Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Big Willie (Shakespeare) Style

Nathaniel: In each episode of the mammoth "Best Pictures From the Outside In" project, Mike (Goatdog's Movies), Nick (Nick's Flick Picks) and I have been viewing two Oscar winners, one from either end of the Academy's 80 years timeline, moving forwards and backwards simultaneously. Today's double feature happens to star two very famous and prolific writers.

Emile & 'Will' co-star in one close-up in The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

On our trip forward we hit 1937's The Life of Emile Zola, a biopic cum courtroom drama set in France where Zola continually rocked the boat with controversial novels and politically crusading letters. On our trip backwards in Oscar time we've reached 1998's Shakespeare in Love, a romantic comedy cum theatrical love letter set in England when Shakespeare was making his name. Though we see very little of Zola in the act of writing (he's more of an orator on celluloid), we're treated to plentiful ink-stained close-ups of "Will" (Shakespeare) putting pen to paper even if he's more of a poetic lover on celluloid. Those particular shots made me wish that we were conversing with quill pens and sending each other exquisitely crafted letters rather than jotting out quickie e-mails like, well, this one.

If you were dipping your quill in the ink… what's the first sentence you'd scribble down about each film? Or would you just ignore The Life... altogether and start composing multiple sonnets to ...Love? That's what I'm tempted to do.

Nick: Nathaniel thinks I can limit myself to a SINGLE SENTENCE. Ha ha ha ha ha...

Here's a start: "Zola! Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Well, I absolutely f***ing won't. Not remotely the frame of reference that came to mind. But if I compare thee to a cold winter's night--that is, if I compare thee to Cimarron or Cavalcade--I find that I like thee so very much more. However stodgy and slow, you are a handsome little fellow."

Mike: My attempts to adapt the opening paragraphs of several Zola novels for our discussion having come to naught, I say this: Zola is both overstuffed and understaffed at the same time; the sets are lush and warm, but they're populated by so few people that it seemed like a high-school drama class was given free rein to use the Warner Bros. backlot but unfortunately limited to the dozen or so members of the class. And this: Shakespeare in Love moves with breathtaking exhilaration, its screenplay is a smart and funny exploration of the pain of artistic creation, it deserved almost all the Oscars it won (especially Best Picture), and I'm glad the film industry quickly got over its exploration of Joseph Fiennes as a leading man.

"J'Accuse... !" Paul Muni of being a ham and Joseph Fiennes of being a fox

Nick: Which leads me to a question. As clearly as Emile Zola would have hated Shakespeare in Love (too flouncy! not Real!), do you think the filmmakers of Life of Emile Zola would have hated Shakespeare in Love? Which is to say, does the Zola film express an aspiration toward the liveliness, momentum, and aplomb that I agree Shakespeare in Love possesses, or do we see a concerted drive toward the kind of sobriety, slowness, and superficiality of characterization we often get in Zola.

Another way to ask this would be whether bad films are even trying to be good ones, but I actually feel a little generous toward Zola. There's a severity to its compositions and its tone that I kind of appreciate, and symptoms like its very glancing look at Alfred Dreyfus (Supporting Actor winner Joseph Schildkraut, pictured right) who languishes in jail without developing much of a filmic "personality," COULD be a way of expressing what Dreyfus is losing (i.e., a three-dimensional life) by spending all those years in jail. Just as the film COULD be trying to show what a self-righteous stuffed shirt Emile Zola finally became even when he fought on the side of Right. Paul Cezanne certainly seems to think so. But there's also a nagging sense that Life of Emile Zola may just be failing to be the fuller, richer, more rousing and humane movie it would very much like to be. What do you guys think?

And I don't mean to keep avoiding Shakespeare in Love. I just haven't thought of enough puns yet.

Nathaniel: Is this one question or five? My mind's eye has glazed over and all I can see is that bizarre book cover pan that takes place, I think, between act one (Zola's generic lean years) and the other two acts (the interminable rest of the movie) showing us dozens of Zola's famous titles. I think the purpose of that bridge shot is to signify Great Accomplishment™ without having to actually dramatize it. After all, there's much speechifying to make room for.

If Zzzola is trying to be a rousing experience it's failing in a colossal way. To me it was a veritable anti-drama. I had the opposite reaction to the one named earlier: Cimarron and Cavalcade are solidly fun popcorn pictures in comparison. But I'm glad you mentioned them again, Cimarron in particular. To me the bulk of Zola is basically Cimarron's worst scene --that hysteric courtroom diversion-- only stretched out to feature length.

The one character I identified with was Dreyfus. It felt like a prison to me.

Mike: I don't think Zola wants to be anything but what it is: a Serious Biopic, a Film for the Educated, a Film for Grownups. Its stodginess defined a genre that was popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s and was certainly well-represented at the Oscars: look at The Story of Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie, One Foot in Heaven, Blossoms in the Dust, ad nauseam, ad hypniam. And I think there was definitely an idea that Hollywood could educate people with these movies--that's the only thing that can explain the seriously streamlined feel of a lot of the proceedings, like it's a lesson plan for fifth graders. It concentrates all the action into a ridiculously small number of characters, resulting in scenes like the one where the military brass are trying to figure out what to do about the Dreyfus letter--I had the feeling that if they pulled the camera back, it would reveal all five or six members of the military sitting in a row of offices, each waiting for his immediate underling to bring this event to his attention. Its weirdness results from these dual and conflicting goals: remind the educated how smart they are, and educate the uneducated. But I don't think it wants to be more rousing or entertaining than it is, because I think the genre forbids that.

