Friday, October 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #32: Shakespeare in Love

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Shakespeare in Love
 (released December 1998)

Shakespeare in Love
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps 

Here's the most recent VOD trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It's London, circa 1593 -- the glory days of Elizabethan theatre. Young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling to write his latest play, a comedy he intends to call Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. The words aren't coming. "I have lost my gift," he acknowledges with exactly the kind of grandiose woe befitting a self-absorbed writer. He seeks inspiration. The solution, he ascertains, is to find a muse. Preferably one he can take to bed. With actors and theatre owners clamoring for his latest work, Will appeases everyone by promising them a play he's barely begun to write and starts auditioning players. Enter Viola de Lessups (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who loves Shakespeare's poetry and despises the fact that women are banned from performing on stage (yes, that's historically accurate). To circumvent that exclusion, Viola disguises herself as Thomas Kent and auditions for the part of Romeo by performing a bit from Will's earlier works. Convinced he's found his Romeo, Will casts Viola/Kent.

As the play takes shape, Will discovers Viola's ruse, a passionate love affair begins and Shakespeare's comedy morphs into his most famous romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In other words, he finds his muse. There are, of course, a series of major and minor complications, misunderstandings and revelations for Will and Viola to navigate. For instance, Viola's father has arranged her marriage to the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a nobleman who only wants an obedient, grateful and fertile wife with no qualms about relocating to Virginia (which actually did exist in 1593, but did not become a permanent English settlement until 1607... in case you were wondering).

As Shakespeare and Viola, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are perfectly cast. Fiennes is a bundle of disconsolation, obsession and verve -- he makes the historically enigmatic Shakespeare amusingly cocky, a bit of a rascal and ultimately affecting. Paltrow seizes the opportunity to play her first fully realized character, a burgeoning young woman who becomes a thoroughly plausible playwright's muse -- she's radiant, ardent and feisty. (Her impeccable English accent never wavers, either.) The supporting cast is a sensational assembly of stalwart Brits: Tom Wilkinson (a stagestruck financier), Rupert Everett (rival playwright Christopher Marlowe), Imelda Staunton (Viola's nurse), Geoffrey Rush (a perpetually harried theatre owner) and the superb Judi Dench (as Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch with vinegar coursing through her veins). Finally, Ben Affleck goes full peacock, spoofing the eternal vanity of self-important stars who covet the largest parts; his comic timing is surprising and impressive.

Screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have created a sublime pastiche, mimicking the structure and beats of the Elizabethan plays perfected by Shakespeare. They juggle history, fiction, comedy and drama, striking a rare pitch of fervent romance, bawdy fun and marvelous wordplay (that doesn't sound discordant or anachronistic). Early on, they're cribbing of Shakespeare is witty and playful. There's a cheeky irreverence in their characterization of the man, too. But by the end you can feel their admiration for Shakespeare and what he accomplished. It's a smart script, laced with clever literary inside jokes for those who were paying attention in school, but it's most definitely -- and thankfully -- not a pretentious history lesson. It does, however, give you a true sense of the role theatre played in English life at the time -- seriously, not even plague could shut down the playhouses.

Stray Gay Observations. Although there is historical evidence that Shakespeare married early (age 18) and fathered three children, there has been a lot of speculation about his sexuality -- fueled primarily by the fact that a significant number of his sonnets are written about and dedicated to a young man. Some scholars like to refute the possibility that William Shakespeare could have been anything but heterosexual, as if bisexuality is unfathomable. In Shakespeare in Love, the script deliberately flirts with the idea that Will is first drawn to Viola when she is dressed as a young man. Later, when she's still dressed as a man and before Will discovers her scheme, Viola kisses him passionately and he returns the kiss, not pulling away in disgust. When she abruptly departs, Will looks startled and confused by what's just transpired, but not repulsed. It's an interesting choice on the part of the writers and a rather lovely bit of acting by Fiennes.

