When Shakespeare Beat Spielberg: An Oscar Shocker, 20 Years Later

     March 21, 2019


And you thought Green Book was a surprise.

This year’s Best Picture winner should hold Shakespeare’s ale, because in 1999 an artsy piece of erudite fan fiction about the Bard’s young career took down none other than Steven Spielberg himself.

Here’s the dirty little secret: it should have. Shakespeare in Love is a better film than Saving Private Ryan.

Considering how that’s a minority opinion (which I’ll defend in a bit), many people believe that Shakespeare producer and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein essentially bought the 1998 Academy Award for Best Picture. With a rumored $15 million, the notorious-now-disgraced mogul-bully staged an unprecedented Oscar race blitz. This, no doubt, was crucial and perhaps even necessary to slay an Oscar-lock goliath like Saving Private Ryan, but Shakespeare didn’t win because Weinstein was some Hollywood Svengali whose spellbinding powers of deep-pocketed marketing persuasion somehow hypnotized weak-minded Academy members to vote against their wishes.


Image via Universal Pictures

When initial December premieres and Academy screenings for Shakespeare were met with unexpected raves of exultant bliss, Weinstein realized he had a legitimate contender. His job, then, wasn’t to convince Oscar voters that Shakespeare was better than Ryan. Instead, it was to assure them that it was okay to vote for Shakespeare – the film they actually loved – and that doing so wouldn’t make them bad, unpatriotic Americans.

But how did he do that?

Most contend it was through a dirty trick. Various accounts, from books to oral histories, attribute it to the birth of the “whisper campaign,” where a slander is strategically spread through gossipy buzz along the awards circuit, or in off-the-record press convos. For Harvey, the whisper campaign was this: once you get past the stunning D-Day opener, there wasn’t much there to Saving Private Ryan.

The fact that he did this is indisputable, but the idea that Harvey invented that opinion isn’t.

Weinstein did not concoct that view out of whole cloth. The ambivalence about Saving Private Ryan post-Normandy was already in the air. It wasn’t a new thought; it’s one that people had – hell, I had it – if mostly in secret. Harvey didn’t need to plant the idea; he simply seized on it. People may have perceived it as a smear, and tactically perhaps it was, but aside from the caveat that Ryan’s climactic battle is the near-equal of the Normandy sequence, the whisper also had the benefit of being the truth.

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