Dear god I'm sick of Zola. Can we talk about Shakespeare now? Let's start with how happy we were to be reminded of how great -- passionate, funny, intelligent -- Gwyneth Paltrow can be when given the right role. Hell, we can even talk about Ben Affleck --I loved him in this movie, even though I'll back off my off-blog comment to Nick that I wish he had played Will Shakespeare. Imelda Staunton! Colin Firth! Tom Wilkinson! Anything but Zola!

Nick: Shakespeare in Love is seriously great. I know a lot of people find it overrated and think its Oscar win was bogus, but in a weird way, that whole scuttlebutt has also led to the film being underrated, don't you think? Having just watched so many 1930s comedies as part of this conversation series, it's all the more stunning to see the same swiftness of pace and succinct, delicious exaggeration of character in such a modern comedy. You can totally see Cary Grant (for Joseph), Irene Dunne or Katharine Hepburn (for Gwyneth), Alice Brady (for Imelda), and Walter Connolly (for Geoffrey) in this thing, right? Which means, for all the reasons Mike just mentioned, it would very likely have LOST Best Picture in the 1930s.



It's also incredible to realize that this comedy, unlike almost any other recent comedy I can think of off the top of my head, has zero truck with nastiness (either meanness or grossness), and even when the double-entendres and insider references border on the smug, it isn't that lazy sarcasm that's all over modern movies. I love how generous the movie is, with character and story and tone, and how that doesn't make the movie bubble-headed, because it's also so interested in sadness and separation.

Nathaniel: It's not particularly strange that Shakespeare in Love acquired all that extraneous baggage -- that's to be expected with Oscar wins. But it is sad. For in this particular case of late breaking tide-turning enthusiasm, the Academy has very little to be ashamed of. I wasn't completely wild about it that year (I'm surprised to announce that I'm much crazier about it at this very moment) but this was and is a better picture than the expected champion it overthrew. The cherry on top? I wasn't rooting for her that year (I was leaning Montenegro then Blanchett from the nominees), but Paltrow's performance holds up. She's radiant. She doesn't get enough credit for the actor's command she has over her voice I think. It's quite an instrument and it has so many shadings in this movie, just as her face does in closeup ... storming over with dignified anger or romantic confusion or love of art. Within the context of the annual Best Actress crowning, I'm now willing to concede it's one of the freshest choices they've made in some time. It's both a character performance and a star turn and my god but they're too stingy with the latter these days, you know?

Gwyneth glows while reading her reviews. They also glow.

I enjoy almost every performance in this picture, with the exception of Geoffrey Rush (whom I'll just never really *get* I suppose. It's a mystery), and I'm glad that it took as long to get made as it did. Wasn't this supposed to star Daniel Day-Lewis and Julia Roberts originally some years earlier? Imagine what a different, and frankly lesser, film that would have made all burdened with star power too modern (Julia) or heavy (Daniel) for such a farce.

One quibble: what was with the terrible insert cutting in two different scenes to show us that Someone is Coming to spoil the party? It was like a parody of those countdown clock action movie flourishes where you swear they're stretching that last 10 seconds out into five minutes. That bomb is never going to go off in those action movies and by the time Someone Arrived in each case in Shakespeare in Love, I had forgotten that they were even on their way. Am I making any sense?

Nick: I completely get you, and it's a fair way to concede the flaws in this beautiful film. (I almost added "soulful," but is that too embarrassing an adjective?) I think the movie gets a little bogged down in the interlude when Viola thinks Will is dead and Will thinks Wessex killed Marlowe, and suddenly there is some lakeside moping under a tree. A good five or ten minutes of slightly misjudged tone and tempo. But that's only because the energy and elegance is so well-preserved everywhere else. For instance, in the merry score. And in the splendiferrific costumes by Sandy Powell, with whom Nathaniel and I have a sort of Design for Living three-way marriage thing. Someone should remember to make sure she knows.

Last bit from me: I'm thrilled to hear nice things said about Paltrow. I've maintained for years that despite the rumors, she was better in this than Blanchett was in Elizabeth. I know you guys aren't necessarily agreeing, but finding three people who admire her work in this movie is feat enough. And when I think that, in addition to Julia, this role was once earmarked for Winona effing Ryder... as earmarks go, that would literally have been a Bridge to Nowhere.

The weirdly incestuous '98 Best Actress Battle: Gwyneth & Cate
shared a leading man (Joseph Fiennes) a supporting actor (Geoffrey Rush)
and Queen Elizabeth even had a crucial role in Shakespeare in Love

Nathaniel: I actually was agreeing with you, which surprises me. But don't tell Blanchett's legion of admirers obsessors that I've switched sides ... or it'll be our sites shut down and not plague-ridden Elizabethan playhouses.

Mike: Paltrow gets my vote, although I have to admit that the only thing I remember clearly about Elizabeth is the scene where she gets the bishops to accept the Church of England by locking a few in the basement and then tossing her head coquettishly at the rest.

I don't think Shakespeare is perfect: even though I didn't dislike the constant insert cutting Nathaniel alluded to (it actually added to the comedy by the third or fourth time for me), the ending bothers me. Films about tormented (male) artistic geniuses often feature a fair maiden who inspires him, sleeps with him (sometimes the order is switched), and then gets the hell out of his way so he can go on being a tormented genius. That's a parallel between this film and Zola, although at least Zola's muse (Dreyfus) eventually got to leave his prison island, whereas poor Gwyneth is stuck with Virginia (but at least she doesn't die, which is often the fate of the muse). It would complicate matters too much if she stuck around: we don't really want to think of our geniuses as having small talk over coffee in the morning, squabbling about income taxes, or changing diapers--or being really happy.

