Shakespeare in Love

28 Jul

I watched Shakespeare in Love this week as part of my ongoing quest to see every movie that’s won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’ve seen most of them. Now I’m at the point of actively seeking out the ones I’ve missed. Mostly the less famous and less good winners. This is one of those. I was kind of curious, but I didn’t have any special desire to see it, honestly. The biggest draw for me was that it stars Gwyneth Paltrow in the stage of her career where she was, as I’ve written before, almost impossibly pretty.

Shakespeare in Love is an OK movie I guess. I can see why people were charmed by it. But I can’t see how anyone who voted for it for Best Picture can look back with anything but embarrassment. It’s hard for me to remember which movies came out in which years. So I checked Wikipedia. I assume their list of “notable films released in 1998” is pretty complete.* Here are the movies I’ve seen from 1998 that I think are better than Shakespeare in Love: The Big Lebowski, Croupier, Happiness, The Last Days of Disco, Out of Sight, Pi, Run Lola Run, Rushmore, Saving Private Ryan, A Simple Plan, There’s Something About Mary, The Thin Red Line, The Truman Show. That’s thirteen. That I’ve seen. On the other hand, I just checked Rotten Tomatoes, and Shakespeare in Love is at 93%. So who knows.

*I recommend going through lists like this. Fun to look back at all the good/bad movies from a given year. Also a reminder of how many I’ve missed.

Maybe I just don’t have the personality to be taken in by a good romantic comedy. I guess that’s what this is. Although I didn’t think it was all that funny. You might call it witty or clever, and I can see that. The script is definitely the movie’s strength. I didn’t realize Tom Stoppard was involved. That’s a pretty serious name. I liked some of the clever little Shakespeare nods. The Twelfth Night parallel thing at the end was cool.

Ms. Paltrow definitely gave a good performance. She’s not at all believable as a man, but whatever. It’s a movie, after all. She’s charming, and this is a role that depends a lot on charm. What happened to Gwyneth? She hasn’t been in an interesting movie since The Royal Tenenbaums. I wonder why that is. Is she just too satisfied with her status in Hollywood and afraid to take risks? Too busy thinking of interesting baby names? I don’t know. She really is talented and she has a lot of years left. Maybe she’ll surprise me sometime and do something good.

You know who else was great in this? Ben Affleck. I’m not the biggest Ben Affleck fan. I’ve written bad things about him in the past. But credit where it’s due. He nailed this role and I really enjoyed his performance. Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench both got Oscar nominations. Shrug from me. I didn’t think either were that great.

I also want to give a shoutout to Christopher Marlowe. I think most of the stuff about him in the movie is exaggerated or bogus, but some of it was interesting. There’s a scene where the theater guys are annoyed because every actor auditioning is reading the famous “face that launched a thousand ships…” speech from Doctor Faustus. I read Doctor Faustus in college. Come on, guys, don’t get annoyed. There’s a reason it’s one of the foundational pieces of the Western canon. Everyone should read that speech at least once. It starts on line 88.

Here’s what I really want to talk about: Gwyneth Paltrow’s breasts. More specifically, the issue of breasts in movies generally and how people think and write about same. I’ve seen a lot of “serious” movies with “tasteful” nudity, and almost every review of those movies studiously ignores its presence and doesn’t consider it relevant to the quality of the movie. I don’t get this. In my experience, almost all “tasteful” nudity in movies like this is totally unnecessary to the story, is shot in a way that makes it look totally unrealistic, and is just as exploitative or whatever as it is in R-rated teen comedies. Shakespeare in Love is probably the archetype of this and I think it really detracts from the movie. The topless shots of Ms. Paltrow are obviously meticulously composed and are meted out in a way that doesn’t make any sense from a plot or story perspective. The one place where breasts would not have seemed tacked-on and would have seemed erotic or whatever in a naturalistic sense was the famous scene where Shakespeare undoes Viola’s chest wrap thing after her day pretending to be a man. But no. That shot abruptly pans up as soon as the wrap unravels.

Then, in the next scene, all of a sudden, there are the breasts! They show up while the two are getting romantic, but at arms’ length from each other so the breasts are clearly visible. Is it normal for people to make out with their torsos a foot apart? Am I missing something? And God forbid old Bill Shakespeare might want to, say, touch a breast while getting down with his new lady. NOT TASTEFUL. Of course, it would also not be tasteful try to depict sex in any recognizable way. Maybe it’s Joseph Fiennes’s fault. Maybe he thinks you have sex by doing weird little half-push-ups while hovering over someone. And then there are the multiple occasions where Viola suddenly becomes very shy and covers her chest with sheets while she’s in a room alone with Shakespeare. Because we all know that after you have sex with someone you can’t let them see you naked anymore.

Why do movies do this? I don’t know. This is where I get out of my depth and stop having good ideas. I think that a lot of it is Hollywood people (directors, producers, actresses) being afraid of anything that shows sex too graphically or frankly, because they think people might find it tawdry or unbecoming for whatever reason. I think that’s mostly stupid. I think there are two ways to handle movie nudity. 1. Try to be as realistic as possible within the restraints of the ratings people. 2. Don’t show anything. It’s not a big deal. People will understand. I personally find scenes shot to totally conceal things to be less distracting than scenes that try to find an awkward halfway point. At least if you don’t show anything you’re being more intellectually honest with everyone than if you construct a couple gauzily lit and carefully blocked topless shots. Nothing about that is tasteful. Sorry.

I kind of feel like I should give a counterexample to end with. Take This Waltz is a movie I’ve mentioned a couple times. It’s one of the more memorable movies I’ve seen in the last couple years. There’s a scene in a gym shower that blew me away. If you’ve seen the movie you remember it. That’s how to use naked women to improve your movie.

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