The Case for why "Shakespeare in Love" is still the better film than "Saving Private Ryan."
Oscar night, March 21, 1999, celebrating the high achievement in filmmaking for the year 1998, was the first Academy Awards ceremony that was thrilling to watch and full of surprises (mostly pleasantly good, while one horrendous) and which I thought, "They finally got it right!" Albeit there was only one painful pill to swallow but, on the whole, a truthful awards show if I ever saw one.
And then the reviews of the show and the "blowback" followed. Steven Spielberg's heavily favored film, "Saving Private Ryan" lost best picture to the small production of "Shakespeare in Love." Everyone was up in arms! I remember Bill Maher that very evening claiming how the Academy got it so wrong and that "Private Ryan" will be the more relevant film in the decades to come. He was not alone. All the shows and commentary that followed, weeks after the show, said the same thing. The final conclusion was that the producers of "Shakespeare in Love," meaning the head of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, bought off the Academy to get the best picture Oscar for his production.
A little backstory: during Oscar season studios spend millions to get Academy members to vote for their films. Its not only the statuette they are paying for but the publicity the honor brings to the picture which, for the studios, means more cash. This has been a tradition dating back to the beginning of the ceremony itself. 1999, however, saw something unusually, even for the self-promoting studios. Mr. Weinstein began an unprecedented campaign to make every Academy member see his film and "push" them to vote for it. The amounts of money he spent made headlines. So, needless to say, when "Shakespeare" did win the talk was that Mr. Weinstein "bought" the Best Picture trophy. A bit on that later.
As mentioned earlier, all studios participate in the spending frenzy to attain the honor of best picture and DreamWorks Pictures, who produced "Saving Private Ryan," did their fair share of politicking. Mr. Spielberg's people even have a publicity ritual whenever Mr. Spielberg releases a new movie. Before its release, statements come out in the press saying that preview audiences are saying its the best film of the year. The preview audience just happens to be the people from the studio that's releasing the film. A studio promoting Mr. Spielberg's films can get away with this since Mr. Spielberg, who might be considered one of the top five directors from any country of all time, makes great films and such talk will get the buzz going. What else were they going to say? Its a part of the publicity push to get the audience revved up to spend money. Now, it is true that they did not go to the lengths that Miramax did during the award season and that was do to the film purity of Mr. Spielberg. Terry Press, who was in charge of promoting "Private Ryan" during the 1999 awards season was handcuffed by Mr. Spielberg. He said to her, "I do not want you to get in the mud with those people." ("The Men Who Would be King", Nicole LaPorte, Houghton Mifflin Harocurt 2010). Mr. Spielberg believed, as I do, that the Academy is in the film business. They should know what a great film is, what a great performance is and so forth. And they will be relied on to vote for the best cinematic achievement of that year. And the thinking makes sense although the reality is quite different which the Academy proves year in and year out. How can you be in the movie business, and be in an organization that promotes movies and not watch every movie that comes with a decent review? Mr. Spielberg thought that the members who have seen his film and who saw "Shakespeare" will no doubt know that his film is the superior of both.
The accusations of Mr. Weinstein buying the #BestPictureOscar are ludicrous at best. For one thing, this isn't governmental politics. You're not paying someone off to do business with you and you'll benefit because more work will get done in your district and maybe a couple of family members will get jobs and extra spending money in their pockets. The members of the Academy don't have anything to gain from all the publicity Mr. Weinstein paid for. What did happen, however, is that Mr. Weinstein got the film played in front of a lot of Academy members. Maybe it was one of the few times that Academy members saw a film that they might not have otherwise got to see. As the box office showed "Private Ryan" earned $482 million which means a lot of people saw the movie. But "Shakespeare" earned an impressive $289 million. Its not in the ballpark of the DreamWorks picture but people saw that movie too just not as many as "Ryan." The buzz was all about "Ryan."
The thrill I got when Harrison Ford called out "Shakespeare in Love" as the best picture winner was the top highlight of watching this awards show every year since 1981. When I first saw the film in the theater I came out believing it was the best picture of the year and might be one of the best pictures of the decade. What I'd like to state now that I must clear up and is necessary in discussions about which are the better films, plays or songs is that we are talking about two good films. I liked #SavingPrivateRyan. What's lost in the discussion of one film being better then another is that the film we are arguing against tends to be painted as a film we don't like. This is not the case. Its a good film. But this idea that it has grown in stature over the years, leaving "Shakespeare in Love" behind, is due more in the fact that those who have said it feel its what to say to be in this "club" that "Saving Private Ryan" was robbed of the Best picture prize. I also think that this club consists of people who have not seen #ShakespeareinLove and I believe most of the members of this club are men who feel that any war movie is better than a "woman's movie" which might include any movie with "love" or "Shakespeare" in the title. But then I was heart-broken to hear one of my favorite movie hosts, Ben Mankiewicz from Turner Classic Movies, state while introducing "Jerry Maguire," "we just saw the Best Picture winner of 1998, "Shakespeare in Love" which had no business beating "Saving Private Ryan," for whatever that's worth." Mr. Mankiewicz knows and loves films and yet he too is heavily supportive of "Saving Private Ryan." I've always wanted to write my case as to why "Shakespeare" is the better movie but it was Mr. Mankiewicz's statement that galvanized me to action.
