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Shakespeare in Love: Best Picture, 1998

The 71st Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. Shakespeare in Love was nominated for 13 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Makeup, Best Art Direction, and Best Costumes. Major competition included Elizabeth (7 nominations, 1 win), The Thin Red Line (7 nominations, no wins), the vastly-overrated Life Is Beautiful (7 nominations, 3 wins), and Saving Private Ryan (11 nominations, 5 wins).

The settings of all five of these films were confined to either World War II or Elizabethan England. This year’s nominations also represented the first time when two actresses were nominated for playing the same role in multiple films; in this case, Judi Dench’s supporting actress nomination as Elizabeth I (with a total screentime of eight minutes) and Cate Blanchett’s actress nomination as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth. Joseph Fiennes and Geoffrey Rush also play major roles in both movies.

Ultimately, Elizabeth got Best Makeup, Best Supporting Actor went to James Coburn for Affliction, and Saving Private Ryan won Best Sound, Cinematography, Editing, and Director. Shakespeare in Love got the remaining seven, making it the first romantic comedy to win Best Picture since 1977’s Annie Hall and the film with the most Oscar wins and no Best Director award.

The movie, purportedly set in 1593, re-imagines Shakespeare’s origins as a great writer, picturing him as a starving-artist type just trying to get by in the shadow of the rich and famous Christopher Marlowe. As the movie begins, Shakespeare is suffering from writer’s block and growing increasingly cynical about love. With an overdue play to write, he begins work on a throwaway comedy: Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Before long, though, he meets Viola De Lesseps, a beautiful noblewoman who (unbeknownst to him at first) disguises herself as a man and gets herself a part in the play. Inspired by his relationship with Viola, Shakespeare’s newly retitled Romeo and Juliet begins to take shape, but the road to creating a masterpiece is not an easy one.

In treating a variety of historical events, Shakespeare in Love plays fast and loose with names, dates, facts, and anything else that might get in the way of a good story. Characters are invented from whole cloth, anachronisms abound, and the entire basis of the plot is a total fabrication. In short, The Bard would have loved it. The fact is, we don’t really know anything about the actual writing process behind Romeo and Juliet (except that it was based on an old poem, not a passionate love affair), but whatever the story behind it, it stands little chance of being as entertaining as this version.

The movie, full of clever references to all sorts of Shakespeariana, both obvious and obscure, is basically a work of fanfic by screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (yes, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). I suspect that we have Stoppard to thank (or blame) for the breadth and depth of the trivia that is on display here. I only have one complaint: the murder of Christopher Marlowe as it is explained in the movie is the one aspect that is decidedly less interesting than the true story, or rather, the dense network of conspiracy theories that have grown up around Marlowe’s actual demise.

Of course, it really doesn’t hurt that the movie has a killer cast. Shakespeare and Viola are played by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, and then there’s Judi Dench as the Queen. Supporting players include the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Colin Firth, Imelda Staunton, Ben Affleck, and many more. Rupert Everett has a side-splitting cameo as Kit Marlowe. These players breathe even more life into what is already solid material with great production values, and the result is largely a really good time that combines mass appeal (there’s even a bit with a dog!) with highbrow in-jokes.

Although Shakespeare in Love is a great deal of fun, I’m not convinced that it’s the best film of 1998. I have never actually seen Saving Private Ryan (I know, I know), so I can’t comment there, but a few other titles do come to mind. Of course, there is The Truman Show, a truly prescient film based on an excellent screenplay that was released two years before reality television exploded with “Survivor.” American History X remains a powerful, challenging, and ultimately redemptive examination of racism. Pleasantville and Dark City are also both excellent (in totally different ways). The real travesty of the year, though, has to be in the foreign film race, where the trashy, saccharine Life Is Beautiful took the category (and a few others) while Tom Tykwer’s amazing Run, Lola, Run went completely unnominated.

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~ by Jared on September 17, 2008.

One Response to “Shakespeare in Love: Best Picture, 1998”

  1. Everybody here is just having a total ball with this material, and it then gets pushed onto us as well. Great directing job, great screenplay, and even better acting. Good review, check out mine when you can!

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