If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences specialises in one thing at a sophisticated level no other collaborative body could ever hope to match, it’s giving awards to the wrong people. Sometimes, it almost seems like a deliberate act of petulance. Try finding anyone outside of Robert Zemekis’s immediate family who considers Forrest Gump to be a better picture than Pulp Fiction (one win) or The Shawshank Redemption (IMDB’s Best Film Ever Made; no wins).
In 1999, The 71st Academy Awards became to many people, the apogee of undeserved Oscars and the rabid invective from commentators the following morning still echoes today fifteen years later, in bars, hairdressing salons, World War II museums, Shakespeare classes and Oscar-based internet forums the world over. Yet there was more method than madness afoot that night; but madness there certainly was.
The first thing to establish is that the Best Picture prize that year was something of a moot point, since the five best movies of 1998 weren’t even nominated. Of course, nothing is more subjective than a Best Of… list, but really, was Elizabeth a better film than Out of Sight, Bulworth, Happiness or Rushmore? Then again, they were small, independent-type films, but what about The Truman Show: an inventive, topical, moving, dazzlingly prescient science-fiction from one of the finest directors in the world and a smash hit to boot? Three nominations, no wins (Jim Carrey pretended to break down in tears at his Best Actor snub in one of the evening’s highlights: ‘I’m here tonight to present the Academy Award for outstanding achievement in film editing. That’s all I’m here to do. I have nothing else to worry about.’).
Let us agree that while Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was the most sublime and poetic of the five nominees, it was shortlisted because few members had ever seen anything so beautiful, and because it was nice to have Malick back after so many years. No one in their right mind thought it was going to win anything – and they were right. However, the night of March 11th 1999 also saw as many unjustly maligned correct decisions taken as there were unforgivable blunders. As the latter category is by far the most fun to discuss, let us begin with the mistakes. Let us begin with the biggest mistake that the Academy has ever made: Roberto Benigni’s Best Actor win.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with Benigni’s performance as the father trying to convince his young son that their new concentration camp dwellings were all part of an elaborate and terribly fun game. The simple fact was that this wasn’t an acting performance, it was schtick; an elongated pratfall that was Benigni’s stock in trade. The film’s success was its effective and sympathetic juxtaposition of Benigni’s tomfoolery against the horrors of what was going on around him. This was a perilous tightrope, judiciously walked – for a step-by-step guide to falling off exactly the same rope, watch Jakob The Liar – and Benigni’s reward for Best Foreign Film was deserved, as was his nomination for Best Director. But Best Actor?! Best Actor?!
In handing Benigni the trophy, the Academy denied themselves the chance to give Tom Hanks the first Best Actor trophy that he actually deserved. His winning turns in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump were both laudable, but in 1994 and 1995 he beat out better and more worthwhile performances (Daniel Day Lewis for In The Name of The Father and Anthony Hopkins’ love-crushed butler in The Remains of The Day in 1994, then Morgan Freeman as Shawshank’s Red and Nigel Hawthorne’s mad King George III in 1995. That’s my argument and I’m sticking to it).
Hanks was the entire movie in Saving Private Ryan. His quiet, decent, professional Captain Miller led the audience through the senseless quagmire of exploding buildings and body parts with defiantly non-heroic and unassuming tenderness. There probably isn’t a more wrenching moment in his extraordinary career than the little peek over his shoulder to make sure his men can’t see him, before breaking into uncontrollable sobs. That he didn’t win was bad enough; that he lost to Benigni’s unrestrained histrionic capery was unforgivable.
Life is Beautiful and Shakespeare in Love both had a secret weapon when it came to garnering Academy votes – Harvey Weinstein, whose company Miramax produced both movies. Weinstein had already developed a reputation for aggressive Oscar campaigning, going back to My Left Foot in 1990 through to The Crying Game, Sling Blade and The English Patient. This year, Weinstein went for broke. According to Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, Roberto ‘Benigni moved into L.A. for a month during the peak of the voting period, and every night somebody was having a party for him. Roberto made a lot of friends, and it won him an acting Oscar.’ Weinstein himself threw a “Welcome to America” party for Shakespeare in Love director John Madden, inviting Academy members as guests in violation of the rules. It was claimed that Weinstein had spent $5m on Oscar campaigning for Shakespeare in Love – $3m more than the major studios had spent on any of their nominees (breadcrumbs, incidentally, compared to modern-day campaign costs).
