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

***

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for “movie” movies. Films that are unashamedly, one could argue, the platonic ideal of the artistic platform: good fun. These are the movies filled to the brim with villains menacing dames, infinitely quotable dialogue, recognizable faces, comedy, tragedy, love, heartbreak and swashbuckling fights — films that make it onto the everyman’s favorite movie list. After all, people don’t love “Casablanca” because it captures the gritty realism of German-occupied Morocco, or “The Princess Bride” because it accurately delves into the morality of killing the man who killed your father. We love those films because they teach us that art can be fun. Even when it’s sad, or dark, or cheesy, art (especially film) can be full of a life that makes you want to jump up and kiss someone.

Speaking of kissing, consider “Shakespeare in Love,” the tale of how the story of theater and literature’s most famous lovers came to be. The movie offers us a profoundly watchable glimpse into a “fake” (but isn’t it fun to believe it could be true?) slice of the life of William Shakespeare, played with an almost uncontainable artistic energy by Joseph Fiennes. An example of this fervor shows up when Shakespeare finishes a play and declares, “God I’m good!” It’s this exasperated cockiness that makes the character so electric, so likeable.

He is also a sort of rogue, using his heavenly gift with words to pilfer to pockets of theater owners looking for banal comedies and pop the corsets of the sultry muses who warm his bed. But because this is a “movie” movie, his promiscuous ways cannot continue, and he soon finds true love in the form of Viola, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Paltrow won an Oscar for this performance, perhaps deservedly. It’s hard to argue against her charm and her almost angelic belief in the power of theater. Also, the few moments of seriousness she does provide (namely, her readings of Shakespeare’s work) are sure to produce shuddering and possibly tears.

The two do not stand alone though, as the cast is full of familiar faces: Ben Affleck appropriately hamming it up, Colin Firth scheming for love in all the wrong places, Tom Wilkinson as the producer who realizes the art is more important than the money, and of course Dame Judi Dench, regal and commanding as Queen Elizabeth.

“Shakespeare in Love” won’t give you any new insight into the world. You’re unlikely to learn some deep, dark secret of humanity, and you certainly won’t finish it feeling depressed. It’s not that sort of movie. It’s the sort that makes you believe in those tales of star-crossed lovers, that makes you want to write poetry (it will be bad, but who cares?), that quite simply makes you full of feeling. And that’s why I adore it.

—MATT EASTON