The Best Picture Project — Shakespeare in Love (1998)

 Directed by John Madden

 Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman

 Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Collin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench  and Tom Wilkinson

The essential question with Shakespeare in Love is this:  By winning the Oscar for Best Picture, did it deprive, i.e. rob, Saving Private Ryan of it’s just reward?  Yes, there are other questions we can ask, and other rabbit holes we can dive down – plot summary, anybody? But all of those other questions and discussions will pale in comparison to the big one.

Was Saving Private Ryan robbed?

The short answer?  No.

The long answer?  Definitely, no.

The love that movie-goers have for Saving Private Ryan is dominated by a feeling of awe at the battle sequences – particularly the opening storm on the beach at Normandy.  Told with jittery cameras and all the grit and mud and random death you can shake a stick at, the sequence was touted as being as close to an immersion in the battle itself as any audience could get without having to pick up a gun.  And unlike many other movies that make promises it can’t keep, Saving Private Ryan keeps this one.  Technically, the sequence is astounding.  If you didn’t think that war was hell before, you definitely did after that point.

But as much as people remember the movie for the perfection that is the battle scenes, they conveniently forget the movie is riddled – riddled – with flaws.

  1. Like most of Spielberg’s output as of late, it’s saddled with that same saccharine nostalgia and epic sweep of the wonderful days of yore.  In other words, rather than actually make you care about the characters because they are worth caring about, it evokes nostalgia for a different time and hope that nostalgia makes you care about the characters.  In the end, it might work, but from a storytelling perspective, it’s cheating and dishonest.  Anyway, in this instance, the evocation did not work – I really didn’t care for/about most of the characters.
  2. The film is blatantly and emotionally manipulative, setting up scenes less for the purpose of pushing the plot forward via solid use of established characters than to make you cry.  Worse, it doesn’t earn the cry through emotional truth, but gets it by making you think of the grand operatic sweep of something and in contemplating the grandness of the moment, you cry.  Specifically, I’m thinking about the sequence where Mama Ryan is informed of the death of her sons.  She is not a character in the story in any way and exists solely so you can see what she’d be doing when the men come to tell her about the dead.  What is the point of that scene to the plot or actual characters in the story?  None.  It’s only there to get your tears.  Anyway, a similar sequence in the old man crying at the grave because he hopes he’d earned his life.  Blech.
  3. More damning than those flaws are the serious narrative flaws of the picture.  The story of Saving Private Ryan is ostensibly told by a person that lived all these events, seen them and therefore can accurately report upon them – I’m thinking that the Ed Burns character was perfect for this.  I mean, he lived to the end, right?  He was on the beach at the beginning, participated in everything in between and then made it to the end.  He’s the narrator!  Logically, then, who couldn’t have been the narrator, because he only saw about a third of the story firsthand?  Well, the one telling it, of course – Private Ryan.  And if the story is told from his perspective, isn’t it logical to assume that his recollection of the events that occurred before he shows up in the movie is completely unreliable and based on third hand stories and essentially hearsay?  And therefore, since he couldn’t have seen them, isn’t it logical to assume there there is no telling whether the story he affixed as a preamble to his inclusion in the story is true or not or whether he created it for maximum effect.
  4. The film was directed by the Steven Spielberg known for the technical sentimentality of movies like Lincoln and A.I.  Not the cold blooded killer who directed Jaws.  I pine for the version of Saving Private Ryan that the director of Jaws made – that truly would be something to see.
  5. In a way, my problem with Saving Private Ryan comes down to my problem with Lincoln: it has all the right elements of a great movie but was assembled by a guy who doesn’t seem to have people around him willing to second-guess his choices and say, “Steve, this part is boring – can we cut it?” Or, “what’s the point of this scene, character or plot-wise and why is it necessary?”

 In hindsight, Saving Private Ryan is essentially a perfect twin with the movie Pearl Harbor – in many ways the grow out of the same sensibility.  The only real difference is Michael Bay directed his film to look pretty and polished, whereas Spielberg directed his to look dirty and scuffed up.  I guess that’s why one was critically lauded and the other was critically dismissed, because, in essence, they have very similar stories to tell.  Interestingly, despite their critical receptions, it’s Michael Bay’s movie I like better.  At the least he’s honest and tells his story the way he tells every story – that being with shine and polish and a sledgehammer.