But then again, that's one of the things that sets these two films apart: Shakespeare is bittersweet, but Zola gives us what feels like the crowning achievement of Zola's life. Sure, he dies, but he dies a hero, having accomplished everything he needs to do. The bulk of Will Shakespeare's writing life is ahead of him, and will always be tinged with melancholy, but most of Zola's biopic and his ultimate triumph are only peripherally related to what he's best remembered for--writing. As a film, as a biopic, and as an exploration of what it's like to be a writer, Shakespeare beats Zola.

Readers: Keep the conversation flowing in the comments...

vote: The Best Pic Tournament, our choices and yours so go and vote. Mike has mashed up the two films. Paltrow sure gets around.
next week's double feature: Titanic (1997) and You Can't Take it With You (1938)

Statistics: Shakespeare in Love was nominated for 13 Oscars (one shy of the all-time record) and won 7: Picture, Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Art Direction and Comedy Score (during the brief period when the Oscars momentarily thought they were the Golden Globes). The Life of Emile Zola was up for 10 statues and won 3: Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actor.


Best Pictures From the Outside In (so far)
episode 1 No Country For Old Men (07) and Wings (27/28)
episode 2
The Departed (06) and Broadway Melody (28/29)
episode 3 Crash (05) and All Quiet on the Western Front (29/30)
episode 4
Million Dollar Baby (04) and Cimarron (30/31)
episode 5
LotR: The Return of the King (03) and Grand Hotel (31/32)
episode 6
Chicago (02) and Cavalcade (32/33)
episode 7 A Beautiful Mind (01) and It Happened One Night (34)
episode 8 Gladiator (00) and Mutiny on the Bounty (35)
episode 9 American Beauty (99) and The Great Ziegfeld (36)
episode 10 Shakespeare in Love (98) and The Life of Emile Zola (37)

53 comments:

The Jack said...

I'm glad everyone liked "Shakespeare In Love", and I had no idea it would be with such enthusiasm (A-, Nat?!). I thought it would be one of the Best Picture winners that you really didn't like. That's the main reason why I love this series - finding out your opinion on films that I've never heard you talk about before.

"Shakespeare In Love" is actually one of my favorite Best Pictures (but probably barely in my Top 100 favorite films ever. Strange how that works...) but I still don't really get the Gwyneth Paltrow performance. It's what the movie needed, sure, but not Oscar-worthy. Like you said, however -- at least they were honouring a star-turn. One of only three in the last ten years (the others being Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon).

Anonymous said...

Gwyneth effing Paltrow went behind her best friends back, Winona Ryder. She took the script for 'Shakespeare' and made sure she got the role instead! That part was made for Ryder and she would've been wonderful in it! No wonder Winona ended their friendship! I would've too! Also, Cate Blanchett was completly robbed of the oscar that year. Paltrow was horrible, just awful in comparison with Blanchett's 'Elizabeth'- She should've won the award that year!

NATHANIEL R said...

well i can only speak for myself anon. I've recently rewatched both Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth so with fresh viewings I preferred Paltrow (aside: star turns aren't easy or every actor would do them... notice how few glowing totally career making performances that people can live off for years thereafter there actually are in the movies)

But WAY BACK IN 1998 before I started writing this site my best actress nominee list went like this that year

CATE BLANCHETT -elizabeth
HOLLY HUNTER -living out loud
FERNANO MONTENEGRO -central station
ALLY SHEEDY -High Art
MERYL STREEP -one true thing

with Gwyneth outside the top five... though I don't remember who i had as runners up. I'd definitely make room for Gwynnie now.

Katey said...

Shakespeare in Love is one of the few movies that's sheer pleasure to watch, but you never feel guilty for enjoying garbage. And it's definitely one of the only examples I can think of in the last 20 years or so. And my God, the puns! I catch a new one every time I watch it. That is, before I start weeping uncontrollably near the end there.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I'm loving all this Shakespeare in Love love. The 30s screwball comparison is spot-on. And yes, I also find it underrated. Technically, I did (and do) prefer The Thin Red Line, but I loathed Saving Private Ryan with the same fervour with which I worshipped SIL, so Oscars made me very happy in 98 (almost the only time they ever have).

NATHANIEL R said...

I would have voted for THE THIN RED LINE among the nominees as well but I haven't seen it in a long time.

my favorite pictures that year were THE TRUMAN SHOW and CELEBRATION (Denmark) though but I haven't seen either since 1998 so perhaps I should reevaluate.

NATHANIEL R said...

has anyone reading see ZOLA? I'm always curious to know what the ratio is with readers who actually watch old movies. you're very very welcome here even if we mostly talk about recent and new films.

mikadzuki said...

Well, as obnoxious as I find Shakespeare in Love to be in general, what I understand least about it is Paltrow's performance. Is it some sort of meta-performance channeling a bad drama student playing a Shakespearean character? Is it some kind of highbrow parody? Does she bat her eyelashes in some kind of secret code that only actressexuals can understand? Cause I just don't get it.

NATHANIEL R said...

mikadzuki LOL. morse code for actressexuals... i love it. batted, fluttering eyelashes are often a good thing I concede. unless they coincide with eye rolling in which case... no thanks.

NicksFlickPicks said...

