Shakespeare in Love (1998): John Madden’s Oscar Winner, Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes

The 1998 Best Picture was the crowd-pleasing romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love,” directed by the British John Madden in a manner that shrewdly combines poetry, art, and entertainment.

Screenwriter William Goldman has pointed out that no Hollywood movie has been such a valentine to the theater in its depiction of actors as romantic fools who can only be happy and alive when they’re on stage.

Marc Norman’s idea provides the basis for a clever script, co-written with Tom Stoppard: the Bard experiences a writing block. The movie presents a portrait of the artist (played by Joseph Fiennes) as a young hack struggling with both creativity and affairs of the heart. For director Madden, “there was nothing remotely academic about the film, it’s all about first love.”

All the ingredients seemed to be right for the taste of the Academy voters.  The film’s title has a cachet too. Who can resist Shakespeare Shakespeare signals the beginning of modern drama and pop culture as well. The 435-year-old writer is “hot” in Hollywood, as evident in numerous Shakespearean productions, from an MTV-influenced version of “Romeo and Juliet” to modern-costume renditions of “Richard III” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

David Denby complained in the New Yorker that “Shakespeare in Love” has bad jokes, silly sword fights, and a weak ending, yet overall the picture is charming.

A celebration of populist entertainment, “Shakespeare in Love” was made with exuberant theatricality and wit. As a literary-erotic fantasy about the composition of the world’s most famous love story, the film serves up a romantic romp about the Bard and his radiant muse.

Gwyneth Paltrow, who won Best Actress for her irresistible Viola, gave a careermaking performance in a role that Julia Roberts had turned down in a previous reincarnation. It’s a great part, allowing Paltrow to be a boy and a girl, with moods swinging from passionate and sexy all the way to heartbroken. Geoffrey Rush won a supporting nomination as a theater owner shaken down by Elizabethan money men, and Dame Judi Dench won Supporting Oscar for her authoritative portrait of Queen Elizabeth, a small but significant part.

The result was massive boxoffice appeal and Oscar bonanza, leading with thirteen nominations, and winning Best Picture. The intelligent characters and colorful sets and costumes certainly help, but the real star of the picture is the feverish wordplay and whimsical plot by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, who won an Oscar. Norman is credited with the story, but it is Stoppard who mixes aspects of philosophy and literature, fact and fancy, wit and derringdo.

The most honored film that year–11 nominations–Shakespeare in Love was a feel good movie that made viewers and Oscar voters alike feel good about themselves, sort of patting themselves on the shoulder for recognizing all the references and allusions in the film.  The movie had literary cache–voting for it as Best Picture was like voting for Shakespeare as a great playwright.

Origins: Good Movies Come from….

The original idea for Shakespeare in Love was suggested to screenwriter Marc Norman in the late 1980s by his son Zachary. Norman wrote a draft and presented it to director Edward Zwick. The concep attracted Julia Roberts, who agreed to play Viola. However, Zwick disliked Norman’s screenplay and hired the playwright Tom Stoppard to improve it.

The film went into production in 1991 at Universal, with Zwick as director, but although sets and costumes were in construction, the role of Shakespeare had not yet been cast, because Roberts insisted that only Daniel Day-Lewis could play it.  When Roberts failed to persuade Day-Lewis, she withdrew from the film, six weeks before shooting. The production went into turnaround, and Zwick was unable to persuade other studios to commit.  Six years later, it became a Miramax project, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes.