Harvey’s Hellhole: Shakespeare in Love

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. With the Oscars just around the corner, let’s go back to that time when he shocked everyone by having Shakespeare beat Spielberg.

The look on Harrison Ford’s face said it all.

As he stood on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage back in 1999, ready to give the Best Picture Oscar to his friend and Indiana Jones collaborator Steven Spielberg for his 1998 WWII drama Saving Private Ryan, a slight expression of disappointment and disbelief crept on his usually stoic punim when he opened the envelope and read the movie title inside.

“And the Oscar goes to… Shakespeare in Love,” he halfheartedly said. 

Harvey Weinstein leapt from his seat and wrapped his big, meaty arms around some blonde lady as he and the movie’s producers bumrushed the stage to collect their trophies. As the Miramax camp stood and applauded, the rest of the audience stayed seated. I like to think that they were sitting in protest — and in disgust. Because they just witnessed, as we would call in the hood, a jack!

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Spielberg’s intense, violent story of WWII soldiers protecting a young private was a critical and commercial success. And at a time when WWII movies were briefly back in vogue (The Thin Red Line, the long-awaited, all-star drama from reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick, and Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust dramedy Life is Beautiful, another Miramax film that won big that night, were also Best Picture nominees), Ryan was considered a lock for Best Picture. 

And, yet, the final award of the evening went to a polite period piece where an American with a British accent banged a horndog version of the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon to the point where he came up with his greatest work. 

Directed by John Madden (who did the me-and-the-Queen movie Mrs. Brown for Miramax a year before) on a $25 million budget, the 1998 film has Joseph Fiennes (yeah, Ralph’s lil’ brother) as a younger, more desirable William Shakespeare, going through lasses in order to find the right one to get his creative juices flowing. He finds his muse in the theater-loving daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) of a wealthy merchant, who eventually becomes a cast member (pretending to be a young man) in his new play. The title: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. I guess you already know what that play eventually becomes. 

Don’t get me wrong; Shakespeare isn’t a bad film. In fact, it’s the kind of clever, crowd-pleasing rom-com that I wish people would start making again. (In fitting Weinstein fashion, making the film wasn’t a complete, smooth sail. Weinstein demanded more positive reshoots of certain scenes, including the ending.) Screenwriters/playwrights Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard pack their script with hella Easter eggs, and populate the plot with other real-life figures — Paltrow’s then-boyfriend Ben Affleck works his cocky magic as actor/Shakespeare collaborator Ned Alleyn — from England’s Elizabethan-era theater past. Of course, for the people who aren’t theater nerds, there’s also the heavily sensual (and cerebral) love story between Fiennes and Paltrow’s young lovers, specifically designed to make your wife or girlfriend moist as hell. 

The Shakespeare jacking was another example of Weinstein’s power-mad grip on both Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) whenever Oscar season happened. As years rolled by and Miramax morphed from indie distributor to major film-industry entity, its mission became less about championing indie films and filmmakers and more about churning out Oscar bait so daddy can get more statuettes. Feel-good movies were more Weinstein’s speed anyway. According to Peter Biskind’s 2004 indie-cinema chronicle Down and Dirty Pictures, Weinstein preferred “movies about food, movies about World War II, movies about underdogs who triumph.”

It all started with My Left Foot in 1989, which was the first Miramax film nominated for Best Picture. While it didn’t win, star Daniel Day-Lewis got his first Best Actor Oscar for his turn as disabled artist Christy Brown. In later years, The Crying Game, The Piano and Pulp Fiction were all Miramax films with Best Picture nods. These daring, low-budget films were not only breakout box-office hits that won Oscars; they were also the defining films that put Miramax on the map. However, they still weren’t the sort of prestige product Academy members would reward with a Best Picture Oscar.

Weinstein eventually cracked the code in 1996, when Miramax released The English Patient. Anthony Minghella’s sweeping, epic tale of forbidden love, with Ralph Fiennes as a burn victim recalling the torrid affair he had with a married woman (Kristin Scott Thomas), would go on to win many Oscars the following year, including Best Picture.

For Weinstein, Oscar season was like a battlefield. He would go on the warpath, organizing marketing and publicity blitzes for the titles he deemed nomination-worthy. And he kicked it into overdrive with Shakespeare, especially after a meh premiere in LA hinted that industry folk were getting tired of seeing Weinstein win. (According to a Vanity Fair piece, he demanded to know why the audience response was so muted. An associate simply told him, “These people are rooting against you to succeed, not for you to succeed.”) 

Weinstein launched a full-on assault, hitting Academy voters with everything from VHS screeners of the film to invites to parties (this violated a 1997 Academy rule that deemed such receptions improper) to negative whisper campaigns where he put out the word that Ryan wasn’t all that. (Spielberg took the high road when he heard about this, alerting his marketer at DreamWorks not to “get down in the mud with Harvey.”) Nevertheless, it worked. Along with snagging Best Picture, Shakespeare picked up awards for most of its nominations, including a still-controversial Best Actress win for Paltrow and a Best Supporting Actress win for Dame Judi Dench, as a ballsy Queen Elizabeth I.

After Shakespeare, it almost seemed like the Academy would nominate Miramax films for Best Picture just so they wouldn’t have to hear Weinstein’s mouth. It got to the point where subsequent Best Picture categories would nominate two to three Miramax releases. Once they moved over to the Weinstein Company, Bob and Harvey started the process all over again. They managed to get back-to-back Best Picture wins, with The King’s Speech in 2010 and The Artist in 2011, before — well, you know.

But it is unfortunate how a cute, little costume drama like Shakespeare ended up becoming— in Weinstein’s hands— a weapon against the “kings of Hollywood,” as one Miramax exec called them. It was one of many fourth-quarter, for-your-consideration films that Weinstein and ‘em dropped into theaters, hoping to land that sweet Oscar gold. But unlike other brazen, Weinstein-approved Oscar bait, Shakespeare is actually a sweet, sexy, swell time at the movies. Sadly, thanks to Weinstein, it’ll be forever known as the movie that took a well-deserved Oscar away from Steven Spielberg. 

There are plenty of reasons to hate Harvey Weinstein, but I know I’ll despise him for using a perfectly good date-night movie to ruin everybody’s Oscar night 23 years ago.

Shakespeare in Love is available to rent or buy.

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