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Gwyneth Paltrow on How ‘Shakespeare in Love’ Changed Her Life (and the Oscars) Forever

Gwyneth Paltrow never felt the same after making “Shakespeare in Love.” The movie that earned her the best actress Oscar 20 years ago transformed her into a global star. “It just changed my life,” Paltrow says on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, reflecting on the impact of the 1998 romantic comedy that grossed nearly $300 million worldwide — a staggering achievement for an independent movie. “I don’t think it ever went back to normal.”

Though Paltrow had carried other films, including crowd-pleasers such as “Emma” and “Sliding Doors” — and she’d been a fixture in the tabloids for dating Brad Pitt — “Shakespeare in Love” cemented her status as a one-name brand. Her teary Academy Awards victory speech became an instant classic on the Oscars reel of memorable waterworks. Some 46 million viewers tuned in to see her in a pink Ralph Lauren ballgown, guaranteeing that she’d never be able to anonymously slip into a restaurant again. “I think you cross into some hemisphere of being recognized,” Paltrow says. “It happens in steps and stages, but that was like, ‘OK, you’re categorically not this anymore.’” She looks up. “‘You’re in this realm!’”

“Shakespeare in Love” had a similar crater-size imprint on Hollywood. The movie, which nabbed seven Oscars, defeated Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” for the best picture trophy in a cutthroat campaign led by Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein that borrowed from the playbook of political races with much higher stakes. The mogul, later accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of actresses (including Paltrow), was kicked out of the Academy in 2017 for his alleged predatory behavior. On the business front, Weinstein introduced guerrilla tactics to push “Shakespeare” past the finish line with a campaign war chest of $15 million (unheard of for Oscars races back then). He proved that with enough spending and smearing, you could go up against Hollywood’s most successful filmmaker and win.

Paltrow is honest about her own struggles with the volcanic producer. “He was a bully,” she says. “I never had a problem standing up to him. I wasn’t scared of him. I also felt for a period of time, I was the consumer face of Miramax, and I felt it was my duty to push back against him. We had a lot of fights.” She doesn’t believe that Weinstein’s involvement with “Shakespeare in Love” tarnishes the picture’s legacy. “It’s a beautiful film,” she says. “A movie is not going to be successful if it’s not a good movie, not like that.”

And giving Weinstein all the credit underestimates the movie’s charms. “Shakespeare in Love,” directed by John Madden from a script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, still holds up. It made Judi Dench the grandest dame in the industry for portraying Queen Elizabeth in a brief, but deliciously tart, Oscar-winning supporting role. It boasted an ensemble of high-minded heartthrobs — Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Ben Affleck — in character parts. If the sunny ’90s launched with Julia Roberts as a prostitute in distress in “Pretty Woman,” the decade closed with Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love” as the cross-dressing Viola, an empowered heroine who didn’t need to be rescued by a man. She wore the pants in the relationship with a young playwright named Will (Joseph Fiennes), who relied on her for inspiration.

Paltrow reveals that when she got married last September to the TV director and writer Brad Falchuk, he referenced “Shakespeare” at their ceremony. “I hope this isn’t too personal,” she says. “But in my husband’s wedding vows, he actually said it’s no coincidence that I played this muse, because that’s who I am to him, and his perception is that’s who I am in real life. It was really sweet.”

Why does the movie work so well? “Honestly, it’s the screenplay,” Paltrow says. “It’s so clever in the way it tackles Shakespeare and all the inside jokes of show business.” Our Variety interview is the first Hollywood cover story for Paltrow, 46, in some time. In person, she exudes the cool demeanor of a business executive rather than coming across as a movie star seeking approval. Her full-time job is as CEO of the lifestyle brand Goop, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company she launched with a newsletter packed with her recommendations of outlandish products — think coffee enemas and $50 toothbrushes — recipes and spectacular travel destinations. Later this year, she’ll star in a Netflix docuseries for Goop that will be similar to the podcast she co-hosts. “I will be interviewing experts and asking questions, and then we’ll go out into the field,” she says.

Paltrow doesn’t read scripts anymore. Occasionally, she’ll agree to a small role. On the day of our conversation, she has plans to watch the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician,” the Netflix TV series. “I play a very wealthy Montecito mom,” she says, rolling her eyes at the thought of seeing her scenes. “It just makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like to watch myself.”

One reason Paltrow left the film industry a few years ago is that the movies she used to make — mid-budget stories targeted to adults — disappeared. “I think the movies and the business around them have changed so much in the last 20 years,” she says. “I don’t think any of the movies that I’m known for would get made today. Would they make ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’? Would they make ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’? Would they make ‘Shakespeare in Love’?”

Paltrow says that she plans to retire from the Marvel Cinematic Universe after this summer’s “Avengers: Endgame,” where she reprises her recurring role as Pepper Potts, Iron Man’s girlfriend. “I mean, I’m a bit old to be in a suit and all that at this point,” she says. “I feel very lucky that I did it, because I actually got talked into it. I was friends with [‘Iron Man’ director] Jon Favreau. It was such a wonderful experience making the first ‘Iron Man’ and then to watch how important it has become to the fans.”