Heavy tactics like this left a sour taste in the mouth when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture – Harrison Ford’s barely disguised look of shock when he opened the envelope spoke volumes – and ever since that night, there’s been a lingering suspicion that Miramax “bought” the Best Picture Oscar, to the cost of a far better movie, Saving Private Ryan. Few ‘Worst Oscar Decisions Ever’ lists fail to mention the 1999 Best Picture Winner, but is this entirely fair?
Steven Spielberg won the best director award and deserved every golden ounce of it. He was directly responsible for the battle scenes that bookended the film, which reminded a blithe generation about the indescribable horror of World War II, and for which the film received its greatest acclaim. His expert direction, it should also be stated, was a shiny polish that covered a pretty scuffed script.
Despite it’s reputation as an immersive, unsentimental war experience, Saving Private Ryan is essentially a Boys Own, ‘Men on a Mission’ movie and a surprisingly cornball one at that: was there ever a hokier plot device than Abraham’s Lincoln’s letter to Mrs Bixby, which General Marshall just happened to have in his desk? It continually steps on its own agenda, imposing Hollywood logic and bogus coincidence, in contrast to the mercilessly random savagery of war so brilliantly established in the first twenty five minutes. In an essay in 1999, scriptwriting guru William Goldman went further, describing the post-Finding Private Ryan second half as ‘A disgrace. Fifty-plus minutes of phony, manipulative shit,’ and saved particular scorn for the modern-day scenes with an elderly Ryan reminiscing about the mission – even though he wasn’t actually there to bear witness to 75% of the action.
Shakespeare in Love, by contrast succeeds on every one of its many and disparate layers. It is that very rare thing: a romantic comedy which is both romantic and funny, with the gamut of comedy being run from broad slapstick, toilet humour and cross-dressing to elegant, poetic wit and razor-sharp Hollywood satire: the margins are filled with gags about percentage points, back-end deals and the lowly status of the scriptwriter. There is even a running joke that is entirely dependent upon the audience’s awareness of Jacobean writer John Webster and his works. Perhaps such high-brow in-jokery was ego-massaging catnip to the critics; it may not seem plausible today, but according to Premiere magazine, Shakespeare in Love was officially the most critically well-received film of 1998.
What the film is probably best remembered for today is Gwyneth Paltrow’s unbearably lachrymose acceptance speech for Best Actress, but it highlights an important historical point about the 1999 Academy Awards – the before and after factor. Up to the point where she started blubbing like a ten-year old girl who didn’t get a pony for her birthday, Gwyneth Paltrow was adored by absolutely everyone. Swan-necked, elegant, talented and impossibly beautiful, even her English accent was flawless. That night, everybody wanted her to win. One tear-stained, breath-choking breakdown later, and she was a laughing stock.
Similarly, in March 1999 all anyone in America could talk about was the gibberish-spouting Italian man who was cartwheeling onto chat-shows all month like a semi-literate tree monkey high on quaaludes. “How adorable.” A little of that goes a long way though, and after all the chair-dancing antics on the night of the 22nd, there was a very real sense that the Academy had just been conned, not only by Miramax’s blank chequered advertising campaign, but by the charming Mediterranean distraction of a language-mangling acrobat. Such thoughts only intensified after Benigni squandered his remaining goodwill with Pinocchio; watchable only in the same way that an industrial band-saw accident is watchable, it’s probably the most distressing and nightmarish children’s film ever made.
With fifteen years of hindsight and setting apart the skullduggery that went on behind the scenes, I think that it’s now safe to come out of the shadows and admit that Shakespeare in Love was a deserving Best Picture Winner. The fact that such a maligned, disrespected thing as a “comedy” won the big prize is reason enough to finally give it a break. Perhaps you don’t agree? I’m sure many of you won’t, but then what are the Oscars for in the first place if not to give film-lovers around the world the chance to come together as one and agree that The Academy always gets it wrong, as they surely will this year? Or maybe not? Things will seem a lot clearer in fifteen years.