The success of Shakespeare in Love is most interesting as a symptom of Hollywood’s pathetic state rather than anything intrinsic to the film. It’s enjoyable, cotton candy entertainment, but never anything more than that, despite the accolades. It may have won the Best Picture Academy Award, but does anyone remember it? Gwyneth Paltrow has had some success since, but Joseph Fiennes’s star seemed to burn out even before it fully ascended. The director, John Madden, cut his teeth in quality British TV, and he knows how to serve the script intelligently, but his work totally lacks distinction. The only new talent to emerge from the film is Ben Affleck, and he plays a supporting role.
Then there’s the fact that this supposed “Hollywood” film is basically a British production. (Aside from Affleck and Paltrow, the only thing “American” about it was probably some of the financing.) It is, in other words, further evidence that whenever there is a need for anything even slightly unusual, Hollywood has to import talent. Why? Not because there isn’t plenty here, but because the studios and the marketing departments that dominate them do not give American filmmakers the chance to show they can do anything better than routine schlock. So when something slightly special is required, it’s time to call the Brits. That a movie as lightweight as Shakespeare in Love can be so honored results from it not being as blatantly stupid as the junk the studios normally finance. (And, one suspects, because status hungry execs go weak at the knees at the sound of a British accent.)
I have the utmost respect for Tom Stoppard, but his script for Shakespeare is pretty dull stuff compared to his other work. By Hollywood’s provincial standards, however, it’s daringly experimental. So, for example, we are encouraged to recognize the parallels between Shakespeare’s life and moments in his plays, in a nudging hint to the audience to think of themselves as smart for catching the references. You practically expect cartoon balloons to appear asking “Get it?” It is, in short, the perfect Hollywood script because it encourages the half-educated sharks who run the industry to think that they are thinking, to pat themselves on the back for their cleverness and to show they got Kulcha too.
To be fair, it seems unlikely that any of the creative personnel had any illusions they were creating anything more than a sumptuously stuffed bon-bon. It is the total lack of imagination of the alternatives that makes a mildly pleasant exercise like Shakespeare in Love seem superior. The problem, in other words, is not so much that an Academy Award winning film is now forgotten by the public. The film never deserved the attention it got in the first place. It was only the infantile nature of the competition that gave it any cachet, and in the intervening fifteen years, things have only gotten worse.