@Anon: Somebody stealing from Ryder. What goes around, I guess... I don't know this story and wonder how it could be confirmed, but based on the evidence of every period performance Ryder gave (and of Looking for Richard) in particular, she would have drowned in this movie, and taken much of it with her. Plus, it's the kind of script that was banging around Hollywood for so long with so many people attached that I'm sure plenty of actresses feel that they were robbed of their chance.

I wanna hear from the Zola crowd, too.

Deborah said...

I haven't seen SiL since it was in the theaters (and I haven't seen Zola at all).

I loved Affleck in this; so much so that it took me years to realize he isn't a very good actor. (Between SiL and Chasing Amy, he just kept doing right by me, but eventually, All Was Clear.)

I think people forget how much sheer acting bravado Paltrow gave the role. She played the girl, she played the girl playing the boy, she played Romeo, and she played Juliet. That's a lot of acting.

And Joseph Fiennes makes me hot.

NATHANIEL R said...

"that's a lot of acting" ... i love it.

that's sort of a a voting mantra for OSCAR already, isn't it?

Cal said...

I watched Zola last week and came to a similar conclusion. At the beginning I thought it was going to be about Zola being active, getting out and communicating with people on the street. Instead it became a very rigid, theatrical, and fatally narrow-minded (in terms of film-making) two hours. And didn't you guys feel every minute of those two hours tick by?

I've got to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for courtroom showdowns though, and the political story was educational and at times interesting, but those times were too few and far between.

Shakespeare In Love I think improves with every viewing, and I'm a firm defender of Paltrow's performance, which seems to shift and develop effortlessly in sync with the film's light and fluffy tone. I think it deserved all of its Oscars. Especially Screenplay.

Anonymous said...

@NicksFlickPick...Lord, are we still on the shoplifting thing? I t's been 7 years, time to get over it! You say she was terrible in her period films....that's funny because every period flick Winona was in she was nominated for an oscar. "Little Women" and "The Age of Innocence." Also, she was great in "The Crucible" all period pieces! So, I don't know where you get that from. Winona never actually said she felt robbed from Gwyneth. In fact she never said anything about the film or Gwyneth. However, it was well known at the time that Ryder was set to star and shortly after Gwyenth got the part, their friendship endend. People close to Winona said that was the reason that they were no longer friends.

Anonymous said...

By chance I recently happened to watch Shakespeare in Love again. Its a shame that the film became in vogue to hate on, since its still rather funny and has n't dated at all.(which i thought it would have)
Regarding Paltrow, yes she is good in it, and it was a star making turn, but because her win was seen as 'The Great Oscar Travesty of the 1990s' add to that the the sobbing speech, It eventually had the adverse effect, in that she became unpopular and was doing some poor work.
Blanchett's performance was better than Paltrow's, her performance in Elizabeth will always remain, to me, one of the great female screen performances of all time. I mean she may as well have shouted out to the viewer ''Hi Guys, I've arrived!'' But what was done nearly a decade ago has been done. It's still amusing that people still get fired up over it, i mean both of them moved on a long time
ago, although I wouldn't mind seeing a rematch in the future.

Janice said...

//I'm loving all this Shakespeare in Love love. The 30s screwball comparison is spot-on. And yes, I also find it underrated.//

Agreed. (Although I haven't seen Ryan - or TRL for that matter - so I can't compare or do the "who should have won" dance.) SIL was one of the few films I've seen based entirely on word of mouth - I lived in Asheville NC at the time, and it seemed like every where I went (coffeehouses esp.) I kept picking up conversations that started "Have you seen Shakespeare in Love yet?"

I've never understood the backlash against the film (except from the "ordinary Americans" vs "cineastes/intellectuals" POV, sort of a red state/blue state thing, I guess.) I was not then (and still am not) a Paltrow fan, but her performance touched me and brought me to tears more than once. Blanchett I agree was impressive in her role, but Paltrow seemed more fully intergrated into the fabric of the film. (Or maybe SIL just had a more interesting, textured celluloid fabric than Elizabeth.) It was fun, it was witty, it was intelligent (I'll forgive the going to Virgina part, because Virginia didn't even exist when these events would have been occuring.)

I admit though I haven't seen SIL since I first saw it at the theaters; this discussion reminded me of how much I enjoyed it and I really do need to see it again. It's never the same at home (especially with my little TV) as at the theater, alas, but I'm glad I saw both SIL and Elizabeth when they came out. SIL especially. There are moments in that film - or rather, subtle moments in Paltrow's perf - that simply would not have come across properly if I'd waited for the video release.

What surprised me is that no one mentioned Judi Dench's perf - which is really a cameo and hardly counts as "supporting" at all, in my mind. (If you take Queen Elizabeth out of that movie, the storyline suffers very little; she's really the old fashioned "Deus ex machina" of greek theater who comes down on her chariot to right the affairs of mortals in the end.) That is the one Oscar the film received that I think should have gone elsewhere.

NicksFlickPicks said...

@Anon: Just a joke about the shoplifting thing; I assure you I am over it. I was never not over it.

Obviously, you're a big Ryder fan, and I don't back down about my faves, either, so I don't expect to convince you of anything. But I think Ryder is pretty painfully awkward in Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Age of Innocence and even more fully out of it in The Crucible. I like her quite a bit in Little Women, though it probably helps that she's playing a character who's struggling through her own awkwardness, so the rough edges actually help the characterization. I think Ryder is talented at particular kinds of modern comedy (Reality Bites being the best example) and she was underrated in Girl, Interrupted, but we've never seen her project ease or self-assurance, much less desirability, in a period vehicle; Looking for Richard augured poorly for her relationship to Shakespearean language; and the versatility required in this part seems well outside her range. Especially with focus-pulling Branagh as her rumored co-star. But that's just me.

