THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998)

In 1999, the 71st Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 1998, the awards were held on March 21. This date marked the first time in Oscars history the awards were held on a Sunday. For the third time, the ceremony was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg.

With Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations for their performances as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love, respectively, Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench became the first pair of actresses to earn acting nominations in the same year for portraying the same character but in different films. With only 8-minutes of screen-time, Dench’s performance became one of the shortest in Oscars history to win an Academy Award.

Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful became only the second film in history to receive both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film nominations. With its seven nominations, it also became the most nominated foreign language film in Oscars history. Benigni became only the fourth individual to receive acting, directing, and writing nominations for the same film. With his surprise win for Best Actor, Benigni was only the second person to direct himself to an acting Oscar win, and only the third performer to win an Oscar for a non-English speaking role.

In one of the more controversial moments in modern Oscars history, the Academy announced they would present an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar to director Elia Kazan. The filmmaker had become somewhat of a pariah after agreeing to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, where he named eight actors as being members of the Communist Party, causing them to be blacklisted from working in the industry. Many felt the Academy were wrong to honour such a controversial figure. When Kazan came to the stage, some gave the director a standing ovation, but many attendees stayed in their seats, with some still applauding. However, several prominent guests, including nominees Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, defiantly refused to either stand or clap, creating one of the most infamous moments in Oscars history.

Leading the way this year with a staggering 13 nominations was John Madden’s romantic period comedy Shakespeare in Love, followed by Steven Spielberg’s war epic Saving Private Ryan with 11. In a surprise upset, Shakespeare in Love would sweep the awards, taking home seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

The nominees:
Elizabeth
Life is Beautiful
Saving Private Ryan
Shakespeare in Love
The Thin Red Line

The winner:
Shakespeare in Love

A fictional retelling of the life of one of the world’s greatest playwrights, Shakespeare in Love is the story of the inspiration behind his most beloved work. Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is the up and coming playwright of the time, but has been disastrously struck by the bane of the writer’s life – writer’s block. What Will needs is a muse – and she appears in the form of the beautiful (and betrothed) Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow). The path of true love doesn’t run smooth for Will, however – Viola is engaged to be married to the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) at the command of Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench). The joys and tragedy of his own life find their way onto the page in a moving, witty and spellbinding tale.

Why did it win?
Weinstein strikes again. After his success with The English Patient just two years earlier, the man who re-defined Oscar campaigning was back again. Only this time, he was one of the film’s producers. Why did that change things? It’s very simple – if Shakespeare in Love could pull off the biggest upset victory in Oscars history, Weinstein would finally have an Oscar of his very own. For this reason alone, he launched a campaign unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Relentless doesn’t even begin to describe the lengths Weinstein would go to, in his desperate and pathetic attempt to steal the Oscar race away from frontrunner and assumed Best Picture winner Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, it worked.

In what would become the most expensive Oscar campaign in history, Miramax would ultimately spend over $15 million on Shakespeare in Love – fifteen times the usual $1 million most studios would allocate to their biggest contenders. Weinstein spared no expense in promoting the film and its Oscar chances. He blanketed the town with VHS screeners of the film, so that every single Academy member had the option of watching the film in the comfort of their home. He hired dozens of publicists to woo Academy members into making Shakespeare in Love their choice this year, particularly those in the older demographic of the Academy.

Weinstein also threw lavish and elaborate screenings, with the film’s stars appearing, so as to mingle and schmooze with the audience before and after the film. He insisted they all be available for every single party, screening or industry event with Academy members in attendance. It was even reported Weinstein was so aggressively moving Gwyneth Paltrow around the country to meet Oscar voters that her manager had to intervene, for fear the star was at the point of exhaustion. It was more something more akin to a presidential campaign than an Oscar one, and no more was that evident than Weinstein’s unscrupulous reputation and penchant for dirty tactics.

Despite violating an Academy rule which strictly forbids studios from hosting events to which Academy members were expressly invited, Weinstein threw Shakespeare in Love director John Madden a lavish “Welcome to America” party, with several Academy members in attendance. Weinstein later dismissed questions over the legality of this event by stating it was merely a press event a few Academy members happened to attend, and insisted they hadn’t specifically been invited. This was a lie. They had, and the party could (and should) have ruled the film ineligible for Oscar contention.

