1998 was a good year for movies. Life was beautiful, hope was floating, and Joey from "Friends" was quickly (and thankfully) convincing Hollywood that he should never be allowed to act in movies again. Sequels and remakes were sparse. Attendance at the movies saw a hefty increase. Fantastic original films were pouring into theaters almost weekly and there was no doubt that the race for best picture was going to be hot.
The movie that finally won the year's top honor, Shakespeare In Love, has since been accused of being one of the worst choices for a best pic, in particular and most recently by Cinema Blend in our recent Top 5: Worst Oscar Winners. With good reason. It combines three things that Americans can't stand in a movie: an original concept, amazing classic literature, and a requirement that you actually put a little bit of thought into it to get something out. Oh, and lest we forget, it didn't try to make you cry. For shame.
As my right honorable friend Brian Holcomb pointed out in Cinema Blend’s Top 5: Worst Oscar Winners, Saving Private Ryan was a "slobbering sentimental story" with big names like Hanks and Spielberg behind it. How could it lose?" The late eighties and early nineties had been full of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg producing great movies, but they were definitely films that played more to the heart strings and less to the brain. America ate it up and the Oscars flowed freely, but by 1998 the Academy was ready to recognize something that applied the same rules of great writing, directing and acting to a film that offered you a chance to do something besides sob.
You might also remember 1998 as the year of double dipping. There were two movies about saving the planet from asteroids, two CG animated movies about ants, and two Adam Sandler comedies. There were three World War II movies. All three of them were amazing films and all of them were nominated for Best Pic (and rightly so). As another colleague, Jarad Wilk observed, "when you have films like Saving Private Ryan, one of the most realistic and great war movies of all-time, and Life is Beautiful up for the same award, how do you give the best picture award to Shakespeare in Love?" The answer is simple. You give it to the movie that did something new and different and did it with the same level of excellence that all those war movies had.
Yet another CB colleague, J. D. McNamara, asked if "Shakespeare in Love [was] worthy of its Oscar win over the brilliant WWII film Saving Private Ryan?" Well, if rhetoric doesn't do it for you and you want to look at the numbers, here's the reason Shakespeare In Love was the top choice: not counting Best Picture, it had twelve Oscar nominations (more than any other movie in 1998), and it walked away with six well deserved wins. Saving Private Ryan had only ten nominations (again, excluding Best Picture) and had only five wins (most of those related to sound and editing). Spielberg got his Oscar for Ryan, honoring the fact that he had done something pretty amazing in assembling that film. But at the end of it all, Shakespeare was better all around.
You can claim that Shakespeare In Love wasn't as moving or emotionally stirring as the other contenders and I would completely agree with you. But there's more to what makes a movie great than being shaken or stirred. Things like romance, wit and laughter are good too. All of the movies nominated for Best Pic in 1998 deserved to be there (especially the much overlooked Elizabeth, which would have been my second pic after Shakespeare). But it's pure silliness to write any of them off simply because Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg weren't there to make you cry.
Read our CB Top 5: Worst Oscar Winners right here.