The 1998 Oscars picked most of the winners who should have won their categories. "Saving Private Ryan" was, in the technical categories, a masterpiece. Spielberg is a master director and should have at the very least two more Oscars on his mantel piece ("Jaws" and "The Color Purple" both of which he wasn't even nominated for). For "Private Ryan" his filming of the landing of Normandy was brilliant. He wanted and succeeded in capturing the horrors of war in general and the shear insanity of that invasion in particular. His battle scenes are some of the best in cinematic history and will be tough to top ("Black Hawk Down" comes the closest). The cinematography by the brilliant Janusz Kaminski (his second Oscar with Mr. Spielberg, the first being for "Schindler's List" which, in my opinion is the best English language film of all time) was easily the best of that year. It also won in Sound and Sound Effects which helped bring the horrors of war into the theater. It also won in Editing, where the storytelling is put together and I could argue how "Shakespeare" was better edited as well.
The problem with "Saving Private Ryan" begins with the story. A group of soldiers are recruited to find Private Ryan after all of his brothers are killed. The War Department wants to make sure the whole family doesn't get wiped out. The premise to launch the film is okay but when one thinks about the big picture, the story crumbles. Are we to believe that the War Department is going to spend its energies going after one man while Hitler still has his grip on Europe? Then during the mission we hear the soldiers griping about their assignment. Why are they going out of their way for this one man? When I first watched this movie I couldn't believe they were complaining. Why would they not want to get away from the fighting to carry on the mission? "Kelly's Heroes" (1970) was about just that. A group of soldiers willing to break from the war and do their own thing (for gold in this case). That movie, not as serious as "Private Ryan," rings truer. And during their quest they have philosophical discussions on the merits of their assignment while their Captain (Tom Hanks) only wants to survive so he can make it back to his family. This is the heart of the story. I can appreciate that but it's been done better in other war films.
I would go even so far as to say that there are about ten war films better then "Saving Private Ryan" ("Platoon" 1986, "Black Hawk Down" 2001, "Das Boot" 1981, "The Steel Helmet" 1951, "All Quiet on the Western Front" 1930, "Wings" 1927, "The Big Parade" 1925, "Battleground" 1949, "Coming Home" 1978, "The Grand Illusion" 1937) and all of these films do a better job at what "Private Ryan" wants to do. The one that "Private Ryan" wants to emulate the most is "Platoon" (1986) were the filmmakers blend the chaos of war with a narrative flawlessly. Writer, director Oliver Stone had the advantage since he fought in Vietnam so he had the reference points to create a film that was grounded in those man-made horrors.
"Shakespeare in Love" could be in the top three original screenplays of all time. Why? Because it tells a story that hasn't been told before- how William Shakespeare came to write his play, "Romeo & Juliet." But not only is it an original story but it's in how it's told that it cannot be compared to any other film. Within this story are so many pearls that make statements about the movie business itself- "We'll give the profits to the writers and actors." "What profits?" "Exactly."- the theatre- "The Natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster." "What do we do?" "Nothing. Strangely enough it all turns out well."- to English taxi drivers- "I'm a bit of a writer, me self. Wouldn't take long to read it." With so much more.
No screenplay since, without the name Charlie Kaufman attached to it, has been as original as Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's. The pace, the love story and the small statements about life, art and people make it exciting and memorable. It also has what all great movies, which we can consider classics have, and that are pieces within the film that we discover for the first time when we rewatch it. That is what makes a great film and a cinematic masterpiece. "Saving Private Ryan" doesn't hold any hidden gems or actions or ideas that we missed on first viewing. But "Shakespeare," like the man's plays, hold new nuances for us to discover during every viewing.
The screenplay and film "Shakespeare in Love" closely coincides with is "Moonstruck." Another original screenplay known for its clever take on love. It didn't win Best Picture but it did win Best Original Screenplay as did "Shakespeare" but instead of losing stature over the years it has gained. Deservedly so. Which, then, is the better film, "Moonstruck" or "Saving Private Ryan?" But we are talking about the arts here. Not a sporting event. Taste is subjective. But the one thing you can measure art with is originality. And with that measurement "Moonstruck" is the better film and the reason "Shakespeare in Love" is also the better film.
My case may not change any minds but perhaps at best it might send those who appreciate the arts, not to mention cinema, to look for the film again. I promise you it will be as fresh as it was the first time one saw it. But for the most part I think that its major handicap is its cleverness. Cleverness is looked down upon by the majority of the movie going public because it has to do with a developed intellect. To get what the writer intends takes a bit of, dare I say, education. To appreciate cleverness is to be able to recognize it. With war movies no such requirement is necessary. But what distinguishes great war movies from each other is the skill to create a soul within the context of the movie that allows the audience to care for what it is watching and understand the depravities of war. "Saving Private Ryan" does it to some extent but not better than the great war films.
Ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law nor is it in cinematic taste. Its hard to believe that the greatness of "Shakespeare in Love" has to be defended. Looking back, its impressive box office meant it was a crowd pleaser and not only did it win Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay but it won seven Oscars in total compared to "Saving Private Ryan's" five. That's no slouch. And those voting members in the Academy were not paid off. They were pushed to watch the film and after doing so they thought it great enough to give it seven Oscars. Its hard to believe this film needs defending (I repeat myself only to emphasis my disbelief). But at least for one night the Oscars made this devotee happy. Oh, except for the acting category when Roberto Benigni was Best Actor for "Life is Beautiful," beating out Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, Nick Nolte and Edward Norton. But that's a story for a different blog.