A look at the Oscar contest few considered a 'fair fight' at the time
Some still consider it the most shocking Oscar best picture result of the past 50 years, and it certainly remains one of the most memorable.
But while not everyone saw the victory of “Shakespeare in Love” coming at the Academy Awards on March 21, 1999, at the notable expense of “Saving Private Ryan,” it was hardly the stunning surprise it’s been made out to be.
Each film was strongly embraced by critics and kudos, each film campaigned fiercely, and when the moment of reckoning arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, true suspense was in the air.
Released five months apart, the soon-to-be-entwined pair enjoyed strong reviews — Variety said Steven Spielberg’s “Ryan” was “searingly visceral,” while John Madden’s “Shakespeare” was “exquisitely acted, tightly directed and impressively assembled” — along with their share of detractors. “Shakespeare” was accused of a lack of heft, while others contended that the bulk of “Ryan” failed to live up to the jaw-dropping 20-minute invasion sequence at the start of the film.
Having hit theaters in July, “Ryan” did enter awards season as the pundits’ film to beat. It got off to a good start by winning the Los Angeles Film Critics picture prize in December, days after “Shakespeare” first reached the bigscreen, and soon “Ryan” bagged the New York Film Critics Circle honor as well.
However, “Shakespeare” topped the Screen Actors Guild Awards — a key stepping stone to Oscar success — with five nominations, compared with two for “Ryan.” The films matched each other with Directors Guild, Writers Guild and Producers Guild noms.
By the time the Oscars noms arrived that year, “Shakespeare” — co-starring, among others, current “Argo” director and de facto “Lincoln” foe Ben Affleck — had emerged as a clear top rival to “Ryan.” And then, at least on paper, it surged ahead.
“Shakespeare” drew 13 Academy Award nominations, not only leading all comers but also matching “Forrest Gump” for the most by any film except for “Titanic” since “All About Eve” in 1950. “Ryan” was second with 11 nominations, ahead of a trio of best picture nominees with seven apiece: “Elizabeth,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Thin Red Line.” Variety noted in its report on the nominations that “Tuesday’s announcement shifts the odds a bit to ‘Shakespeare’s’ advantage: In 14 of the past 15 years, the pic that grabbed (or tied for) the most nominations went on to win the best-picture Oscar.”
“Shakespeare” also led BAFTA with 16 nominations, five more than “Ryan.”
By that time, whispers had already begun that the nomination success of “Shakespeare” was more of a feat of campaiging than substance, a conclusion partially driven by the fact that, given a December release, its consumer launch coincided with its awards barnstorming. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein rebeled against the dig.
“The secret is believing in the written word and the idea that movies can transform,” Weinstein waxed.
And it’s not as if DreamWorks sat back on its heels in in the costly campaign.
Whatever the reason, the “Shakespeare”-“Ryan” battle took on the aspect of a heavyweight fight, with each landing blows as the Oscar ceremony approached:
• The “Shakespeare” script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard topped Robert Rodat’s “Ryan” pages for the WGA adapted screenplay prize.
• “Ryan” grabbed the PGA honor for best pic.
• “Shakespeare” won the SAG ensemble kudo (along with lead actress for Gwyneth Paltrow).
• “Ryan” and Spielberg won the DGA trophy.
In the end, “Shakespeare” came away with the best picture prize and seven Oscars in all, while “Ryan” settled for five, including Spielberg for directing. It was the first split between picture and director by the Academy since 1989, with “Driving Miss Daisy” and Oliver Stone (“Born on the Fourth of July”).
In the aftermath of the Oscars, Variety editor Peter Bart offered praise for “Saving Private Ryan” but called it a fair fight.
“The trouble with the Miramax ‘marketing juggernaut’ theory is that this year’s Oscar campaign was clearly a contest among several marketing juggernauts,” Bart wrote. “Indeed, Miramax may very well have been outspent.”
“Similarly, the whole ‘Harvey owns the Academy’ theory would seem to defy logic. The devices he helped innovate, such as dispatching videocassettes to Academy members, have long since been emulated by everyone around him who send out more cassettes than he.”
This might butt heads with “print the legend” territory, but a look back at the history leaves these rather inescapable conclusions. “Shakespeare” didn’t steal the Oscar and wasn’t a big upset. Arguably, it wasn’t an upset at all.