Dame James Henry said...

I haven't seen Zola in a couple of years, but I don't exactly remembering hating it nearly as much as you all did. It was a tad boring, for sure, and Paul Muni hams it up nearly as bad as John Barrymore in Romeo and Juliet, but I thought it was a better film than Cimarron, at least (which, I know, isn't exactly saying much). I think that many of the other "important" biopics that you mentioned- The Story of Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie and Blossoms in the Dust- are much better and better as solid entertainment than Zola.

On the other hand, I completely hate Shakespeare in Love. To me, it's completely corny, gooey and Gwyneth Paltrow is the most annoying, self-conscious actress around. The only way I would ever watch that movie again is to see my beloved Dame Judi Dench let loose with reckless abandon all over this crap film.

M said...

I'm relieved. After that cold shower given to what I used to think was the most beloved BP winner of the last ten years (talking about "American Beauty" here, of course) I thought SiL wasn't up for a nice treatment. Glad I was wrong and see how -deservedly- loved it was! And even if she's barely my third or fourth favorite of the nominees that year, I shall defend Gwynnie's win to the end of the earth if it's necessary.

And have I been the only one that's noticed how no one's even mentioned Judi Dench's performance yet? Srsly.

^^Oh wait, Janice beat me to it. =)

Lev Lewis said...

A little off-topic, but I'm sad to see you weren't a big fan of Four Nights With Anna (a film which I liked very much at TIFF). What are your issues with it?

Anonymous said...

Okay, I haven't seen Zola either. But since it seems to not be getting much discussion, I'll add some words. I only ever saw Paul Muni's name in the books of film history (because he's won 2 Best Actor Oscars?), and he just looked kind of old and boring.

Then one day, I was watching a B&W movie on TV, kind of fluff, "Angel on My Shoulder?" said the tv guide, but no clue who was in it. I just fell in love with the leading man. He was so soulful and expressive and human, and such a great actor! I adored him. Then when I looked it up, I discovered, aha, so THAT'S Paul Muni. Okay, now I get why he was so honored - they loved him too.

So he may not be so great in "Zola", but I can understand why people had such a high general opinion of his acting. Also, the Dreyfuss case was kind of a touchstone for talking about anti-Semitism. Muni was a artist, always, who wasn't afraid to be associated with a part that essentially said "Anti-Semitism is wrong. And I stake my artistic reputation on that". Unfortunately, struggling with the weight of important ideas doesn't always transfer well to film.

I mean, so many of those "important message" movies of the era are very irritating, and often ludicrous in the acting, as your group so amusingly pointed out with "Calvacade". But I'd rather see something fail in saying something meaningful than have films and actors be too cowardly to try.

Bernardo S said...

I agree with Paltrow > Blanchett. I really enjoyed Paltrow's work and while I really respect Blanchett's work as Elizabeth, I didn't find it as appealing.

Though, personally, that Oscar belonged to Fernanda Montenegro.

goatdog said...

As far as the idea that Life of Emile Zola was dealing with antisemitism, there was exactly one (1) reference to the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish, and it wasn't even spoken--there's a meaningful eyebrow raised at the notation of his being Jewish in his official file. If a viewer had blinked or failed to scan the screen fast enough, that point would have been lost on them. Hardly a film that's struggling with the weight of that particular important idea.

That said, I love Muni elsewhere: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Scarface, for starters, so I certainly respect him as an actor. But I think historical dramas of this sort bring out the worst in actors already inclined toward hamminess.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad of the backlash that Nick is getting for bad mouthing Winona Ryder. This a Ryder-loving blog and Nathaniel has acknowledged that in several episodes. I'm ok with Gwynnie having taken over the role, but it doesn't mean that Noni wouldn't be just as wonderful in it, if not, more.

Anonymous said...

Just a question that has been bugging me and that is entirely not about "Shakespeare in Love", can a film critic ever be objective if he despises (whether he admits it or not) a particular actor?

Yes, Nathaniel, I visit this site so often that I have observed how much you hate Cate Blanchett and Renee Zelwegger even if they are gifted actresses. Can you ever be unbiased towards them? I still cannot accept the fact that Nicole Kidman has won an Oscar for "The Hours". Get my drift?

Brian said...

It's been a while since I last saw the Life of Emile Zola but as I recall from my years-past project of watching Best Picture winners in chronological order, for me it came out in the top half when compared among 1930s winners- while still nowhere near as good as All Quiet on the Western Front or It Happened One Night it still felt leagues above the 'C' movies and better than even the 'G' movies- yeah all three of them. Though I will admit to a nagging responsibility to give Grand Hotel and Gone With the Wind second chances one of these days.

I even liked Zola better than You Can't Take It With You; I think my problems with that film and GWTW largely stem from the distressing racial dynamics played out in each film getting in the way of appreciation of the entertainment.

So why did I like Zola? As I recall, it's strangely for perhaps one of the main reasons I liked Shakespeare in Love (better than any of its fellow nominees other than Malick's no-hoper, and better than most of the BP winners of ITS decade as well): taking a focused approach to the biopic, in which one particular episode takes center stage, feels so much more satisfying to me than the typical life-long sprawl approach that I almost never can tolerate, that they get points for the novelty. Now, Life of Emile Zola may have a stodginess to it, and its accuracy to history may for all I know be no greater than that of the fanciful Miramax film. But it occupies a respectable place in my memory, until further rewatch at any rate.