Weinstein also launched a vicious smear campaign against Best Picture rival Saving Private Ryan, spreading whispers about the film being unnecessarily violent and its only real triumph was the first 15 minutes, after which the film lagged. DreamWorks were so incensed by Weinstein’s mudslinging, they desperately begged Steven Spielberg to personally campaign more heavily, and make more appearances. They also wanted to increase the spending on their Oscar campaign, in an attempt to match Weinstein’s efforts with Shakespeare in Love. But Spielberg, still stuck in the old-school mentality where Oscar campaigning did not matter, refused to “get in the mud with Harvey,” and foolishly assumed his film would speak for itself. Spielberg instructed DreamWorks to play no part in Weinstein’s game, and forbid them from spending more than was originally planned on their Oscar campaign for Saving Private Ryan. Big mistake.

In what still stands as one of the biggest shock victories in the history of the Academy Awards, Weinstein’s efforts would pay off. Shakespeare in Love would steal Best Picture, and six other Oscars along with it, many of which were equally as surprising. I don’t even think I need to go into the usual spiel about the film’s box-office success, the reaction from critics, and the precursor season. None of these really played a part in why Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture.

Yes, it made $289 million worldwide against a budget of only $25 million (Saving Private Ryan earned double that, just quietly). Yes, it received strong praise from critics. And yes, it won three Golden Globes, the WGA for Original Screenplay, and the SAG Award for Best Ensemble. But those are really irrelevant facts. When you break it down, Shakespeare in Love ultimately won Best Picture because Harvey Weinstein spent $15 million on an aggressive Oscar campaign which swayed voters his way, and delivered him the Academy Award he’d always wanted.

Did it deserve to win?
No. No, it did not. Do I really need to elaborate? Ugh, fine. I’ll try to keep it civil.

Look, I understand Shakespeare in Love suffers from the same unfortunate fate as How Green Was My Valley. It’s a perfectly fine film which really only receives so much hatred because it beat a far more deserving winner, in an upset that shocked and angered many. Had either of these films won any other year, perhaps they would be acceptable Best Picture winners. But the victory of Shakespeare in Love this year was the result of something more than just it being a deserving film, and that’s impossible to overlook.

Rather ironically, How Green Was My Valley also benefited from a shrewd Oscar campaign, launched by publishing magnate Randolph Hearst against the film’s main rival for Best Picture, Citizen Kane. However, that campaign was not controlled by the producers of the How Green Was My Valley. The film was just lucky to be on the receiving end of its rival’s unfortunate campaign collapse. Shakespeare in Love cannot say that. Its producer/Oscar campaigner is guilty of undeservedly stealing this race with bully tactics which still stand as despicable and shameful, particularly given the selfish motivations of the man behind that campaign. Weinstein did not campaign so aggressively for this film because he believed in it as a worthy Oscar winner. He did it so he could win himself an Academy Award.

When you take Harvey Weinstein and the nonsense Best Picture victory out of the equation, I actually adore Shakespeare in Love. It really is a beautiful film. It’s a great romantic comedy with terrific acting throughout. As much as I hate to admit it, Paltrow gives a fine performance. Not an Oscar-worthy one, but it’s still completely delightful. Dench is typically scene-stealing as Queen Elizabeth I. Fiennes is even more dashingly charming and roguishly handsome than his brother, Ralph. Add in Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton, Simon Callow, and Jim Carter, and it’s truly a stunning piece of ensemble acting. It deserved that SAG win. It still stands as the only film in SAG history to receive nominations in all five acting categories. Impressive, no?

The film shines even brighter with truly a truly superb screenplay, and beautiful artistry in the dazzling production design from Martin Childs and the glorious costume design from Sandy Powell. Shakespeare in Love is a wonderfully crafted film that’s hard not to love. It’s a film I have watched many times, and can continue to watch again and again. But I can say the same about many a film which did not win Best Picture. Enjoyment does not equal a film worthy of Oscar glory, especially when that film won Best Picture by methods which reduced the Academy Awards to nothing more than a beauty pageant.

I understand the Oscars are essentially a game, and those who play that game the best are often admired as being masters of marketing. There’s a way to win an Oscar and keep your dignity, and it doesn’t involve anything Harvey Weinstein has to offer. What Weinstein did this year was essentially give birth to a new era of awards season, and the Oscars were never quite the same again. His campaign methods, both clean and dirty, have since become the model for any studio wishing to play in the game that is the Academy Awards.

Smear campaigns are now common. Every year, most frontrunners are subjected to some sort of mudslinging that often sticks and cuts them down. Lavish and expensive Oscar campaigns are now part and parcel of the season. Awards season now means big bucks for any film hoping to make it through the gambit that is an Oscar campaign. Studios had to start taking awards season seriously, and for the last 20 years, they have been. For better or worse (mostly the latter), Weinstein changed the game, and showed how easily the Oscars could be manipulated. It’s just a shame the Academy fell for it over such a light and undeserving piece of cinema like Shakespeare in Love.