Shakespeare in Love The upset that wasn’t an upset: ‘Shakespeare in Love’ – Variety
×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Upset That Wasn’t an Upset: ‘Shakespeare in Love’

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.

More Film

  • My Dear Friend

    Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend'

    Like a slow-acting hallucinogen, Chinese director Yang Pingdao’s audaciously strange and sorrowful feature debut works its magic so gradually that it’s with a slight surprise that halfway through you glance down and realize you’re high off the social-realist ground, suspended surreally in the air. At first a gritty tale of feckless men abandoning their families [...]

  • Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent

    Box Office: 'Men in Black: International' Ranks No. 1 Overseas With $74 Million

    Sony’s “Men in Black: International” is making good on its title, leading overseas box office charts with $74 million from 56 foreign territories. Combined with its disappointing $28 million start in North America, the latest chapter in the sci-fi action series debuted with $102.2 million globally. “Men in Black: International” sees “Thor: Ragnarok” co-stars Tessa [...]

  • Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and Agent

    'Men in Black: International' Leads Box Office With Muted $28 Million

    Hollywood seems to be coming down with a contagious case of franchise fatigue this summer, as “Men in Black: International” and “Shaft” become the latest sequels largely dismissed by moviegoers in North America. Sony’s “Men in Black: International” led ticket sales at the box office this weekend with $28.5 million, but still fell short of [...]

  • International Film Festival and Awards Macao

    Macao Festival Signs Double Deals With Shanghai

    The International Film Festival & Awards Macao on Sunday signed twin agreements with institutions in Shanghai. The IFFAM, which is building towards its fourth edition in December, struck a collaboration agreement with the Shanghai International Film Festival. Separately, it is solidifying an existing informal arrangement with the Shanghai Film Art Academy concerning an exchange of [...]

  • wanda Movie Metropolis Qingdao

    Why Simon West Is Making Movies in China (EXCLUSIVE)

    British director Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Con Air,” “The Expendables 2”) is set to dive further into the Middle Kingdom at the helm of his second Chinese action-adventure blockbuster. The Wanda-backed “The Legend Hunters,” hits theaters next summer. West was brought onto the project by veteran producer Eryong, who had approached him about [...]

  • The Eight Hundred

    Chinese Research Group May Have Caused Cancellation of 'The Eight Hundred' Premiere

    Chinese authorities may have abruptly yanked the $80 million patriotic war epic “The Eight Hundred” the day before its opening-night premiere at the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival because it didn’t portray rivals of the ruling Communist Party in a sufficiently negative light, local reports said. Huayi Bros., which produced the film, had on Friday attributed [...]

  • Simon West

    Simon West Directing Chinese Tomb-Raid Movie 'Legend Hunters' (EXCLUSIVE)

    British director Simon West, who made the Angelina Jolie-starring “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” is now co-directing a Chinese tomb-raiding film. “The Legend Hunters” is the next installment in the “Mojin” universe, based on the popular fantasy novel series “Ghost Blows Out the Light.” Backed by Wanda Pictures and Beijing-based Saints Entertainment, the film is set [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content