She’s not opposed to the Academy Awards crowning a comic-book tentpole as the next best picture winner, especially given recent trends at the box office. “So if the vernacular in film is superhero movies and they’re great movies, then I guess why not, right?” Paltrow says. “I loved ‘Black Panther.’ I thought it was a really powerful movie and culturally very important. So that’s great that it was nominated. I mean that’s so cool.”

Just don’t ask Paltrow too much about this year’s slate of Oscars contenders. Of all the best picture nominees, the only other ones she’s seen are “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” both with her two kids (from her first marriage to Chris Martin). She admits that she still needs to catch “Roma” in a theater. “Oh, my gosh,” she says. “That seems like a commitment. What else is really good?”

There’s “The Favourite,” of course. “What’s that?” she asks.

Isn’t she an Oscar voter? “I better get busy,” Paltrow says. “I usually end up watching the ones that I’m supposed to watch. But this year I’m a little bit behind, apparently.”

Gwyneth Paltrow originally turned down “Shakespeare in Love.” “The movie had many iterations,” she says. “Julia Roberts was going to do it for a long time, and then that version fell apart. It ended up in Miramax, and I was the first person they offered it to.” She wasn’t interested. “I was in the middle of a terrible breakup” — with Pitt — “and the idea of going to England and being far from home just seemed …” She trails off. “I didn’t even read it. I was just like, ‘I can’t read anything right now. I’m having a really hard time.’”

Gwyneth Paltrow Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: James White for Variety

Like many Hollywood classics, “Shakespeare in Love” languished in development hell before it got produced and became a hit. The idea for the script was conceived by Norman, the credited co-writer. Edward Zwick was attached to direct, and he recruited Stoppard to work on a new draft, a witty tale set in the theater world, with Shakespeare suffering from writer’s block. Once Roberts came on board, the movie had the greenlight from Universal Pictures. But Roberts bailed when her choice for Shakespeare, Daniel Day-Lewis, refused to join the cast.

The rights for the picture were eventually sold to Miramax. Weinstein bypassed Zwick as the director and hired John Madden, whom he knew from two previous period films, “Mrs. Brown” and “Ethan Frome.” Madden had a specific take on the tale, one that played up the relationship between Will and Viola. “John Madden, bless him, made it into a more romantic movie,” Stoppard says. “I was quite turned on by the humor, the possibilities of making theater jokes. I had a great time writing it, but I think without John it wouldn’t have been what it was. He got that the film was really driven by its love story.”

The hardest task would be casting Viola. Once Paltrow turned it down, Madden met with Kate Winslet, coming off a star-making role in “Titanic.” “She read the script and got it completely,” Madden recalls. “I had a lunch with her, where she was ecstatic about it. And then a week later, she called up and said, ‘I don’t think I can.’” He tried to persuade her by assembling a reading with some of her friends, but that only pushed her away. “She felt unnerved by it, and she stepped out,” Madden says.

After a few months, Paltrow finally read the script, and she was enchanted. “I just couldn’t put it down,” she says. “It was perfect.” She had no choice but to agree to play Viola. One of her agents tried to talk her out of it. “This person said, ‘I think it’s more of a guy’s part.’ I was like, ‘Well, I want to do it.’”

That meant that she’d be working with Weinstein again. In The New York Times’ October 2017 exposé, Paltrow revealed a secret that she’d kept for most of her professional life. At the start of 1996’s “Emma,” Weinstein summoned Paltrow to a hotel room, put his hands on her and asked her for a massage. “I had one really uncomfortable, weird experience; then he was never inappropriate with me again in that way,” Paltrow says. But working with Weinstein had other drawbacks. For example, he refused to pay Paltrow her back-end compensation tied to the box office performance of “Emma.” She pushed him until she received that money. “I got him to pay me something. I remember I got this legal letter that said, ‘This is not an acknowledgment that we owe you this money, but here’s a check.’”

She described what it was like to deal with Weinstein. “He was a very difficult boss,” she says. “It was a fraught relationship. We would get in knock-down, drag-out fights. I remember once, my mother [Blythe Danner] walked in a room, and I was yelling at him about something. She was like, ‘Who was that on the phone?’” When Paltrow told her, she responded, “Oh, my goodness, good for you. Stand up for yourself.”

On the shoot in England for “Shakespeare in Love,” Weinstein wasn’t a regular presence. But his decision-making hung over the production. Paltrow had tested with Joseph Fiennes — a stage actor (and younger brother of Ralph) who was new to movies — to play Shakespeare. Over at Miramax, with “Good Will Hunting” poised to be a hit, Weinstein preferred someone else for the title role. “At the last minute, Harvey wanted Ben Affleck to take over and play Shakespeare,” says Paltrow, who had to intervene and stop that idea. “I said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You have to have an English person.’” Weinstein eventually conceded, and Affleck joined the cast as Ned Alleyn, one of the Globe’s stalwart actors.

