Each year the day after the Oscars, there is a water cooler debate about which movie should have won. Usually these debates are quickly forgotten and lost in awards history except to the most ardent movie lovers. However, there is occasionally an Oscar upset so great that people don’t forget. This year marks the 20th anniversary of such an upset: “Shakespeare in Love” winning Best Picture by beating “Saving Private Ryan” (watch the flashback video of that stunner above announced by Harrison Ford).
I was one of the many who was stunned by this win on March 21, 1999. Everyone thought “SPR” would win, despite the fact that “Shakespeare” had the lead in nominations that year. How could a flighty fictional love story win over a fact-based WWII drama? The heavily financed Miramax campaign led by the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein caused some to feel “Shakespeare” stole the win from “Ryan.” This year I have rewatched both of these films. My 16-year-old son wanted to see “SPR,” so we watched it over Memorial Day weekend, and it was as great as I remembered. I recently revisited “Shakespeare,” and realized it was actually better than I remembered! And I am now convinced that maybe the Academy members weren’t so wrong, after all. How dare I say such a thing?
There are many elements that go into making a great, memorable, awards-worthy film beyond just acting and directing. The costumes, makeup, music, set design, editing, sound, and cinematography all have to come together to create a believable, attention-worthy story that is visually appealing. Many argue that if the director wins (Steven Spielberg won Best Director for “Ryan,” defeating John Madden), that is the movie that should win. I disagree. I think the category most directly related to Best Picture is one for screenplay since the script is the foundation for the movie. You can have the best of all the other elements, but without a solid foundation, it will most likely fall apart. And guess which movie won in the screenplay category? “Shakespeare in Love!”
It’s a funny, clever script brought to life by some of the most delightful and talented English actors and actresses (and, weirdly, Ben Affleck). It’s a masterful blend of fact and fiction, and plays like an actual Shakespeare piece. There’s a play within a play (or, in this case, a play within a movie), a woman disguised as a man, mistaken identity, and a tragic love story mixed with elements of comic relief. Much of Shakespeare’s life is a mystery, and there is a period of time when very little is known of his whereabouts. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard took advantage of this hole in time, and concocted a story surrounding William Shakespeare’s penning of “Romeo and Juliet.” They melded historical figures such as Queen Elizabeth I and the writer Christopher Marlowe with fictional figures Viola De Lesseps and Lord Wessex to create a truly imaginative event in the Bard’s life. They wove in Shakespearean quotes and plot lines seamlessly into a unique piece of cinema.
This unique piece of cinema scored 13 Oscar nominations, placing it in the top 10 of movies with most nominations of all time. It received nominations in all the top categories, except for Best Actor, and won two acting awards. “SPR” scored 11 nominations, with its only major win being Best Director. “Shakespeare” won a total of seven awards, compared to “SPR” with five wins. Both films are visually stunning in their own right, with “SPR” winning in cinematography for its gritty and realistic view of battle, and “Shakespeare” winning in costume and production design for its visual beauty and period authenticity.
Although Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow was the front-runner in that category, another point of contention for some is Judi Dench winning Best Supporting Actress for less than 10 minutes of film time. Many felt that she should have won for Best Actress the year before (for “Mrs. Brown”), and this was a consolation prize. But as Queen Elizabeth, her impact on the film was unmistakable, and it seems as though she was in the movie longer. Her decisions propel the movie, and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, her role as well as Paltrow’s seem even more relevant today than they did 20 years ago. Dench has some of the best lines, one of my favorites being, “But I do know something of a woman in a man’s profession. By God, I do know about that.” Women at that time were not allowed to perform in the theater, and once a woman was “claimed” by a man (such as Wessex does to Viola), she had no choice but to marry him. And Shakespeare himself was tied to his wife in an unhappy marriage, which is considered to be factual. Perhaps this film was ahead of its time?
“Saving Private Ryan” is considered by many to be one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and its place in film history is solid. It’s moving, the cast is excellent, the shots are some of the best ever filmed. But there are other great WWII films. How many other films are like “Shakespeare in Love”? How many other films cleverly combine tragic romance, comedy, historical figures, pieces of great literature, and period authenticity at level this film achieves?
I’m a fan of film, and watch films dating back to the 1920’s, and “Shakespeare” is unique. I think it is too quickly dismissed as a “chick flick.” After rewatching both films, I thought, “Why shouldn’t ‘Shakespeare’ have won?” Because it’s a love story instead of a war story? Because it has outrageously humorous moments instead of gritty battle scenes? Because it’s a comedy-drama instead of a war drama? Comparing these two outstanding films is like comparing apples and oranges. And I think that particular year, the Academy was in the mood for a quirky love story instead of a deep drama. I think the real mistake here is that “Shakespeare in Love” is remembered as a film that shouldn’t have won, instead of the great movie that it is.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own 2019 Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on February 24.