Februrary 23, 2013

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Judi Dench

Comments:   When I first sat down to create this countdown, one of the very first things I did was go through the list of movies that I picked and marked which entries were going to be the ones that would get the most criticism.  Because just by looking at the titles that I picked, it was easy to tell which entries were going to be well received and which ones were going to be landmines.

Like Forrest Gump.  Forrest Gump was a HUGE landmine.  In fact that one was such a big landmine that there was a reason it was the second entry that I posted.  I wanted to put it very early in the countdown so that I could get it out of the way, and so that I could show you that I wasn't afraid to praise a movie that millions of people out there will vehemently argue is overrated.  Basically I wanted you to expect the unexpected when it came to this countdown.

Like the fact that I might actually include a Ben Affleck movie

And, well, now we come to the second big landmine on my countdown.  In fact this one is arguably an even more dangerous choice to write about than Forrest Gump.  Because with this one I am not just pissing off the anti Forrest Gump crowd (who are passionate enough and obsessive enough on their own).  No, this time I am taking on an even bigger foe, I am taking on the Saving Private Ryan crowd.  I am practically taking on anyone who is either A) a male, B) enjoys war movies, or C) has ever had anything to do with the military.

Yes, I can only be talking about Shakespeare in Love.  One of the single best movies of the 1990's.  The movie that upset Saving Private Ryan and won Best Picture in 1999.  And a movie that, to this day, MILLIONS of people will tell you VERY ANGRILY is so overrated that I am likely to get punched in the face because I even suggested that it is underloved at all.

It is nearly impossible to talk about Shakespeare in Love without also mentioning Saving Private Ryan, so let's get that elephant out of the way early.  If you are not familiar with the Best Picture race from 1999, here is how it basically went down.

Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy/period piece that came out in late 1998.  It mostly appealed to English majors and theater types and females.  When it came out, it was considered cute and likeable.  But it was also mostly just considered a fluff piece.  At the time, Shakespeare in Love was one of those movies that people who loved Shakespeare really liked, but ultimately didn't make a huge splash in the world of moviedom.  It just wasn't mainstream enough to ever be a big super-loved megahit.

Saving Private Ryan, on the other hand, well that one was different.  Because Saving Private Ryan was a movie about World War II.  More specifically, it was a movie about the invasion of Normandy.  And it starred TOM HANKS.  And it was directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG.  And it was a very important movie about a very important American war.  There are very few movies I have ever seen in my life that were a bigger deal when they originally came out than Saving Private Ryan.  They practically handed the Best Picture award to that movie the minute it ever appeared on a movie screen.  

I mean, prior to Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks had just won two Oscars in a row for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.  And now he played a war hero in the definitive movie about World War II directed by Steven Spielberg.  Oh, and then Tom Hanks died at the end of the movie.  To say that Saving Private Ryan was the favorite to win the Oscars in 1999 is like saying that the Harlem Globetrotters are the favorites when they play the Washington Generals this Saturday.  It wasn't even supposed to be a contest.


So anyway, Saving Private Ryan was something like a 200:1 favorite to win Best Picture that year.  It wasn't even supposed to be close.  

But then Miramax took out this huge ad campaign at the last minute touting Shakespeare in Love as a darkhorse critics' favorite.  They started pimping it all over the place as an underdog to win Best Picture.  They started (correctly) pointing out that a lot of critics had actually (blasphemy!) preferred Shakespeare in Love over THE BIG IMPORTANT STEVEN SPIELBERG WORLD WAR II MOVIE, Saving Private Ryan.  In fact, if I recall, the ads praising Shakespeare in Love were pretty much relentless.  They were basically the only things you saw on TV in the weeks leading up to the 1999 Oscars.  

But then?  Surprise surprise.  The 1999 Academy Awards aired on TV, and sure enough, there was an upset.  It happened to be one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history.  Shakespeare in Love, the little fluff movie that only English majors really cared about, beat Saving Private Ryan, the biggest baddest most important American war movie that had ever been made.

Shakespeare in Love was named the best movie of 1998.