Brian said...

But it's certainly no the Awful Truth - which itself is no Make Way For Tomorrow (the best Hollywood film of the year if not the decade).

Arkaan said...

My big problem with Shakespeare in Love is that it's neither funny nor romantic. It's just smug, trite and dull. I find Paltrow borderline unwatchable in anything (The Royal Tenebaums excepted) though, so it's not like it had much shot with me.

It's interesting to hear the number of people who don't care for Elizabeth. When push comes to shove, I think I'd label it my favourite of the (terrible) 1998 line-up. It's just charged filmmaking. And obviously I think Blanchett rules over all.

---

I actually like Zola, though I don't know why. In particular, I think Schildkraut is magnificent. Given the films they had in 1937 (The Awful Truth! Lost Horizon! Stage Door! A Star is Born!), they obviously made a bad choice, but overall, not too shabby.

---

re: Nathaniel on Blanchett/The One Who Must Not Be Named etc

Pretending to be unbiased is dishonest. Nathaniel admits his partiality up front, and gives us his opinion. If his partiality means he's not going to win you over... so be it. And while I don't think his opinion on Blanchett so much gibes with what he says, I think posts like anon@5:57's don't really help us Blanchett obsessives.

henry said...

You guys make some good points about Shakespeare in Love, but I'll still remain very bitter that it took Best Picture away from Saving Private Ryan. Shakespeare in Love is an eminently watchable film, full of really good farcical comedy and decent, heart-wrenching dramatis. I forgot that Imelda Staunton was part of the cast! As you guys have said endlessly, Paltrow was working that role. She was the centerpiece to which every other actor was working off of in the film.

To me, Saving Private Ryan defined that year in movies. It was the movie that made the most lasting impression (Yes, I've accepted that the Best Director award was a consolation prize for the film) and seeing how the Oscars are today (only mostly acknowledging films released after October/November), that's something for a movie released in the summer. It just won't ever be answered, but the AMPAS voters fell for the Miramax marketing machine during that year. Ten years later, I just haven't let it go.

Bernardo S said...

Answering to Anonymous...

Sure Nat can be unbiased...

Renée Zellweger got FilmBitch nominations in 2000 and 2001. One could argue this was before Nat hated ehr (post-Cold Mt) so there's a more obvious case...

Cate Blanchett got the Bronze Medal for Supporting Actress last year. Nat can recognize a god performance from an actor/actress he isn't fond of.

goatdog said...

I have to agree with Nick that Winona Ryder would have hurt Shakespeare in Love immensely. I suppose she could have pulled off a miracle, but I doubt it. She's never been really good outside of modern-day comedies.

Back in 1998 I was pretty pissed that SIL "stole" Best Picture, that Miramax "bought" the award by spending so much money on the campaign, but after rewatching it, I have to say I'd vote for it over Saving Private Ryan, whose beginning and ending battles don't compensate enough for the middle or the framing story.

NATHANIEL R said...

can a film critic ever be objective if he despises an actor? which anon asks... it's a loaded question.

i think the better question to ask is why some critics don't admit their particular leanings. I never hesitate to say something's not really my thing (most horror, traditional biopics, or particular actors) or I'm not really into a given actor.

but as for that... you may or may not believe me but largely those "biases" are not irrational thingss but formed on solid ground of experience... having seen a lot of the actors work and being unimpressed in some real way.
some people think of that as biases but I say "formed opinion" ;)

I am very fond of a few Blanchett performances (TALENTED MR RIPLEY, I'M NOT THERE on 2nd viewing, THE AVIATOR and I like her a lot in the first ELIZABETH and in THE MAN WHO CRIED among other things). BUT... I think she's, more often than not, excessively overrated because she's so obviously a gifted technical actor. But it's not all about technique.

anyway... i like her half the time so it gets tiresome when people think I hate her. I've never once been as big of a fan of GWYNETH PALTROW as I have been from time to time of CATE BLANCHETT so this preference in 1998 is a honest judgment call about performance and not about who I like.

as for RENEE. i was a big fan until 2002... and then it just plummeted. That i have less rational explanation for ;) It's complicated with Renee and I.

brian wait. what is no Awful Truth? I love THE AWFUL TRUTH and I'm shocked to hear something considered better than it. This I must rent.

Glenn said...

I personally find it hilarious that the anonymous Winona fan towards the top tells Nick to "get over" the Winona stealing thing that happened seven years before, yet he/she's talking about something (Paltrow "stealing" the role from Ryder) which obviously happened 10 years ago (or longer, depending on when Paltrow was cast). I tell ya, some people are just silly.

I haven't seen Zola, nor do I care to after this parade of criticisms. I am, however, - like many others - loving the love for Shakespeare in Love. I've watched that movie A LOT (I studied it for school) and I just fell in love. I can rewatch it over and over. And while Saving Private Ryan is a very good movie, I still say Shakespeare is better and was a deserving BP winner (my favourites from that year were Pleasantville and Dark City, which never had a chance). And for all the people who say Oscar never goes for comedy? Well, they did here and then they complain about it because it beat Spielberg's war movie. They should have their complaining rights revoked for being so hypocritical.

And I didn't have Paltrow in my top five either (mine would have been Cate Blanchett, Lynette Curran, Deborah Mailman, Christina Ricci and Meryl Streep) but I think I would definitely make room for her.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I enjoy Shakespeare in Love immensely, and also Gwyneth Paltrow in it immensely, although I think she's vastly improved upon in in subsequent years (The Royal Tenenbaums, Sylvia, Proof).

