Monday, October 17, 2011

1998 - Shakespeare In Love

All too often, if given the choice, I would rather stay home and relax than go out and do something. Lazy? Probably. Hence, I'm always surprised at how much I actually enjoy going out and doing something. And living in New York City offers me many somethings to go out and do, and the more unique those somethings, the more I seem to enjoy them. On Friday afternoon, Kat and I took a trip to Lincoln Center to see the IBM Think Exhibit, an interactive multimedia presentation celebrating the way in which modern technology enriches our lives. Utterly fascinating. Later, we travelled downtown to catch a friend perform the title role in one of Shakespeare's most violent tragedies, Titus Andronicus. The following evening was spent attending another friend's performance of the wonderful O Sole Trio, a musical group offering a cabaret of opera, jazz and musical theatre with an Italian twist. Finally, on Sunday morning, we met some friends for brunch at the charming Silent Era-themed Astor Room, adjacent to the historic Kaufman-Astoria Studios. In fact, the restaurant stands on the site of the studio's former commissary. One can only imagine which stars passed through those walls.

Next to review of the 1998 nominees for Best Picture is the eventual winner...

Shakespeare In Love
John Madden
Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
7 wins, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (Dench)

As the title would suggest, Shakespeare In Love centres on the romantic exploits of the world's most famous playwright, William Shakespeare (Fiennes), and you know it's a comedy because our titular hero is referred to throughout as Will. As the story begins, he is suffering from a bad case of writer's block, struggling to develop his latest comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. Philip Henslowe (Rush), the theatre owner who has commissioned Will's latest play, has some problems of his own, mostly financial, so he is in dire need of a big hit.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow) is simply itching to be an actress, thwarted by the seemingly insurmountable fact that only men are allowed on stage. Disguising herself as Thomas Kent, she auditions for and wins the role of Romeo, and when Will discovers this deceit, the two begin a forbidden love affair. Will is married, albeit estranged from his absent wife, and Viola has been promised to the stuffy Lord Wessex (Firth). Nonetheless, with his new muse, Will's creative spark returns to him and, with a much-needed title change, Romeo and Juliet begins to take shape.

Shakespeare In Love is undeniably fun. A light-hearted and romantic romp through the Elizabethan stage, it is filled with theatre humour and Shakespearean in-jokes, which, perhaps because I am an actor myself, I especially appreciated. (A particularly amusing moment occurs during a rehearsal, when the actor playing Tybalt swaggers in speaking his line with exaggerated vigour. Ned Alleyn as Mercutio breaks character, scoffs at his scene partner and says, "Are you going to do it like that?") While there are obviously many liberties taken with the story of Shakespeare's life, one can still glean a few nuggets of truth among the dramatic license. In fact, the entire tale is in effect a "what-if" story.

As expected with such period pieces, the design is sumptuous. It is interesting, however, to contrast this design to that of the other Elizabethan film in contention for Best Picture, Elizabeth, whose design is equally extravagant, yet with a dark focus that suits that film's mood. In Shakespeare In Love, the sets and costumes are bright and playful, adding an appropriate cheerfulness to the film.

Joseph Fiennes (pictured) and Gwyneth Paltrow are pleasant leads, lending the story an affable charm. Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar which, in many people's opinion, including mine, should probably have gone to Cate Blanchett for her magnificent turn in Elizabeth. Still, Paltrow's performance here is hard to fault. She is warm and natural and altogether appropriate for the genre. With one of the shortest performances to be awarded an Oscar, Judi Dench was named Best Supporting Actress for her gleefully icy portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. The only other acting nominee was Geoffrey Rush, delivering my favourite performance of the film as the sublimely goofy Philip Henslowe. The rest of the cast is filled with delightfully whimsical performers delivering delightfully whimsical performances - Colin Firth, Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton, Martin Clunes, Mark Williams. Even Ben Affleck successfully joins in the fun.


  1. Hooray for Captain Spaulding
    The African Explorer
    Did someone call me Schnorrer?
    Hooray, hooray, hooray!
    From The Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, filmed 81 years ago at Astoria Studios

    As someone who always seems to be two lines behind Shakespeare, whenever I watch one of his adaptations, Shakespeare in Love, melded one of his most famous plays with such an enjoyable fictionalized romance with the best British prose since Chariots of Fire. Call it Shakespeare for Dummies or Shakespeare Lite; it worked its charms on me completely. As a matter of fact, it is difficult for me to find any flaws in it.

    I emphasize the fictional aspect of the story. Although it takes place within a historical context, it certainly is an invention of the screenwriters. While I think the screenplay is easily the best of the year, the meticulous production design, costumes and ensemble acting all contribute to this most exhilarating film. Why did it all work out so well? I don’t know…it’s a mystery.

  2. I loved this film and even after it became chic to dislike it because it beat out Saving Private Ryan I still consider it the second best film of the 1990s.

    As for Paltrow, she played a young noblewoman, a young noblewoman pretending to be a man, a young noblewoman pretending to be a man playing Romeo, and a young noblewoman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman playing Juliet. I have no problems with her winning the Oscar. She certainly earned it.

  3. I agree with your well-described assessment of Gwyneth Paltrow's performance, Chip. I also felt she deserved her award. Between her tearful acceptance speech and Roberto Benigni's exuberant one, the Academy had one of its more emotional pairs of leading performance Oscar recipients.