Tuesday, December 03, 2013

I Ne'er Saw True Beauty 'Til This Movie

Did my heart love 'til now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty 'til this night.

Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet"

Have you ever been watching the Academy Awards and you find yourself wondering, "What were they thinking?"

Of course, you have. We all have at one time or another.

When the Oscars were presented for 1998, I was certain that "Saving Private Ryan" would win Best Picture. I was so certain that I could have bet money on it — and I am not a betting man.

I could have lost my shirt, too.

Because "Shakespeare in Love," the movie that was released on this day in 1998, took home the Oscar. And I definitely wondered, "What were they thinking?" on that occasion.

Now, understand me. I like Gwyneth Paltrow (who won Best Actress) very much. I always enjoy her movies. I enjoyed "Shakespeare in Love," for that matter. But I didn't think it was a better movie than "Saving Private Ryan." No way.

But, in hindsight, I have to admit there was, in Shakespeare's words, "true beauty" in the story.

1998 was an unusual year for the Oscars in many ways.

Mainly, the Oscars went against the conventional wisdom that the director of the Best Picture wins Best Director. In 1998 Steven Spielberg won Best Director for "Saving Private Ryan," not John Madden (director of "Shakespeare in Love").

Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow): You have never spoken so well of him before.

William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes): He was not dead before.

It was an intriguing idea for a fantasy love story — William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), struggling to make it as a writer but plagued by that old writer's bugaboo, writer's block, seeks inspiration from his muse whom he discovers in the person of Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow).

De Lesseps wants to act, but women are prohibited from appearing on the stage in the late 16th century so she disguises herself as a man.

Shakespeare learns who she really is, and the two embark on an affair that Shakespeare uses as the inspiration to transform his current play, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter," into the classic tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet."

En route to this transformation, you see, Viola is cast as Romeo.

Well, if you haven't seen the movie, you should. As much as I thought "Saving Private Ryan" deserved the Best Picture Oscar, that doesn't change the fact that "Shakespeare in Love" was an entertaining and imaginative tale.

I guess it was the kind of story that the viewer could take anything from. As a writer, it should come as no surprise that the enduring message for me was the reminder that a great story is about people. The best writers take realistic, human problems — often problems they themselves have faced — and make their characters resolve them.

Joseph Fiennes was a persuasively human Shakespeare — not the stiff Shakespeare whose life story you may have had to research or whose plays you may have had to read when you were in high school but a living, breathing Shakespeare with problems very much like the ones we have today.

Personally, I find a Shakespeare who has struggled to achieve success as a writer more appealing than a Shakespeare who never knows hard times. The former is more qualified to comment on the human condition than the latter.

Near the end, I thought the movie grew a bit predictable. As the relationship between Shakespeare and Viola hurtled toward its apparently inevitable conclusion, so did the evolution of the original Romeo and the pirates play into "Romeo and Juliet." You could see it coming.

Of course, it helped to have the benefit of 400 years' worth of hindsight.