Fiennes was living in a studio apartment when he received the offer. “I definitely screamed at the top of my lungs when I got it,” he says. He never knew that Paltrow fought so hard for him to secure the role. “That’s news to me,” he says. “I feel — wow — really indebted to Gwyneth and John.”

Paltrow and Fiennes had an easy and natural chemistry, based on their different approaches to Shakespeare. She seemed to pick it up organically, while he was more classically trained. Paltrow noted that the crew looked at her differently when she dressed as a man. “There’s some subconscious energy shift if your boobs are out and long blond hair as opposed to, like, a mustache and d–k,” she says. She wasn’t fond of all the period costumes. “Being cinched in a corset within an inch of my life, it was really crazy,” Paltrow says. “I think that’s the most hair, makeup and wardrobe I’ve ever undergone.”

After the movie wrapped, Weinstein had one major note. “Harvey became convinced that we’d made a romantic comedy that didn’t end like a romantic comedy,” Madden says. Weinstein had to be told by Paltrow and Madden that Shakespeare couldn’t end up with the girl, because he had a wife. As a compromise, they reshot a more hopeful ending, where Viola and Will bid passionate farewell to one another. “I was clean-shaven on another project,” Fiennes says. “I had to stick on a fake beard to say goodbye.”

When Weinstein was ousted from Hollywood, the image that ran in every newspaper was of him standing at the Oscars for “Shakespeare in Love.” That photo initially upset the film’s director. “I remember feeling uneasy about that and thinking: Does that take the movie away from us?” Madden says. “In the end, I have to step away and say, it doesn’t negate all of the movies that he ever made — and not that one.”

“Shakespeare in Love,” which opened in theaters in early December just days after screening to critics, became the sleeper hit of the 1999 awards season. Paltrow recalls how Hillary Clinton attended the movie’s glitzy New York premiere and sat through the film, even though she was supposed to leave for another engagement. “I think it made up for Bill Clinton falling asleep during ‘Emma’ in the White House,” Paltrow says with a laugh. “He took a long nap, right there in the middle.”

PALTROW Gwyneth Paltrow accepts the Oscar for best actress for her role in "Shakespeare in Love," during the 71st Annual Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music CenterOSCARS, LOS ANGELES, USA
CREDIT: Eric Draper/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Paltrow was shocked when she won the Golden Globe. “I had never won anything in my life,” she says. “I didn’t really expect it.” Then the mounting pressure started to weigh on her — she was only 26 at the time. She noticed that she couldn’t be in public without people recognizing her. “At the time, Los Angeles was a one-industry place,” she says. “Everywhere I went, I didn’t feel like a civilian. I don’t even know how to articulate it.”

Her pink Oscars dress became part of industry lore (it even has its own Wikipedia page). Since she didn’t employ a stylist, Paltrow chose the gown based on a frock that she’d seen at a fashion show. “Every time I would go have a fitting, I would lose six pounds, because I was just so nervous,” she says. “I’m one of those people, when I’m nervous I can’t eat.” She tried to calm herself down by taking a trip with some girlfriends to Mexico.

The ceremony itself is a blur. Roberto Benigni, who won best actor for “Life Is Beautiful,” helped lighten the mood by hopscotching over rows of chairs when his name was read. Paltrow doesn’t remember giving her speech, and she says she’s never watched it back. She had a prior connection to the man who presented her with her trophy. “Jack Nicholson gave it to me,” Paltrow says. “There’s a funny story where he’d been trying to ask me out before, and I was like, ‘I have a boyfriend!’” It wasn’t awkward that she’d turned him down. When she forgot to take the envelope from him, he sent it to her with a tender note. “I have it framed.”

The final award of the night was presented by Harrison Ford. When he announced “Shakespeare in Love” as the best picture winner, there were gasps in the room — and throughout the country. “My younger brother was my date, and my dearly departed mother sent me a signal: ‘Wear a nice dress, and be prepared to give a speech,’” says Donna Gigliotti, who produced the film and was the first on the stage to speak. “I was entirely prepared. I can only put it down to some kind of divine intervention.”

When the Oscars were over, Paltrow was exhausted. “Afterwards, I was wrecked,” Paltrow says. “I moved in with my parents for three weeks in Santa Monica. I was just overwhelmed and tired and really exposed.” Winning the award altered the trajectory of her career, and it also made her question herself. She’d accomplished so much with “Shakespeare in Love,” it was hard to make movies that didn’t come with that kind of success. “Unfortunately, I’m a very results-driven person, and I had quantifiable feedback,” Paltrow says. “Well, what do I do now? It was the beginning of my questioning my overall career choices. It started a whole series of thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

Although she’s not making movies now, Paltrow leaves open the possibility of acting in the future. “I promised my mother if I ever exit my company, I’ll do a play,” she says. If she can’t find a new one, there’s always “Twelfth Night.”

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