Oscar’s Crimes – Best Picture of 1998

All Points Bulletin:
Be on the lookout for a small, bald, gold man.  He is 13 and 1/2 inches tall, weighs 8.5 lbs, sexual organs seem to be absent, tends to stand very still, constantly wielding a crusader’s sword, and is made
of gold plated britannium on a black metal base.  He is wanted for a list of crimes against the art of film that spans over 83 years.  Consider him to be armed and dangerous.

Best Picture of 1998:

This one is going to be a little hard for me because it requires pissing on a movie I truly love. In 1998, a really terrific, independently-financed period comedy about the travails of the theater won the Best Picture Oscar. Of course, I’m talking about Shakespeare In Love. Directed by John Madden, this film tells the theoretical backstage story of William Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes at his absolute dreamiest best) as he is writing his new play, “Romeo and Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter.” He ends up falling in love with a luminous and adventurous noblewoman, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow, in her breakout star-making role). Their love affair parallels the onstage romance of the play, and the backstage story ends up influencing how the play develops into one of Shakespeare’s classics.

Tom Stoppard’s script is flawless for this film. Marc Norman and Stoppard won the Oscar for their script, and it was well deserved. While it plays extremely fast and loose with Shakespeare’s actual history, in this case accuracy matters less than comedy. Stoppard is famously steeped in Shakespeare himself (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), and he knows how to weave the fantasy with the reality here. One of my all time favorite exchanges in film is between Ben Affleck as Ned Alleyn and the always wonderful Tom Wilkinson as the benefactor of the play:

“Who are you?” “I,uh, I’m the money.”  “Then you may stay, as long as you are silent.”

I’m glad this movie was a financial success. I’m glad it was fun and frothy. Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar that year, which was just and right. This was her career-defining role. She is both beautiful and strong as the central object of love in the movie. So, no problems there.

All of that being said, here’s where we take a vicious turn on this film. While I don’t mind its nomination for Best Picture, the heat it gained in the industry that year was based largely on a huge marketing push by Miramax. The late 90s were the days of the “independent” film finally taking over Hollywood. I put independent in quotes because some of these production companies were actually smaller divisions of a larger movie conglomerate. Think of Fox Searchlight or Touchstone as examples. Miramax was actually independent, but my objection comes from the fact that the academy seemed to be responding more to advertising than the film’s merit.

The greatest example of this was Judi Dench winning Best Supporting Actress for this film. Again, this breaks my heart, because Dench is a terrific actress. And her role here as Queen Elizabeth is very fun. She is a formidable presence in her scenes, able to command others often with just a raise of an eyebrow. But has there ever been an Oscar given to an actor or actress with less actual onscreen time? I get the adage about small parts and small actors. Also, there is no metric that states how long someone has to be in a film to get an award. But in this case, it’s on the verge of a cameo. For instance, in that year Kathy Bates gave a memorable supporting performance in Primary Colors, where she played the conscience and soul of the film. She got nominated but didn’t win. Dame Judi Dench’s win for Shakespeare in Love has largely been cited as a product of Oscar campaigning.

If you want to see how film history will regard Shakespeare In Love, I would ask you to take a look at another Best Picture winner: from 1966, A Man For All Seasons. It is a fine period drama, with a solid central performance by Paul Scofield (modern audiences know him as Ralph Fiennes’s father in Quiz Show), strong supporting work from Robert Shaw, and good production values. But it is also mostly unseen by current audiences. It should be watched; it’s good. But no one usually puts it on their list of favorite movies or top 100 lists. Usually it’s met with a polite “Oh, that was good.” Whether deserved or not, my guess is that is how history will view Shakespeare In Love.

All of this might have been forgiven if it were a different year. But, quite simply, 1998 was the year of Saving Private Ryan.

Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic was an instant classic. While influenced by war movies before it (it can almost be seen as a remake of The Big Red One), the director was at the very peak of his powers when crafting this film.

The opening 20 minutes, which portrayed the D-Day landing, were so immediate and iconic, they could have stopped the projector right after that sequence and handed over the Oscar then. They filmed the landing from the grunt on the ground’s perspective. Starting with the frightening image of waves of soldiers getting mowed down as they step off of the troop carriers as they land, with dead bodies dragged under water by over-sized packs, the camera follows troops as they fight for every inch of beach. The hand-held shaky cam puts the audience in the middle of the action. You’re there as a soldier gets hastily patched together by a medic,only to get shot in the head seconds later. You see a grunt holding his own intestines in with his bare hands. You feel the hail of bullets raining down on everyone around. WWII had always felt like a clean war. We watched the History Channel, and we pictured that war as a musty kind of historical artifact, shot in black-and-white, with John Wayne leading the noble charge. In film, Vietnam had taken over as the messy war, told in color, with red blood and fuzzy morals. But the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan reminds us that all wars are hell.

That is not to discount the rest of the movie. After that opening, we get to learn about the members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Tom Hanks had already won his back-to-back acting Oscars and had nothing to prove at this point. But he was able to ground the role of Captain Miller in a soulful earnestness that felt honest. Giovanni Ribisi, Ed Burns, and Vin Diesel all make impressions. Jeremy Davies (later to become Daniel Faraday on Lost) as the pacifist who ends up confronting his own mettle is a particular standout. And the dilemma that Matt Damon as the Private Ryan of the film’s title poses is a thoughtful conundrum. How much is one person’s life worth? Is he worthy of everyone else’s sacrifices?

The only slight criticism I have at all would be at the very end of the movie. When it is flashed back to Ryan as an old man, he turns to his wife and asks if he has led a good life. It’s just the tiniest bit shmaltzy and tidy. We would have gotten the point if he had remained silent, left the grave, and the movie ended. But that is an extremely small quibble in an otherwise flawless movie.

Saving Private Ryan not only was a great movie, but it caused a ripple effect in America. We got a resurgence of appreciation for “The Greatest Generation.” More reexaminations of World War II came out. Everything from Ken Burns’s PBS documentary The War, to Band Of Brothers, to Clint Eastwood’s two part story Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima; a whole wave of attention was refocused on that era. The film helped push the medium forward and is considered one of Spielberg’s best. He won the Best Directing Oscar, but the film itself lost. Often when I point out to people that it didn’t win Best Picture, I hear a lot of surprised “It didn’t?  Really?  I always kinda thought…”

Based on the impact Saving Private Ryan made, and the cultural milestone it is, its snub on Oscar night was a crime.


I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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