And it has basically been called "overrated" and "a worthless piece of shit" ever since.

Thomas Kent can taste your tears.  Mmmm, they're so yummy and sweet.

Now let's get real here.  It is perfectly fine to like both Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan.  There is nowhere in the rule book that says you have to love one and hate the other one.  

However, don't tell that to most people.  In particular don't ever say that to any of the members of Saving Private Ryan Nation.  Like I said before, I am only half kidding when I say that just by mentioning this movie I am going to get myself punched in the face.  This is BY FAR the biggest landmine out of any of the movies I have picked for the entire countdown.  In fact, just watch what is going to happen when I post this entry.  I am going to post it, and at least half of the feedback I receive over the next 24 hours will be people who won't even read it.   They will just see the title of the movie, and they will post some variant on my Facebook wall of "I HATE THAT MOVIE!  IT PUT ME TO SLEEP!  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!"

Just watch.  I know it is coming.   I know people, and I know how the movie world works.  There is a reason that I held off on writing this entry until nearly March.  I know that the pushback is going to come at me particularly strong on this one.

Now if you ask me, I happen to think that Shakespeare in Love is fantastic.  It has long been one of my favorite movies of the 90's, and I remember just being entranced by it the first time I saw it.  In fact I just watched it again a couple of days ago in preparation for this entry, and I was entranced by it again.  It is one of those movies that never gets old.  It gets better every time you see it.  You appreciate it more and more (and you catch more and more little inside Shakespeare jokes) the more times you watch it.

By the way, this is the point in the entry that I have to point out that yes, I was an English major when I was in college (at least, I started out as an English major.)  So yes, Shakespeare in Love was tailor made for a book nerd like me.  But I don't necessarily think you have to be super familiar with Shakespeare or the plays of Shakespeare to enjoy it.  Yes, if you are a theater person, yes if you have studied Shakespeare before, obviously you will get 150-200% more of the little inside jokes in the movie than your average moviegoer will.  But it doesn't really matter in the long run, because there are just so damn many of them.  Even if you only catch 1/3 of the little background jokes in the movie, that is still more jokes than you will find in most movies.  

Simply put, the Shakespeare in Love screenplay is one of my favorite movie screenplays ever.  It is just chock full of allusions, little inside Elizabethan jokes, random quotes from plays, subtle references to other plays, irony (both unintentional and intentional), puns, references to famous sonnets... uh, let's see, what else is in there?  There are references to other playwrights, there are moments where the action in the movie perfectly parallels the action in the play.  I mean, just watch this movie a dozen times.  Watch it after you study Shakespeare for a while.  See if you can catch how many little Shakespearean references the writers managed to cram into the script.  It is really quite impressive.  

And what is funny is that I have probably barely even managed to catch half of them.  And I still think it is awesome.

"Well, it's about a nurse."

Shakespeare in Love is one of those movies that you actually feel guilty saying nice things about, because there are so many people out there who just actively hate it.  But I don't care.  If there is ONE movie that doesn't deserve to be called "overrated", if there is ONE movie that doesn't deserve half the crap that it gets in the movie world, it is this one.  There is no way it is the least deserving Best Picture Award winner of all time (as it is routinely called).  I'm sorry.  Saving Private Ryan is good, but I think that Shakespeare in Love is good too.  They are just different types of movies.  There is no reason you have to trash one just because you like the other one.

Shakespeare in Love is the movie that turned Gwyneth Paltrow into a star.  It is the movie that turned her from "Hey wasn't that Brad Pitt's girlfriend in Seven?" to "Hey look that's Gwyneth Fucking Paltrow!"  She is really good in this movie.  And she deserved every award that she got.  I mean, shit, she basically plays four different roles in this movie, and all four of them are dead-on perfect.  At one point she even plays a dude.  And yes, if you aren't familiar with the 1999 Academy Awards, yes Gwyneth Paltrow did win Best Actress to go along with the movie's Best Picture.  And I can't help thinking every time I watch Shakespeare in Love, hey if they made this movie 15 years later that role would have been played by Anne Hathaway.