Shakespeare in Love won seven Academy Awards (Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress and Best Picture). Winning that many Oscars almost guarantees a backlash. Shakespeare in Love beat Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Some people consider this a grievous, unforgivably tragic Oscar upset. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong... really, really wrong -- Forrest GumpCrash and The Artist, for instance. And sometimes the Academy has to choose between great films. Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan are great films, for wildly different reasons. Spielberg got a well-deserved Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan, a film that breaks new ground in depicting war and arguably transcends a genre. But I can also argue that Shakespeare in Love transcends the romantic comedy genre, excelling at making something a lot of people dread -- romcoms and Shakespeare! -- into rollicking, accessible-but-not-insulting, bittersweet entertainment. If you want to contend that Saving Private Ryan is a work of greater significance because it's about war, go ahead, but I think that's a specious argument. And you can easily convince me that Ryan triumphs over Shakespeare when it comes to sheer technical virtuosity. But, Ryan is a film I admire (or uneasily appreciate) primarily for its astonishing, brutal and indelible battle sequences -- its epilogue and prologue are unnecessary and the middle section is uneven. I just don't ever want to watch it again because it spends nearly three hours convincing us of something we should already know: war is literally hell on Earth. Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, has unfettered panache, winking erudition and surprising emotional depth. It's exemplary filmmaking -- an absorbing love story, yes, but also a movie that ultimately becomes an ingenious paean to the art of theatre. If you love this film, there's no reason whatsoever to apologize for it. Shakespeare in Love earned its Best Picture Oscar.

Throughout Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-winning costumes (by Sandy Powell) are splendid.

For instance...

Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I

Judi Dench won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. Screen time: roughly eight minutes. Scoffing at the brevity of her role, some people don't believe Dench deserved the statue for this performance.  Broken down, Queen Elizabeth functions as a kind of deus ex machina -- and that could have been a major problem. However, Dame Judi's take on the monarch is droll, wicked and show-stopping. She steals those eight minutes. It's not really about the actual length of time she appears in the film. The question should be: How impactful was her work?

For some reason that escapes me entirely, there's a peculiar amount of irrational hatred for Gwyneth Paltrow out there. I don't understand this because, as celebrities go, Paltrow is pretty benign. She's an attractive, talented woman with solid fashion sense who seems to irk people primarily for looking good, winning an Oscar at 26 and having the the nerve to create a curated upscale lifestyle website, Goop, that delivers all kinds of healthy recipes, travel ideas, fashion advice, wellness tips and cultural musings.... that you can totally choose to ignore. It's not like she's ever held anyone hostage and forced them to eat macrobiotic food. Here's the real problem: Americans like their blondes dumb (Anna Nicole Smith), ornate (porn stars, cheerleaders, 97% of all female Fox News anchors), or tragic (Marilyn Monroe). That really doesn't describe Paltrow. The world is filled with awful, awful people that are out there ruining everything. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't one of them.

Originally, they were trying to cast Daniel Day Lewis and Julia Roberts. Him, sure. Julia Roberts? Just no. No. No. NO.

The Lust Factor. According to historians, there's no real evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait of himself and there's no written description of his physical appearance. But here's a trio of portraits that reputedly represent him:

Left to right: 
The Cobbe Portrait (1610), The Chandos Portrait (early 1600s) & the Droeshout Portrait (1622) 

So, if you're going to cast someone as William Shakespeare and you want me to take him seriously as a romantic lead, then do this:

Joseph Fiennes

Should You See It? Like some of the best Shakespearean works, Shakespeare in Love is brimming with love, sex, despair, treachery, tragedy, tears, villainy, sword fights, wisecracks, ribald humor and cross-dressing. It's an enormously clever take on the historical figure widely acknowledged as the greatest English language dramatist in the world. Frankly, if you don't like this movie, there's a pretty good chance that you are, (A) averse to Shakespeare, (B) just being contrary, or (c) one of those people who thinks the Transformers franchise is awesome.

Next Time: Trog (1970)

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