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.
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?
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
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
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)