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‘Shakespeare in Love’ at 20: From Troubled Development to Oscar History

Shakespeare in Love
Laurie Sparham/Miramax/Universal

It’s the 20th anniversary of “Shakespeare in Love,” which premiered in New York on Dec. 3, 1998, defying expectations and making Oscar history. On Oct. 23, 1992, Variety reported that Universal and Savoy Pictures had “indefinitely shelved” the $20 million production with Julia Roberts and director Ed Zwick when Daniel Day-Lewis dropped out. It went into turnaround, then froze until Miramax finally revived it in 1998.

The film was a hit, earning $289 million worldwide and winning seven Oscars. When it was named best picture, five producers trooped onstage to accept, an all-time high. Academy honchos soon set a maximum of three. The AMPAS move was partly made to combat Hollywood’s proliferation of producer credits, and partly to rebuke Miramax execs. Still, the “Shakespeare” quintet pales compared with the 50-plus individuals who went onstage at this year’s Tonys when “The Band’s Visit” won the award for best musical.

“Shakespeare in Love” writer Marc Norman came up with idea in the late 1980s for a script about the Bard’s inspiration to write “Romeo & Juliet.” He wrote the first draft and Tom Stoppard did another draft.

In her Variety review on Dec. 7, 1998, Lael Loewenstein praised the film, including the writers, director John Madden and actors Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes and Judi Dench. She added, “This lively period piece is the kind of arty gem with potentially broad appeal that Miramax certainly knows how to sell.”

After its Academy Award wins, “Shakespeare” became Exhibit A when people claimed that a studio can buy an Oscar. Miramax certainly waged a hefty campaign for the movie, but it’s likely the “buy an award” theory was invented by rival studios who lost out that year and assumed it was a matter of spending rather than taste; their claims received widespread coverage on the then-expanding internet. But if the theory were true, why did “Shakespeare” win only seven of its 13 nominations? Why not a clean sweep?

In truth, the film had major factors in its favor: The surprise element, since audiences and voters had low expectations due to its troubled gestation, artsy title and the fact that it’s a comedy. The other big plus in Oscar circles: “Shakespeare” is about the love of performing, plus the magic and romance of being an actor. So it’s not surprising that the Academy’s largest branch would embrace the picture.