"Art and Life combining is called Magic": Mythologizing the Film Industry In and Through Shakespeare in Love

Curator's Note

At the 71st Academy Award Ceremony on March 21 1999, Harrison Ford opened the sealed envelope and announced that the Best Picture Oscar was going, not to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but to Shakespeare in Love. This moment was the climax of a night in which the film won a total of seven awards from thirteen nominations. It also marked the high point of Miramax’s “Golden Age” at the forefront of American indie filmmaking (which has been written about by Alisa Perren, Peter Biskind and Geoff King). Miramax was then synonymous with its founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein, brothers who named the company after their parents, Miriam and Max. The first person that Gwyneth Paltrow thanked when collecting the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Viola in Shakespeare in Love (after the obligatory acknowledgements of the Academy and other nominees, of course) was Harvey Weinstein. When Weinstein himself took to the stage with his fellow producers to accept the Best Picture Award, he was accorded additional applause for his efforts in bringing the film to the screen.

In his capacity as studio executive and producer, this is the only time that Weinstein has collected an Oscar himself, although he is a prominent figure at award ceremonies and frequently gets name-checked in acceptance speeches. His Academy Award combined the “creative” and “corporate” aspects of Hollywood in a way that was consistent with the company mythology of Miramax and themes of Shakespeare in Love. The film is concerned with “the very business of show”. It offers a fictional counterpart to Weinstein in the character of Hugh Fennyman, an Elizabethan businessman intent on extracting a good return on his investment in The Rose Theatre, who is transformed into a “born-again theatre groupie”. Shakespeare in Love claimed and then converted cultural value into commercial value, and cemented Weinstein's reputation as a ferociously successful promoter of "Oscar-bait". This reputation has been maintained across the professional transition from Miramax to The Weinstein Company, with recent Best Pictures The King’s Speech and The Artist and this year’s contenders Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained.


Thank you for a fascinating start to the week Sarah. What I find most interesting is the function of that word 'ensemble'. It's an awards ceremony cliche, of course, humbly sharing out the acclaim. But the staffing, casting, management, and financing of 'the ensemble' undertaken by the producer is perhaps a big part of the reason why producers like Weinstein are only name-checked and not directly awarded. The piecemeal nature of the work doesn't make for a singular achievement to be awarded. Which is, of course, completely contrary to the singularising intent of bardolatry. So I'm intrigued by your suggestion about how the reconstruction of the managerial and non-creative bits of the Elizabethan theatre industry as represented in SIL affirm a hybrid characterisation of the film producer as a bridge between the cultural and the economic value within a film. And incidentally, how does the position of the artistic members of the crew (Stoppard, who won his Oscar, Madden, who I see missed out to Spielberg) fit into this dialogue between bardolatry and Indiewood?

Thanks for asking Sam because it means I get to include some more of the points made in my doctoral case study of the film (http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/handle/2160/6126). I find the screenwriting situation interesting because, although Tom Stoppard’s involvement with the film is well-known, especially in Britain, but what is frequently overlooked is that his role was in developing an existing script by the American Marc Norman. As a screenwriter Norman’s most high profile work prior to Shakespeare in Love was the critically derided Box Office disaster Cutthroat Island (Harlin, 1995), a swashbuckling pirate caper. By having Will work on Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter before the intervention of fate, Norman establishes a link between himself and Shakespeare, despite their temporal and cultural differences. Even without knowing this, however, it is possible to discern within Shakespeare in Love an intention to valorise the writing profession; by implying that even the most celebrated of authors was human and fallible, so the film suggests that anyone is capable, with the right inspiration, of creating great art. The only instance that I have come across of Norman’s authorial role being invoked by the British press was as a defence when Stoppard was accused of plagiarising an out-of-print 1941 comic novel, No Bed For Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon. David Parfitt, the British co-producer of the film, is quoted in a Daily Mail article (3 February 1999) about the controversy as saying: ‘The basic ideas are all there in Marc Norman’s original draft. He had certainly never heard of the book when he was writing the screenplay’ (Alun Palmer, 4). In this way Hollywood ignorance becomes a shield for the ‘quality’ virtues of authority and originality that the film is so keen to associate itself with. In terms of Madden, he had previously directed Mrs Brown, which was distributed by Miramax, and with which there are deliberate echoes in Shakespeare in Love. Biskind claims that Madden was happy to compromise with the studio over artistic vision in post-production in a way that many other directors weren't (Down and Dirty Pictures, pp. 330-1) and labels him 'the voice of Miramax' (p. 375). I think Shakespeare's cultural status somewhat overshadowed directorial prominence in this case. A feature in the March 1999 edition of Total Film quotes Madden thus: ‘By the time I had finished page one, I knew that I’d never be offered another script as good. What it meant to me was that I would be able to get virtually every actor I wanted, just by showing them the script’ (Pearce, 69). In this way the ultimate success of the film is attributed to the foundation of its literary strength. I look forward to your post tomorrow Sam.

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