The lovely miss Viola De Lesseps.  Among other characters.

Shakespeare in Love is a movie that has a ton of closet fans out there, and it has always had a ton of closet fans out there.  In particular, a lot of teachers love it.  I have heard that a lot of teachers will actually show it in class.  But most people are too ashamed to come out and admit that they love it because they know that their opinion is going to get crapped on.  Because this really isn't one of those movies that you can come out and you can praise publicly.  Not if you don't enjoy a fight you don't.  Unless you are a weird theater geek (or people just think you are odd in general) praising Shakespeare in Love at any point after the 1999 Academy Awards has been bound to get you into trouble on the internet.  Because there is no way you can write "Hey you know what, I thought that movie was actually pretty awesome" without 80% of the internet reading that as "I hate America and the military.  Oh, and World War II was irrelevant."

But hey, somebody has to come out and say it.  And I guess that person is going to be me.

I am not a theater geek.  I have never been a theater geek.  I have never acted on a stage in my life.  In fact I specifically switched away from being an English major in college because I couldn't stand hanging around other English majors.  Personally I have always thought the whole English major/theater world is kinda weird and odd and cliquey and douchy.  

But I don't care.  Because I am not a theater geek, and I still think that Shakespeare in Love is FANTASTIC.

Overrated?  Shouldn't have won Best Picture?  Not as good as Saving Private Ryan?  

My ass.

This movie isn't just good, it is fucking amazing.

Like Forrest Gump, I know that this entry is going to earn me criticism.  I know that dozens (if not more) of people are just going to see that title and they are going to instinctively think OVERRATED! and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN RULES! and MARIO IS AN IDIOT!  And then they are going to post nasty feedback.  But I don't care.  There are just certain things that you have to stand up for in the world.  And this movie is definitely one of them.

Shakespeare in Love is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen in my life.  In my opinion, it was easily the Best Picture that year.  I mean, just check out the IMDB user reviews below, just look at how many teachers out there love this movie.  Check out how often this movie is used by English teachers to teach Shakespeare in schools.  This is one of those movies that has not only held up amazing well over the years, in my opinion it has actually gotten better.  I watch it now and I am just blown away that a movie this smart and this clever and this well written ever could have won a Best Picture award.

In short, some people out there (a lot of people) think that Saving Private Ryan should have won Best Picture.  I don't happen to agree with that, but hey I can understand if you do.  Personally I think that Saving Private Ryan starts strong, but after that it sort of gets kind of tedious and repetitive.  But hey, that is just me.  I am just a guy who has never really enjoyed a war movie.

My point is, just because you love Saving Private Ryan doesn't mean you have to shit on Shakespeare in Love.  It is perfectly acceptable for both movies to sit at the top of the 1990's movie chain, and for both of them to be loved.  This isn't an either/or type of situation, there is definitely room in the world for both types of films.  Especially because they were both amazingly good at pulling off what they were attempting to pull off.

Hate me all you want for saying this, but Shakespeare in Love is not overrated, and it has never been overrated.  As matter of fact I think it is hugely UNDERRATED.

There are far worse movies out there you could be focusing your anger on.


P.S.  Send all hate mail to theguywholikeschickmovies@idontgiveafuck.com

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Shakespeare in Love:

Oscar got it right after all - 3 February 2004
Some day, someone will be able to review this movie without mentioning Saving Private Ryan. Not today. In 1998, I couldn't believe that this Gwyneth Paltrow romcom won the top honours. Today, this film has grown on me while Spielberg's has not. It's clever, funny, dramatic and romantic, so it hits all the right buttons. And a terrific ensemble cast love every minute of it. Alright, so Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I is overrated, but the production shines from virtually every pore.

Shakespeare in Love - 28 October 2006
This is a great movie, full of comedy, drama, love, you name it. Unfortunately, due to the nudity, only the edited version is used in the school at which I teach. Still, it is a wonderful teaching tool to show students how costuming, screen writing, and acting SHOULD be. This is a first-class production. What is particularly excellent in this production is how John Madden incorporates so many of Shakespeare's lines from so many plays into this production. Furthermore, my the interweaving of the subplots helps with the teaching of irony, which many freshmen have trouble understanding. Outside the classroom, I highly recommend this film for a "couple's night" when people need a good laugh or are in the mood for some top-notch drama.