Like one of the above posters, I'm oddly curious about the complete lack of mention for Judi Dench, one of the many Oscars that this film was awarded went to her. So what does the roundtable think of her?

(Also: I love Geoffrey Rush in everything he does. I guess for every hundred people who don't get him, there's a rabid fan like me that just digs that kind of technical ham.)

Jose said...

I simply love "Shakespeare in Love", still my number 1 film of that year and I remember being thirteen and watching Gwyneth walk up to the podium in that beautiful Ralph Lauren dress and instantly falling in love.
She has remained my favorite actress ever since and I always get happy when I see people have learned to like her more and appreciate her for what she has done. Who cares if Blanchett has been nominated more after it or if she's the more "versatile actress", she's still incapable of doing EVERYTHING and I'm sure she would've lacked the girliness and grace of Gwyneth here.
My second choice would've been Montenegro and her movie was robbed of the Foreign Film Oscar!

crazycris said...

I still can't believe this won Best Picture!!!

But worst of all I can't forgive it for Gwyneth winning over Cate's much superior performance as Elisabeth (and I'm not a Cate fanatic!). I just really, really, REALLY don't like Paltrow as an actress... she's usually too bland (Se7en comes to mind).

The best part of "Shakespeare" was definitely Judi Dench as QE... that scene at the end with the puddle and the capes... brilliant! :o)

I haven't seen Zola... I'll have to try and dig it up somewhere... although the opinions brought up here might temper my enthusiasm. I did study his letter "J'accuse" and many of his novels in high school though. Great novels that cross over well to the later centuries (i.e. they don't feel dated, they're still very much "alive" when you read them, very gut-wrenching), and the whole Dreyfuss case, well that was a black spot on the French Republic and its military... and shows early signs of the anti-semitism that peaked during the Vichy Government 40 years later... a wrong that wasn't righted until well after the poor man died.

NATHANIEL R said...

crazycris --I actually enjoy Zola as a writer too but somehow didn't work that into any of my statements.

all -- i didn't realize until we were posting that none of us had mentioned Judi Dench. That is strange. I know a lot of people have issues with her win but it's more than a cameo (three crucial scenes and she's marvelous in all) and like i always say: momentum is everything with Oscar and she had just suffered a defeat that surprised many when she lost for Mrs. Brown the year before.

JS said...

I have copies but have yet to see BP winners such as Cimarron, Cavalcade and Zola but this film critic roundtable series deters rather than encourages me to view them (only if they had a supporting actress nomination would I dare try).

I don't think there is much use to add any more to the Blanchett vs. Paltrow debate but if there were to be Cate vs. Gwyneth II, I would still be in Cate's corner and would gladly hold on to her earrings after she takes them off for Round 2 (or is it Round 3 after Matt Damon TKO'd them both in Ripley?).

Regarding Judi Dench, I think she deserved her Oscar. She OWNED every scene she was in.
As for Geoffrey Rush, he is one of my favorite actors and I did dislike the fact that he got nominated for this rather than his more ambiguous performance in Elizabeth.

I don't totally dislike SiL. I happen to have loved that final scene where she is walking towards the city.

lawyer tony fernando said...

Fernanda Montenegro and Meryl Streep gave better performances, no doubt about it!

Tonio Kruger said...

Its weirdness results from these dual and conflicting goals: remind the educated how smart they are, and educate the uneducated.
--Mike

It's funny you say that, Mike, because one can say about a lot of modern movies including American Beauty. Or for that matter, The Bridges of Stratford-on-Avon, aka Shakespeare in Love.

Sure, it's a bit more escapist than most of the Depression-era biopics you mention but there's also an element of "look, we intellectual aristos get Shakespeare and those groundlings do not" that kinda spoils what could have been a really good movie. It doesn't help matters that some of the scenes could learn subtlety from Blackadder; indeed, so many scenes seem like bad Blackadder imitations one almost expects Stephen Fry and Miranda Richardson to show up.

I did like the last scene with Paltrow. But the rest of the movie I didn't care for.

However, I would have liked to have seen a sequel called Marlowe in Love. But alas, it was not to be.

goatdog said...

I don't think my statement applies where you're trying to apply it, Tonio. Or at least the second half of it doesn't. I think both films had a good idea who their audience would be, and they didn't include the same people Zola's producers thought they'd be reaching. Neither film was trying to educate audiences, so neither film had that conflict I was talking about.

I agree that the first half of the statement (remind the educated how smart they are) applies to American Beauty because it's an Alan Ball project so it's smug and it's a Sam Mendes project so it's middlebrow-masquerading-as-highbrow. But I liked Shakespeare in Love a great deal, and I don't see the smugness there. There's a difference between celebrating a shared, intellectual love of Shakespeare and talking down to (or about) a perceived uneducated mob. I think it does the former but not the latter.

Tom Weinholzer said...

I watched every Best Picture over the course of a couple of years and all I remember about ZOLA is that I couldnt stay awake! I am glad somebody brought up THE CRUCIBLE...I love that movie! I thought Winona was really great in that. Also love SIL..thought Gwyneth was perfect...but I think Ben Affleck would be a terrible choice for Will. He was fine in the movie but when I re-watched he kind of took me out of the movie for some reason...maybe it was the whole Bennifer thing.

