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Step into the Salon: Duking it out over 'Shakespeare in Love'

Miramax

By Matt Easton, Daily Film Editor
and David Tao, Senior Arts Editor
Published March 13, 2012

Shall I compare thee to 1998’s other Best Picture nominees?
Thou art trite and utterly unmoving.
Weinstein’s bribes did shake the Academy’s fickle temperament,
For what else could explain Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar?

That’s all loosely paraphrased from the Bard himself — loosely to the point when it’s no longer really poetry. But then again, neither is “Shakespeare in Love,” no matter how many flowery romantic clichés its characters spew in cloyingly delivered Early Modern English.

In case you can’t decipher the pillaged sonnet in the article’s lead, here’s some background. “Shakespeare in Love” — part of a slew of overrated Best Picture winners that includes oversentimental saccharine such as “Crash,” “Titanic” and “The King’s Speech” — took home seven trophies at the 1998 Oscars, including, as previously stated, dubiously awarded honors for Best Picture and Best Actress. The film’s producer, the notorious Harvey Weinstein, famously spent millions giving the movie a last-minute advertising push, which somehow enabled the film to sneak by Steven Spielberg’s timeless and powerful “Saving Private Ryan” for the top spot. The spending drive also managed to sneak a weakly mustachioed Paltrow past Cate Blanchett’s regal (literally!) performance in “Elizabeth” and a hackneyed, ironically unoriginal script past the diabolically plotted “Truman Show.”

But the film isn’t just bad because of the hardware it managed to undeservedly win. It also happens to be a really bad movie. Swordfights are “West Side Story”-esque, in the sense that they evoke a universal “nobody actually fights like that” reaction. There’s a Ben Affleck character also, who, for all intents and purposes, is just Affleck phoning in a cringe-worthy “British” accent. And those are just a few small, technical things that suck. There’s also the acting, which is universally overexaggerated and hamfisted with the small exception of Judi Dench’s Queen Elizabeth, whose massive screen presence is pitifully underutilized. The script, full of not only the aforementioned romantic clichés but also cheap, unbelievably serendipitous coincidence, could have used a rewrite, or five, or a shredder.

But none of these compare to the utter derision reserved for Joseph Fiennes’s William Shakespeare. Fiennes plays Shakespeare as an immature dolt in love with his own voice, a high school student who thinks overemphasized line delivery means the greatest performance ever. This only emphasizes the easy-to-hate elements of the script’s take on Shakespeare, an unstable, wildly irresponsible man-child. This man-child is supposedly the romantic lightning rod, who fans of the film defend to this day, but somehow they forget that he’s a philanderer who we see patronizing prostitutes. The entire plot involves him using his honeyed tongue to seduce Paltrow’s virgin (again, literally!) character. Today, that’d be called creepy and pedophilic.

In the end, it’s not artificially generated hype or meaningless trophies that determine a film’s legacy, but how the public looks at it and its cast and crew years after its release. “Saving Private Ryan” continues to be cited years later as a true masterpiece, while “Shakespeare in Love” has faded into obscurity. While his older brother went on to transfix audiences in “In Bruges,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Harry Potter,” Fiennes’s last leading role was as a cop on the ABC drama “FlashForward,” which slowly hemorrhaged viewers until the network finally delivered the coup de grâce. Paltrow has, as “30 Rock” derisively put it, “gone country,” famously recording the most whitewashed Cee-Lo cover ever performed. And Affleck? He’s back now, and if you haven’t seen “The Town,” go see it. But immediately after “Shakespeare”? Well, one word: “Gigli.”

Advantage: Spielberg.

—DAVID TAO

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It’s hard not to have a soft spot for “movie” movies.