A Great Movie - 4 February 2005
When my English teacher told the class that we would be watching "Shakespeare in Love" everyone groaned, me included. We all thought it would be another boring movie, but I along with many others was pleasantly surprised. Even though the movie didn't portray the actual life of William Shakespeare, it is a very interesting interpretation of what his life might have been like. Normally I am not a big fan of Gwenyth Paltrow, but she fulfilled the role of Viola De Lesseps very well. This movie, unlike many others I have been forced to watch in school, has not been a waste of time and has informed us more about the concepts and details that could not be seen just by reading the play. Overall I think I have gained a better understanding of Romeo and Juliet by watching "Shakespeare in Love".

Deserving of every award received. - 2 June 2001
As a Shakespeare-o-phile I was blown away by the wit, imagination, humour, the literate script and the outstanding acting, costume and directing that sparkles throughout this film masterpiece. I can easily see why audiences unfamiliar with Shakespeares biography, his works and the everyday reality of Elizabethean life and the theatre would not be especially impressed. After all, while they did watch all the film, they really missed about half the movie. It would be like reading Giulliver's Travels as just a voyage adventure without noticing the fact that it's true genius and meaning lies on other levels entirely. There are many, many instances in the film where dialogue or events would seem to be straight forward but in fact allude to other known facts or persons; and therein lies the real humour and appreciation from what is in effect a continuing series of, "double entendres". What especially impressed me was the way in which the love story between Will and Viola is played out using many of the actual lines from Romeo and Juliet and with John Madden, the director, seamlessly transitioning the scenes from the bedroom to the stage and back again. I've never seen that device used in a film before with such effect! Deserving of every award it received and made it's main competition at the Oscar's that year, Saving Private Ryan, look like what it really was: a powerfully effective 15 minutes at the front end followed by an unimaginative and franky unbelievable John Wayne type flag waver from there on to the finish line.

Why bother comparing it to any other film? It's great on its own right. - 25 August 1999
Lots of people don't like John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love," I think, mostly because it beat out Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" for the Best Picture Oscar. But I'm not going to talk about that. Why? I'm not going to change anybody's mind, that much is obvious.

Well, if you want my opinion, "Shakespeare in Love" is a superb motion picture. It is, from every standpoint, a flawless piece of craftmanship. For starters, there is the acting, which is simply top-notch. This is clearly Gwyneth Paltrow's breakthrough performance, in which she truly delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Her character is rich, vibrant, and wondrously alive. As is Joseph Fiennes' take on Shakespeare. Even though the Academy didn't see fit to honor him with even a nomination, that is not to say that his performance is bad by any means. I predict that Fiennes will become a leading man in his own right, thanks to this film, because it is now completely obvious that he is an actor of great depth and enthusiasm, which is something Hollywood greatly needs today. And who could forget Judi Dench? The lady is, I think, simply brilliant. Give her seven minutes of screen time and she turns out a virtual instruction manual on screen acting. Her take on Queen Elizabeth is witty, smart, daring, outrageous, and yet, deceptively simple, that is, all the things the Virgin Queen was herself. And, of course, there is also Ben Affleck and Geoffrey Rush, among others, whose work here sparkles with originality and vitality.

But lets get to the real core of what makes "Shakespeare in Love" a great film. There is John Madden's effortless direction, and, above all, the amazing script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Seriously, I can imagine people being left in the intellectual dust when they come face to face with this film, because it is what so many films aren't. It manages to be blazingly intelligent, romantic, exciting, funny, serious, light, profound, historical, and farcical all at the same time, among other things. The dialogue crackles with energy and originality, and the writers are clearly playing a sort of mental tennis match with the audience. In the end, both sides win, and it is a glorious victory.

