It's one of those wins that critics point to as an example of how supremely wrong Oscar can be, like Crash or poor Marisa Tomei. And the story behind it is legend at this point: Harvey Weinstein's relentless campaign scoring a Best Picture win for Shakespeare in Love that everyone was certain belonged to Saving Private Ryan. Never mind that Steven Spielberg won Best Director, which feels like a pretty fair trade-off. Never mind that Shakespeare in Love is a beautiful, witty, wonderfully performed film worthy of accolades. Saving Private Ryan was robbed, dammit, and now Shakespeare in Love will continue to represent on every "worst Oscar winners" slideshow across the internet.
The injustice here isn't that Saving Private Ryan didn't win. It's that Shakespeare in Love will never again be appreciated simply as the film that it is; it must always be viewed as the film that bested Saving Private Ryan.
It was a weird year for the Best Picture category: two Elizabethan period pieces, two World War II pictures and one Italian film taking place in the years leading into WWII. So often it feels like the Academy is comparing apples to oranges to bananas to cucumbers to tacos, but in 1999, it was more like two apples and three oranges. What makes for a better picture: Queen Elizabeth or dirty soldiers in M1 helmets?
And though I think Saving Private Ryan is a magnificent movie, a lot of the backlash against Shakespeare in Love feels like a disregard for the legitimacy of romances over war films. Since the downfall of the romantic comedy (a genre that is being revived by great independent fare like Obvious Child and Amira & Sam, but that hasn't thrived in the mainstream in many years), romances are no longer perceived as serious cinematic endeavors. If they were, Shakespeare in Love would earn admiration instead of disdain. It's a great movie, and we would be allowed to call it a great movie even though it beat your favorite Spielberg war flick.
This is a film written by the vastly acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, and he wrote the hell out of it. This movie is as in love with William Shakespeare as Will is with Viola, and it makes that great, distant, mysterious writer someone present and tangible. More miraculously, Shakespeare in Love makes Shakespeare's plays current and relevant, and his writing is too often considered impervious to those who have never studied him, and therefore never learned that he actually wrote for the masses. Shakespeare is incredibly accessible once you have the key, and Shakespeare in Love unlocks that door and pushes you through to the other side. Stoppard and co-writer Marc Norman embed a hundred charming, clever little jokes for the observant Shakespeare fan, but even the most stubborn non-scholar will laugh - this is a hilarious movie, and an enchanting one, a film unafraid to entertain at every turn, a movie that loves what it is and takes joy in itself, and dares the viewer to do otherwise.
The performances are killer. Gwyneth Paltrow is never better, a sonnet unfolding onscreen, and Joseph Fiennes gives us a quirky, sexy Shakespeare, vibrant and energetic and entirely human. The rest of the cast is so pedigreed as to leave little room for debate. Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, Jim Carter, Rupert Everett: can anyone complain about these actors taking on a Shakespearean tragicomedy, even one that isn't actually Shakespeare? Furthermore, Ben Affleck is a genius in this movie and I bite my thumb at any who might argue the point. It's beautifully shot by Richard Greatrex, lush and lovely; the costumes (by Sandy Powell) are breathtaking and Stephen Warbeck's score is a delight.
Shakespeare in Love delivers on every front. It has wit and heart; it captivates the eyes, the ears, the mind. You might not prefer it to Saving Private Ryan, and that is a completely valid and understandable point of view. But why is the opposite viewpoint unthinkable? Why is it considered a travesty of justice that this film won Best Picture over another? When a film as original, engaging, intelligent and beautiful as Shakespeare in Love wins Best Picture, regardless of what it beat, it's an example of Oscar getting it right.