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Shakespeare in Love

Oscar is obsessed with history. One best picture winner after another is set in the past, some in the far past, others in the near past. No year is more of an example of that than 1998, when all five nominees were set in the past, ensuring the winner would be the seventh historical film in a row.

And for the winner we go all the way back to the 1590ís with Shakespeare in Love. The plot mirrors the plot of Romeo and Juliet, in that Shakespeare, like his tragic hero, despairs over lost love, then finds a much greater love with a woman he is destined to never have. Viola, the daughter of a rich businessman, is betrothed to a rich man she does not love. Wanting some excitement in her life, she dresses up as a man so that she can audition for a play. Being a big fan of Two Gentlemen of Verona, she auditions using a scene from that play, instead of using Kit Marloweís words. Shakespeare is willing to offer her a part, but she runs off. He follows her home to find a party where he sees her out of drag and falls in love. This inspires him to begin work on Romeo and Juliet. Of course it does not end well, and after the successful opening of the play, Viola and her new husband sail off to the new world.

The movie is peppered with references to not only Romeo and Juliet, but other plays as well. Viola, like Juliet, has a closer relationship with her nurse than with her mother. We get the "It was the nightingale" exchange from act 3, scene 5. We even have a balcony scene.

There are problems of course. We simply donít know very many details of Shakespeareís life, so the authors get some free reign to make stuff up, but even the details we do know they get wrong. Romeo and Juliet was written two years after Marlowe died, yet the movie seems to think they happened concurrently. Plague closed all of Londonís theaters for two years, forcing companies to tour other parts of the country. The movie mentions this, but implies the theaters opened and closed on the whim of the Master of the Revels. The movie even falls prey to the misconceived notion that Shakespeare was second best to Marlowe until Marloweís death. In fact by 1593 there were already signs that Shakespeare would eclipse Marlowe. Where the brightest of the University Wits produced Dr. Faustus in the final year of his life, the Bard checked in with Comedy of Errors, Richard III, and The Taming of the Shrew. I would also question Shakespeare seeking therapy 300 years before Freud, and joking that he was going to confessional, when in fact any suspicion of Catholicism was a serious charge. The scene does save itself with the innuendo laden banter, which is how Shakespeare would have written it.

The performances here are quite good, although Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck sporting fake British accents is a bit rough. Affleck does hit it out of the park with Ned Alleynís response to Fennymanís question of "who are you" by listing off all the roles he brought to life. So far in this project Iíve seen two wonderful monologues, Paulís "You still think itís beautiful to die for your country" speech from All Quiet on the Western Front and the "We even forgot our own name" soliloquy from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Here is the third. Judi Dench did do a good job with her performance as Queen Elizabeth, though Iím not sure she deserved a best Supporting Actress Oscar for her three scenes of work. A fun fact: Dench and Cate Blanchett became the first pair of actresses nominated for Oscars in the same year for playing the same person in two different movies. Blanchett lost to Paltrow.

One questionable casting call was Rupert Everett as Marlowe. Everett is 11 years older than Joseph Fiennes who plays Shakespeare, and it is noticeable, when in reality the two writers were born two months apart.

All of the nominees that year were set in either Elizabethan England or World War II. Le Vito e Bella is cute at times, but overall rather annoying. Thin Red Line was well shot, and is a very good achievement in film making, but it goes on far too long and falls victim to many stretches where absolutely nothing happens. Saving Private Ryan is also a great achievement, but having Upham be a major focus of the plot just pissed me off. Elizabeth was a very good movie with a great cast, and Fiennes easily could have won an Oscar for his work there. Shakespeare in Love might actually be the best of the bunch. All are very good, all have their merits, but so few comedies win ever, itís nice to see one take home the big prize. So many other war movies, and especially World War II movies, win that the three WWII films up for best picture that year didnít break much new ground. For all of its flaws, and it did have many, Shakespeare in Love was something fresh.

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