Doubts at first, but.... - 17 April 1999
When I heard that Shakespeare in Love recieved the Oscar for Best Picture, I couldn't believe it. How can something be better than Saving Private Ryan? But seeing that I never saw Shakespeare until just recently, I took it upon myself to find out if Skakespeare was truly better than Ryan. By the end of the film, I was well assured that the Oscar went to the better film. I loved Shakespeare. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself giving a little applause at the end. Who ever did the casting did a superb job. Not only could these people act in a film, but they could also do Shakespeare (which mind you is not very easy). Not only was the film excellent but the performances of Romeo and Juliet that appeared throughout the film were the best that I have seen and probably will see. Sadly, I could only give this film a 10 because the voting scale won't go high enough. In my opinion the film deserves an 11.

Keep in mind it is FICTION - 3 November 1999
Like The English Patient, this is a FICTIONAL movie depicting real people in a FICTIONAL tale. Don't over anaylize the historical accuracy of it. It is not historically acurate, it is not intended to be. What it IS, is a beautiful romantic story about a playwright and his muse. The parallels they create between Shakespeare and Viola and Romeo and Juliet are priceless and wonderful.

Also, I have to say, the performances of Romeo and Juliet in this movie are the best I have ever seen. I would love to see all the players from this movie do Romeo and Juliet the way they did in this movie. I have never before seen anyone speak the lines from any Shakespeare play in a way which conveys the feeling of them, as opposed to the meaning of them. It is a pity that the only time it is done is in bits and pieces for another movie.

This movie is great. Everything from the costumes to the acting is superb.

One of the best of 1998 and deserving of that Oscar! - 9 July 1999
Every so often a movie comes along that is literate, intelligent, and has magic and charm to spare. Movies like these affirm our belief that film is a terrific art form. Shakespeare In Love is one such movie.

The movie chronicles Shakespeare's writer's block while trying to write a play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. In desperate need of a muse, Shakespeare finds one in the beautiful noblewoman Viola de Lesseps who has a desire to be an actor at a time when women are forbidden from performing. Shakespeare and Viola fall in love thus inspiring Romeo and Juliet.

As Shakespeare, Joseph Fiennes steps out of his brother Ralph's shadow and proves what a dashing and charismatic leading man he can be. Fiennes has a Peter O'Toole quality about him and should become a big star. While his portrayal may be nothing like Shakespeare, he makes us believe in romance Shakespeare's woes.

Gwyneth Paltrow is stunning as Viola de Lesseps. She throws herself into the part and handles an English accent very well as she did in Sliding Doors and Emma. Viola is the heart and soul of the movie, she is the reason for Romeo and Juliet's existence and Paltrow truly makes us believe in romance.

The supporting cast is all terrific. Geoffrey Rush is amusing as the theater owner Henslowe. Ben Affleck is truly surprising a hammy actor, with good material, Affleck is quite a capable actor. Judi Dench and Queen Elizabeth and Rupert Everett as Christopher Marlowe round out the cast with fine performances.

The story is quite entertaining. Screenwriters invest the script with a healthy portion of Romeo and Juliet's dialogue and Shakespeare's sonnets that only make the movie more amusing. The story of Romeo and Juliet is familiar to us all, and the movie parallels the story in surprising and charming ways.

The most ingenious aspect of the movie is how elements of Shakespeare's plays have become so ingrained in our movies, television, and theater, even though they were cliches in Shakespeare's time. This movie actually manages to breathe life into all the old cliches thanks to a wonderful exuberance and a fantastic cast.

An intelligent movie that actually rewards the audience for knowing something about Shakespeare, Shakespeare In Love is a treat from start to finish. It makes literacy look sexy and makes sexiness look mature, a feat most movies only hope to accomplish Grade: A+

* My favorite trivia about Shakespeare in Love:

* Gwyneth Paltrow saw the script at Winona Ryder's office table in 1997 and asked her if she could read it.

* The street preacher at the start points towards the Rose Theatre and proclaims "The Rose, smells thusly rank and would by any other name," is an adaptation of "That which we call a Rose would by any other name smell as sweet," which is a line in Romeo and Juliet; the play at the center of this film.