In hindsight, it’s clear that not only was Saving Private Ryan not the Best Picture of 1998, it wasn’t even the best war film of that year – that honor goes to The Thin Red Line.  It might not be nearly as sexy a choice, and might not have all the over-the-topness about it, and Terrence Malick movies might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but where Saving Private Ryan goes for bombast, The Thin Red Line goes for the personal.  Where Saving Private Ryan goes for sentiment to get an emotional reaction from the audience, The Thin Red Line goes for the poetic and the ironic.  In a way, Saving Private Ryan is like some lousy garage band, while The Thin Red Line is Led Zeppelin.

If I had my choice, I think I’d pick The Thin Red Line.  Sadly, though, I don’t have my choice – Hey, AMPAS, you forgot to send me a ballot again this year!  And, this post being more about the historical Shakespeare in Love v. Saving Private Ryan debate there’s no point in dragging The Thin Red Line into it – after all, I’m not so blind to think The Thin Red Line would’ve won, even if it should.

So, given how down I am on Saving Private Ryan, you might think I’m automatically up on Shakespeare in Love.  But if you thought that, you’d be wrong!  Really wrong!  After all, while it’s certainly better than Saving Private Ryan, and while it did win Best Picture, doesn’t mean it doesn’t suffer from its own flaws – it just means those flaws are more minimal and easily overlooked.

Flaws?

  1. Cinematography is not great.  When I watch soccer on TV and the game is played in England, it’s the rare occasion that it’s not overcast or raining.  Yet, Shakespeare in Love seems to exist in a magical England where that stuff called water never actually drops from the sky.  And where the sun is always shining.  And where shadows don’t exist.  It might just be me, but I’m thinking I might have to call ‘bullshit’ on the weather and lighting.
  2. As dirty as the people in the film are, because of all the filth and muck that ‘seems’ to be around, the sets seem to pristine.  As if the dirty people don’t live in them or walk around in them.  Yes, you can expect a certain level of cleanliness in the wealthy houses, but even those can’t be as spotless in real life as they are on film.   Much as I hate to admit it about Saving Private Ryan, at least the world of that film feels fairly authentic and not simply a well-dressed set.
  3.  The music of Shakespeare in Love is awful.  I can’t really say anything more about it other than it doesn’t feel right and the composer should be embarrassed.

 Assets?

  1. Shakespeare in Love has better acting, top to bottom, though I withhold judgment on Gwyneth Paltrow.  For me, it doesn’t matter she won an Oscar – she got to play both Romeo and Juliet in the film – it only matters that every time I hear her say the word ‘poetry’ in her ‘British’ accent, it never sounds right.  It makes me wonder why at least one of the Brits working around her didn’t lean over and say, “Psst, you’re saying it wrong.”.  (Although, to be fair, it may be that all the Brits around her might’ve heard her say it and thought, ‘sounds perfect to me’ and I’m just the idiot who doesn’t know better.)
  2. Shakespeare in Love has the better screenplay.  It’s tightly plotted, is a boatload cleverer and far more inventive.  I was especially tickled how many of the best lines Shakespeare uses in his play started out as random things he overheard on the street and in the pub.
  3. The films is funny and doesn’t pass up taking the obvious laugh when the obvious laugh is best.  At the same time, it’s not afraid of going for the long joke when the payoff is worth it – I’m looking at you stuttering guy who magically spoke perfectly.
  4.  The movie is sneakily sentimental in that it shows us just how wonderful love can be and the crazy things it’ll make you do and in the end, our emotional reactions to the story are earned and come organically from the story, not manipulated out of us by sad music and that kind of nonsense.

 In the end, the truth is I would rather not watch either of the big two films of 1998, I’d rather watch The Thin Red Line.  But, that’s just me.

 Note:

 Shakespeare in Love also won the BAFTA over Saving Private RyanSaving Private Ryan was basically shut out by the English, so you can’t say its failure at the Oscars was an isolated event.  Apparently nobody really thought it best.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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