Nathaniel-
its funny I feel the same exact way about Zellwegger...I used to really like her and now cant stand her. I wanted to see Apoloosa until I heard she was in it! She was the reason I never saw Leatherheads. Something about her just really bugs me and she ruined Cold Mountain.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

you know, i just saw Elizabeth for the first time last year, and i gotta say...not impressed. part of me wants to love it because it's over-the-top in a way i hadn't seen since watching the old period pieces from the 30s, but most of me hopes i never have to sit through such dull melodrama again. and cate--meh.

as for these films, i need to see Shakespeare in Love again. i remember watching it my freshman year of high school and disliking it immensely, but i get the feeling that i would appreciate it much more now.

Anonymous said...

I rewatch both films, Elizabeth and shakespeare in Love... Beside Shakespeare in love is a better film (But for Best Picture winner? I don't think so), I believe Cate Blanchett gives a better performance instead Gwyneth Paltrow. Maybe I never was a Paltrow's fan and with the clear exception of Sylvia, she seems to bland and very insipid as an actress in every movie, same voice, faces... She's boring and for me, one of the worst actresses. In fact I saw all the five nominees of that year, and for me, Paltrow was the worst of the five:

1. Cate Blanchett
2. Fernanda Montenegro-My second option. Great Performance
3. Emily Watson
4. Meryl Streep

"I think people forget how much sheer acting bravado Paltrow gave the role. She played the girl, she played the girl playing the boy, she played Romeo, and she played Juliet. That's a lot of acting."

I'm sorry but I don't undestand that comment. Paltrow's performance in SIL is plain, she plays Viola, doesn't matter if she's a woman, man or woman weearing like a man... I'm sorry but I don't see that "great acting" for recognition.

I like many times Cate Blanchett, but i'm agree she didn't deserves that Nominatiuon in 2007 for "The Golden Age"

Anonymous said...

"One of only three in the last ten years (the others being Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon)."

I'm agree for that, I think Paltrow, Witherspoon and Roberts won because they're stars and, unleast in Paltrow and Robert's cases were the worst of the five nominees in those respective years.

Witherspoon, unleast she has an excuse: 2005 was AWFUL in that category and she did others things insetad the others.

I believe none of them deseves their respective Oscars, but unleast I understand Witherspoon...

JS said...

I still believe that Julia Roberts won her Oscar for using "Julia Roberts" for a good cause.

NATHANIEL R said...

which cause was that?

theduckthief said...

I've watched both. I like "Shakespeare in Love", especially the sets and costumes but can barely stand Gwyneth Paltrow. To me, her performance did not deserve the Oscar.

I did like the focus on Shakespeare's writing and how the audience gets to see his writing process but as is mentioned in the post, his best is ahead of him. I know the movie is about Will being in love but at most it seemed a descent into renaissance rom-com and when it comes to Shakespeare I expect more.

As for Zola, it's been mentioned before in the comments but I did like the focus on one specific event in his life instead of an exhaustive plod through a career. I loved the ending.

I don't know if anyone on here has read Zola but I found his "Nana" to be pretty boring though I'm sure it was scandalous when first published. Only the first and last 50 pages were able to hold my attention for any length of time.

NATHANIEL R said...

My favorite Zola is Germinal but i haven't read that much of him. Haven't read Nan but wished i had while watching the movie.

Brian said...

Make Way For Tomorrow was the other film Leo McCarey directed in 1937. I do love the Awful Truth but this is one of the great still-mostly-unheralded masterpieces of Hollywood cinema. It's a heart-breaking drama, not a comedy, it wasn't a commercial hit and its stars were Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, both essentially forgotten actors, at least compared to Cary Grant and Irene Dunne today. Thus there is, quite unfortunately, no DVD release as of yet, at least not in region 1. So no netflixing it, at least not yet.

goatdog said...

The second half of Germinal is one of the best novels I've ever read, although I nearly gave up on it toward the beginning. That's the only Zola I've read.

I think The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow are both complete masterpieces. I can't say which is better, because they're both perfect. McCarey preferred Make Way for Tomorrow, but I think that's a case of a guy who's known for comedy wanting to be taken more seriously. The fact that he could do both so brilliantly in the same year is staggering.

crazycris said...

Lords! but I haven't read any Zola in over 10 years!!! university work leaves my brain a but frazzled ans requires "lighter" reading... :p

Germinal: a masterpiece! (and the film with Depardieu, btavo!)

my favourites are on his lighter side: Pot Bouille and Au Bonheur des Dames (I've got them in french and have no idea how they would have been translated). I wish I could find the time (and a library with the french novels) to read the whole "Rougon-Macquart" saga. Like Balzac he kind of uses a family (various individuals and branches within it) to paint a portrait of the France of the mid 19th century. Better than any history book!

And indeed, Nana... bof!

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this site and am in heaven, as I love both new and old movies. As luck would have it, I just watched Zola two weeks ago. it is actually on some list of 1000 best movies of all time (New york times), so that made me think it might be an overlooked gem. It wasn't. i agree with all the comments here about how plodding it was. It was bad in a boring way, not in a fun way.

I was also surprised that Joseph Schildkraut's performance went nowhere. I kept waiting for some big scene or even small flicker oflife to explain why he got the best supporting actor oSCAR that year, but it was a very by the numbers performance. I think one thing that sucked any possibility of life out of the film was that it was bowdlerized--Nana in the novel is a force of nature, appears almost nude on stage and eats men for breakfast, here she is a sappy sad fallen woman. And where was the discussion of Anti-Semitism? It's the Dreyfus Affair, for god's sake. Given the year of the movie, the lack of address to antisemitism is revealing, maybe showing someone kind of wanted to talk about it but was too afraid to.