* Will is shown signing a paper, with six illegible signatures visible. Several versions of Shakespeare's signature exist, all of which are different. This has led to debate about whether William Shakespeare may actually have been illiterate.

* Viola asks Will, "Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?" This is a hint at the modern day speculation whether the works of Shakespeare were really written by him, or whether some nobleman (or another famous author) used his identity as a pseudonym. The film also manages to provide theoretical sources for the two prevailing academic theories about Shakespeare's inspirations for many of the sonnets: that they were written either for an extramarital mistress or a male lover.

* Reference is made to Edward Alleyn on a promotional leaflet for one of William Shakespeare's plays at the beginning of the film. Edward Alleyn, an actor in Shakespeare's time, ('Ned' in the film, played by Ben Affleck) was the real-life founder of the famous London private secondary schools Dulwich College and Alleyn's School.

* The unpleasant little urchin John Webster, who is shown playing with mice, grows up to be a big name of the next (Jacobean) generation of playwrights. His plays are known for their blood and gore, and his most famous title is "The Duchess of Malfi."

* Lord Wessex (played by Colin Firth) is the villain of the film and is generally presented as none too bright. Wessex's mistaken belief that it is Christopher Marlowe instead of William Shakespeare who has slept with Viola is particularly amusing given that it is the general historical and literary consensus that Marlowe was gay; something that (the film implies) Wessex would have known if he paid even a little bit of attention to the theater, arts, or culture of his age.

* In an interview Judi Dench said she had to wear such high heels for this film that director John Madden nicknamed her "Tudor Spice."

* The play being performed for the Queen at the beginning of the film is Two Gentlemen of Verona.

* Judi Dench was so taken with the full sized replica set of the Rose Theatre that Miramax gave it to her to take home when filming ended. Variety reported in early 1999 that she was looking for a site and a financial backer so it could be used as a working theater.

* In the beginning of the movie, when Henslowe asks Will if he has been working on his play, and William Shakespeare answers "Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move" he is quoting from Hamlet (Act II Scene 2). The lines are from a letter he wrote to Ophelia while pretending to have gone mad, and are followed by "Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love."

* The priest near the beginning yells "a plague on both your houses," which is a famous quote from Romeo and Juliet.

* Counting this film's win for best picture, it has the most Oscars ever won (7) without winning the best director award.

* The sonnet Will writes for Viola which begins with "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" is Sonnet 18. In reality, this sonnet, along with Sonnets number 1 to 126, were written for a male friend of William Shakespeare. Some speculate that this friend is either Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southamption, or William Herbert, earl of Pembroke.

* In the first scene with William Shakespeare, we see him crumpling up balls of paper and throwing them around the room which land near props which represent or refer to other works by Shakespeare. The first lands next to a skull - a reference to Hamlet and the second lands in a chest - a reference to the Merchant of Venice.

* The boatman who rows William Shakespeare says, "I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once." This is a reference to the stereotypical remark of London taxi drivers about their famous customers: "I had that [famous name] in the back of my cab once."

* Kate Winslet turned down the role of Viola after the success of Titanic.

* Judi Dench won an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for her role as Queen Elizabeth, although she is on-screen for only about eight minutes in four scenes. This is the second-shortest performance to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The shortest ever performance was by Beatrice Straight in Network, as she appeared in only six minutes of the film.

* When Queen Elizabeth II was preparing to bestow a new noble title to her son Prince Edward in 1999, she originally wanted to make him the Duke of Cambridge.  But after he saw Shakespeare in Love, he asked her if he could instead be the "Earl of Wessex," after Colin Firth's character "Lord Wessex," even though the character is villainous and unlikable. He requested and received the "Wessex" title and is sometimes known as Edward Wessex.

* My favorite scene in Shakespeare in Love:

The last half hour of the movie is amazing.  As some IMDB reviewers have already noted above, the performance of Romeo and Juliet by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the best performances of Romeo and Juliet you are ever going to see on a stage.  Again, there is a reason that this movie won Best Picture.  

Shakespeare in Love at the IMDB

Shakespeare in Love at Wikipedia

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