Thursday, December 3, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Shakespeare in Love" (1998)

Scene from Shakespeare in Love
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Shakespeare in Love
Release Date: December 3, 1998
Director: John Madden
Written By: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard
Starring: Gwenyth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 123 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Actress (Gwenyth Paltrow)
-Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Make-Up

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Life is Beautiful
-Saving Private Ryan
-The Thin Red Line

And the winner is...

Throughout history, there are few figures as revered as that of William Shakespeare. He was a playwright who lived several centuries ago and forever changed how people saw theater acting. With a lot of iconic works to his credit, it's impressive that he continues to resonate to contemporary audiences. However, it's easy to overlook that Shakespeare was but a man like you or I, and in 1998 director John Madden sought to prove this with the film Shakespeare in Love; which follows the production that went into making his most iconic play "Romeo and Juliette." While a controversial Best Picture winner given its competition, it's a film that proved that history could be both interesting and funny in ways that often weren't explored by more traditional Shakespeare adaptations, including fellow Best Picture winner Hamlet.

While the film came out in 1998, the idea for the film hearkens back a decade. Writer Marc Norman had gotten the idea to do something about a young Shakespeare when his son Zachary called him. The idea took two years to finally emerge from there, resulting in a script that was ready to film by 1991. Julia Roberts was initially attached to play the lead with Edward Zwick scheduled to direct. Her catch was that she wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play the immortal Shakespeare. This never happened, and things quickly fell apart. Eventually, Harvey Weinstein bought the rights and decided to film it using Joseph Fiennes in the lead role. The producer also had Ben Affleck star in the film, of which the actor used it as an excuse to be close to his girlfriend Gwenyth Paltrow. Despite their romance, Affleck turned down the part of Shakespeare, instead playing Ned Alleyn. 

The story of Paltrow's involvement was a little more suspicious. When visiting her friend Winona Ryder, Paltrow asked to read the script. Little did Ryder know that Paltrow was going to try out for the part. When she got the role, Ryder broke up their friendship, which has lasted for decades. Comparatively, the remaining cast lacked any major back story. Judi Dench would later claim that she had to wear high heels in her scenes, thus causing Madden to nickname her Tudor Spice, a reference to the then popular girl group The Spice Girls. It wasn't the only reference in the film. After Madden disliked Norman's script too much, he hired Tom Stoppard to punch it up. This resulted in something a lot more grounded in Shakespearean reverence. For fans of the playwright, the film is stocked full of subtle dialogue and visual nods to his work.  Stoppard was nervous however, believing that he could accidentally add references that were too obscure if he wasn't careful.

The final scene was considered a little problematic. When shown to test audiences, the love between Viola (Paltrow) and Shakespeare was considered confusing and improperly explained. With weeks to go until the final opening, Madden scheduled his actors to return to reshoot it with a clearer thesis. Paltrow had to be brought in from her filming of The Talented Mr. Ripley in order to do the part. The payoff was well worth it, as it helped the film to be more acclaimed by critics and audiences of the time. It was a film that was so successful that it earned $283 million at the box office. While some could debate that Weinstein used shady campaign methods to help the film win Oscars, it was well on its way to winning by the time that the Oscars ceremony finally took place.

While many think of the competition between Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan to be among the biggest upset of 90's Best Picture winners, there was a film that was far more similar to the period piece. Elizabeth was a film about Queen Elizabeth, whom Judi Dench played in Shakespeare in Love. Both films were so successful that both Dench and Elizabeth's Cate Blanchett were nominated in respective categories. To date, this is the only year in history where there have been two separate nominations for the same role.  The similarities don't stop there, as Joseph Fiennes plays the love interest in both. Also, Geoffrey Rush co-stars in both, though he would win a BAFTA for Elizabeth. It was also the first time in history that a real life father-daughter combination would win. Dench won for playing Queen Elizabeth while Charles Laughton won 65 years prior for The Private Life of Henry VIII as Henry VIII - Elizabeth's father. While there have been many nominated pairings, this is the only correlation to date that has won.

Beyond these coincidences, Shakespeare in Love's Oscar night wasn't without many more strange honors. With seven wins, the film holds the record for most Oscars won by a Best Picture winner to not also win Best Director (Madden lost to Saving Private Ryan's Steven Spielberg). Dench became the second shortest screen time for an acting Oscar win with six minutes (Beatrice Straight in Network tops the list with five minutes). It was also the last film to win the Oscars' category Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, of which was retired the following year after only four winners. The film also made some rule changes for The Academy. When the film featured five produces, The Academy claimed that a maximum of three can be nominated for Best Picture, regardless on how many are on the final cut. While the rule would be followed, it was given ease by 2007 when they decided that The Academy could determine what was an appropriate amount.

If there's one conflict with Shakespeare in Love, it's more that it embodies the ongoing trend of films paying tribute to the playwright. The creator has never waned from pop culture, even with Romeo + Juliette only two years prior. This isn't the first nor the last interpretation of Shakespeare as an individual, and its only credit is that it's about the man behind the work. However, it would become a controversial Best Picture winner thanks to beating the even more beloved World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. Many attribute this to the start of the notorious Weinstein campaigning that arguably "ruined" the value of the award. However you look at it, it's an interesting period piece that, while not directly based on any one story, brought an iconic figure to life in ways that resonated with audiences.

Shakespeare in Love is probably not everyone's favorite Best Picture winner. There's a good chance that it upsets some who think it unfairly won. Yet when judged on its own merits, the film proves to have a lot to offer. It's comedic and romantic in ways that presented a fresh spin on a centuries old subject. It's a film for people who love the playwright's work and want to see an escapism that The Academy so rarely rewards. In a time where Best Picture winners were sweeping epics, it was nice to go small and focus on something more tangible and universal. Even if it's not the best, it's one of the more creative and passionate films to win during the 90's, bringing to life something that was equally fascinating and a loving tribute to the acting that inspired generations since.

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