sense.

Here the ending is bittersweet and completely believable for the situation, characters, and setting. It’s almost daring, how the film refuses to give the rote ending to a romantic storyline.

5. About that ending. OMG. That ending.

“Write me well.”

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9 thoughts on “Award for Most Unfairly Maligned Best Picture Winner: Shakespeare in Love

  1. I saw this in the theater and never had a problem with it winning, so only love from me. Who that loves movies doesn’t love a good backstage picture? Your analysis of WHY there is such animosity directed at it makes a lot of sense. I actually like Paltrow (sue me), but I agree that Weinsteins’ Oscar campaigns seem to get a little out of control…I was just reading about some IMITATION GAME billboards that were annoying people. Interesting post, thanks for contributing to the 31 Days blogathon!

  2. I agree with you. This is absolutely a love letter to Hollywood and the creative process – plus, it’s a great film. I loved that it didn’t have a happy ending, and that the performances (especially Gwynneth’s) were exceptional.

    Thanks for this post. I might need to see this one again. 🙂

  3. ‘Maybe some people can’t see past their personal dislike of her to fairly assess her performance’ – this is definitely me!
    I know it’s so unfair to take my personal perceptions and prejudices to a movie, but when it comes to Paltrow I just can’t help it. Although I’m not a fan of this movie (although your post almost convinced me!) and that mostly has to do with the ‘historical liberties’, I completely agree that it’s one of the best movies that’s been made about writers.

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