CineMe 1998: Shakespeare in Love


1998: Shakespeare in Love

Directed by John Madden
Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard

Shakespeare_in_Love_1998_Poster“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

I’m not terribly proud of this entry.  It’s not about some film that I hold dear, or that had some great personal impact.  It’s not going to go into the artistic choices or character beats or writing structure or anything one would normally associate with film discussion.  What it is going to be is vindictive and petty and a vivid illustration of the fact that “fan” is short for “fanatic.”

For a while, my biggest cinematic grudge was against Annie Hall.  It might seem weird for someone to hold something as silly sounding as a “cinematic grudge.”  But when you’re nine-years old and Star Wars is the greatest thing ever, seeing it lose Best Picture to what to my young eyes looked like the story of some nerd in glasses who couldn’t get a date was comparable to finding out there was no Santa Claus.  Nothing made sense.  No one understood.

Four years later, but maybe not quite four years wiser, Chariots of Fire became my new cinematic grudge when it had the temerity to beat Raiders of the Lost Ark, not only for Best Picture, but for Best Original Score.  A scant year after that, Gandhi took the title by upsetting what felt like the overwhelming favorite, E.T.  I didn’t know anything about campaigning or Oscar politics or momentum.  I just knew I had been wronged on a deep, personal level three times now.  This would not stand.

But no, it continued to stand.  George Lucas never again came within spitting distance of the word Oscar.  Steven Spielberg would get snubbed for The Color Purple, and the film would win absolutely nothing.  Empire of the Sun got ignored completely.  The Academy felt so bad, it gave him a lifetime achievement award at the age of 40.  Lucas would get the same award five years later.  Never mind that their films had grossed more than the financial reserves of several small countries, never mind that most of their movies were beloved classics that people would still be watching decades later.  Each time one of their films had the chance to earn its rightful golden bit of validation and immortality, some other undeserving film had jumped up and taken it away.

Schindler’s List seemed to change everything.  Spielberg finally got his Best Picture and Best Director awards.  It felt like he’d turned a corner after the somewhat lost years between Always and Hook.  He was entering a more mature, more refined stage of his career.  One that seemed to be underlined when Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.  He’d gotten a dose of validation in 1993.  Now, with Ryan, he seemed poised to cement a legacy with two more Oscars.

Then along came this cute little move about how William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.  Only took me 480 words, but I finally got around to the movie this post is supposed to be about.

Now to be fair, I don’t outright hate Shakespeare in Love.  It’s got its charms, it’s certainly clever, Geoffrey Rush absolutely kills it.  But it felt just a little too in love with its own cleverness for its own good to me.  A good film, but absolutely slight compared to the towering achievement I saw in Saving Private Ryan.  And it looked like the Academy was in agreement when Spielberg took home his second Oscar for directing it.  Surely they wouldn’t say the film had the best direction and not name it the best picture.  Ryan‘s win felt like such a foregone conclusion, they had Harrison Ford on hand to give the Best Picture Oscar to his old pal.  What could possibly go wrong?

Harvey Weinstein, that’s what.  He ran one his patented Oscar campaigns, and come the end of the evening, Ford was forced to read out Shakespeare in Love, much to the shock of everyone in the auditorium.  Not that Shakespeare hadn’t been racking up awards throughout the night, but this was still a monstrous upset.  Which nicely described my mental state at the time.  Add to that having to watch that gibbering loon Roberto Benigni literally step all over Spielberg when accepting the Best Actor award that should have rightfully belonged to Tom Hanks, and it was not a fun evening for me.

Of course, I should have seen it coming.  Like I said repeatedly during Argo‘s run to its Best Picture win, Hollywood loves films that ennoble what they do.  And Shakespeare in Love does for acting and writing what Argo did for filmmaking in general:  adds a sweeping, almost fairy tale quality that elevates the industry to heroic stature.  The Player, a more cynical look at Hollywood, managed only three nomination, and was shut out of Best Picture.  The Artist, which is virtually nothing more than 100 minutes of reminding us that silent movies were charming and that Jean Dujardin has charisma to burn, got ten nominations and won five, including Actor, Director and Picture.  Add to the myth of Hollywood, and Hollywood will pat you on the back for it.

I don’t hold any more cinematic grudges, aside from mild irritation at the continued success of Adam Sandler movies.  That red X over the poster is more tongue-in-cheek than actual ire.  And I now take the whole Oscar thing with a huge grain of salt, accepting the fact that Best doesn’t always mean best.  Still, I sometimes miss the purity of how I loved those films in my younger days, blinders and all.  I know too much about how the sausage is made to ever feel that way again.


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