Shakespeare in Love (1998)

*. The Best Picture winner at the 71st Academy Awards, with Gwyneth Paltrow picking up a statue for Best Actress, Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress and Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for Best Screenplay.
*. In later years this bounty of awards would become quite controversial. I’m not really sure why. Two reasons stand out though. (1) Many people thought Saving Private Ryan was a better movie. I’m not so sure. Saving Private Ryan was a bigger movie, which would have made it a more predictable pick, but that’s all I can say. (2) It was thought that Harvey Weinstein was promoting Shakespeare in Love a little too much behind the scenes. Again I’m not so sure. Certainly Weinstein has fallen a long, long way since those glory days at Miramax, but I don’t know if his campaigning for this movie was wrong.
*. In any event, Shakespeare in Love did clean up with the awards and that’s not something I’m upset about. Partly because I don’t care about prizes, and partly because I like it well enough. At least as well as Saving Private Ryan anyway.
*. It’s a movie with a tortured history, making it even more remarkable that it all worked out in the end. Originally it was slated as a Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis project but that fell through. Then the script by Marc Norman had to be reworked by Tom Stoppard. Even during post-production there were re-writes and re-shoots based on the responses of test audiences. This is usually a recipe for disaster, but somehow the thing held together.
*. The script helps. It’s clever in language and plotting, but not too clever, which is something Stoppard has sometimes had trouble avoiding (Shakespeare did too). There are plenty of little in-jokes, but they aren’t necessary to enjoy the plot, which is a pretty basic rom-com mixed with a cross-dressers’ ball. It had me smiling throughout most of it.
*. Joseph Fiennes is solid as a romantic young Will Shakespeare. But not too romantic. He’s going places, professionally, after all. Geoffrey Rush is well cast. Colin Firth sports a wicked pearl earring. Judi Dench is just who you thought she’d be, playing the queen as you’d imagine she would. She won an Oscar despite being on screen for only six minutes. Apparently this was not the shortest performance to win a Best Supporting Actress award though. That went to Beatrice Straight for Network. Straight at least had one big scene. I don’t know why Dench got it for.
*. Gwyneth Paltrow before she became a joke selling goop and appearing in superhero movies. I’m not a fan, but she’s fine here as a Renaissance aristo. Better than she was as a Regency aristo in Emma anyway. Though her lack of fire makes her an odd choice as muse.
*. Ben Affleck before he became a joke and started appearing in superhero movies. I’m not a fan but I actually think he’s great here as an actor more than full enough of himself. I’ve never enjoyed him in anything as much.
*. Poor Anne Hathaway. No longer capable of inspiring her husband to great poetry or sparking his libido (the two are directly related), she is kept off stage in Avon, with only a passing reference to her in some funny business between Will and his doctor. This becomes more than a bit awkward later on in the tavern scene when Viola finds out that Will is married. Because, well, what was he thinking?
*. In terms of the plot it’s no big matter. All is soon forgiven. But the question remains, and we can direct it at both of them. Are they really in love?
*. I like how Viola has inspired Will to write Twelfth Night, with that play’s heroine being a plucky woman shipwrecked on a foreign shore and dressing as a man. But the connection might be stronger to the old critical saw about Duke Orsino not being in love but rather being in love with the idea of being in love. Because that seems to be what’s happening here. Will has no intention of divorcing Anne, and is just as aware as Viola is that they have no future together. But they are both actors, players we might say, and they’re in love with playing lovers. It’s a fun release for them, perhaps even therapeutic. But that’s it.
*. So a good little movie, but given Weinstein’s fall from grace and Paltrow’s subsequent transformation into a weird lifestyle brand you watch it with different eyes today. I think it’s still popular though, and has worn a lot better than most of the other fluff of its time. It has a bit of a hole in the middle with the leads only playing at being in love, and ends on a strange note, but it’s still a good excuse to let the world slip for a couple of hours.

11 thoughts on “Shakespeare in Love (1998)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Private Ryan was so heavily hyped, and aside from the opening sequence, wasn’t so amazing as a film. This had a certain smartness that people did like; I ran into Tom Stoppard in Book Soup the week before the ceremony, and he told me he did not think the film had a chance. I think for once the Academy got it right.

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, I don’t have any problems with it being named best picture. A lot better than Elizabeth too, which is another movie it was up against and one which showed how you could take similar material and present it without any originality or spark and still get love from the Academy.

    1. Alex Good

      I’m dissing Ms. Paltrow’s appearances in superhero movies. And Mr. Affleck’s. But I’m not a big fan of the genre even without those two. Saving Private Ryan had Tom Hanks in it, and that’s a big hole for any film to climb out of.
      Foul, perverted horrors, however, are timeless.

    1. Alex Good

      There’s one portrait of Shakespeare that has him looking like a bit of a ladies’ man, complete with earring. I think he was probably a passionate sort of guy. But also a businessman.
      There are many worse movies to watch than this!


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