How Shakespeare In Love Ended Up With A Reputation It Didn’t Deserve
20 years ago, Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture. That win was justifiable. Shakespeare in Love is a good, interesting movie. It’s a comedy through and through, but it’s also pristine. In the years since its release, it’s earned a reputation as an undeserved winner. It’s one of the biggest controversies in Oscars history. The reputation Shakespeare in Love has earned has almost nothing to do with the movie. It’s all about the movie Shakespeare in Love beat for Best Picture: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. An undeniably great war film, Saving Private Ryan was the serious, weighty picture that awards season. By comparison, Shakespeare in Love felt like a bit of a lightweight.
Shakespeare in Love certainly is a lot lighter than Saving Private Ryan. The problem comes when you conflate tone with importance. Shakespeare in Love was treated as an undeserving award winner because it was an unabashed love story that didn’t even have the decency to coat itself in tragedy. At least Titanic, which won Best Picture the year before, had the common sense to end with a couple hundred people freezing to death in the middle of the Atlantic — including our heartthrobby protagonist.
That’s not to say that Shakespeare in Love is just two hours of jokes. It’s about love and the expectations placed on women in Elizabethan England. The film’s story of a wealthy actress who pretends to be a man so she can play Juliet onstage is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous. Shakespeare in Love is about the societal sexism and gender roles, and it went up against one of the manliest movies ever made.
What is “Important”?
“Serious” movies don’t have to be macho, but they often are. The most tried and true “serious” movies are typically about men grappling with something. In crime films, it’s their own ambition; in war films, it’s a faceless enemy, in westerns, it’s wide open spaces and evil ne’er do wells. These are the genres that we, as a culture, have decided to take seriously. They are no better or worse on average than other genres. Bad films in all three genres come out regularly, but because they feign at being dignified, they are considered worthy of awards, and of serious deliberation.
None of this is to say that Saving Private Ryan is itself a bad film — quite the contrary. There are plenty of war movies far more guilty of putting up a front than Saving Private Ryan. While Steven Spielberg’s film about one squadron in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion is undoubtedly heavy, it doesn’t seem bogged down by a feeling of importance. It’s a smart film about the consequences and terror of war. It’s a film about American heroes from an era when most people still believed they existed. Saving Private Ryan is a very, very good film. It might even be a masterpiece.
Shakespeare in Love might be a masterpiece, though, too. It’s certainly working off of one of the funniest scripts ever written. The direction is smart, and the central performance from Gwyneth Paltrow is the definition of star-making. Gwyneth’s career has taken some odd turns since then, but her work as Viola, who wins Shakespeare’s heart only to leave forever, is breathtaking. Her performance is the kind of thing that’s hard to look away from. She’s mesmerizing.
Joseph Fiennes has also had an odd career since playing Shakespeare in this film, and his work in the role can’t match up to Gwyneth’s. Still, he’s a fine if unmemorable cog in the movie’s machine. The colorful supporting players outshine him, though. Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and Ben Affleck all do amazing work. This might be the best performance that the Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice star has ever committed to the screen.
The Weinstein Problem
While the supporting cast here is legendary, Harvey Weinstein is the reason Shakespeare in Love won. Today, Weinstein is known to the world as a serial assaulter of women. In 1999, when Weinstein was the head of Miramax, the company that produced Shakespeare in Love, he was just emerging as one of awards seasons’ most notorious figures. It was his vigorous campaigning that allowed the film to beat out Saving Private Ryan, the presumptive favorite headed into the night.
No movie that Weinstein touched will ever be able to outrun him. Shakespeare in Love‘s legacy is particularly tarnished, because of the direct role Weinstein played in securing the movie’s victory. Even so, the movie is not undeserving of Hollywood’s biggest award. Weinstein was a powerful force inside Hollywood for decades, and he touched hundreds of movies in that time. Some of them suck. Others, like this film, are worthy of praise and continued discussion despite his involvement. To ruin the legacies of various actresses’ films because they happened to work with a monster would be doing those women a disservice.
Shakespeare in Love is Great Because it’s so Good
Shakespeare in Love is a great American film that also happens to be about two people falling in love. It’s a hugely rewarding film to watch. It doesn’t stop moving for a minute, and its final moments are wondrous and lovely. It’s an easy movie to turn on and watch. There’s something to be said for movies that don’t feel important. Saving Private Ryan is an almost perfect movie, but so is Shakespeare in Love. To argue that the war epic is more important because it leaves you hollowed out and teary-eyed is to suggest that the joy Shakespeare in Love provides is somehow less valuable.
The joy of movies is the variety of different emotions they can leave their audiences with. Don’t invalidate the ones that leave us feeling good.