These movies were the Oscar nominees when I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember thinking even then how odd it was that all five were historical movies. Not only that, they only came from two time periods: World War II and Tudor England. Filmmakers had all of human history to choose from, and they made that many movies from two time periods in one year? It was just strange coincidence.
At the same time, it made it kind of fun for me to watch them all at once. It was interesting to watch the World War II movies, all of which are about different aspects of that war (Pacific theater, European theater, the Holocaust) and reflect on the very different experiences of people in the same war. Watching Guido fight for his family made me think about Captain Miller and his men, and how they were fighting so that Guido and others like him could live in his town and have a bookshop and be happy. Although the movies didn’t really overlap, together they made me see a bigger picture.
The two Elizabethan pictures, on the other hand, just made me kind of hate Joseph Fiennes. He plays the same role in both movies: a slightly slimy married man having an affair with a naïve young woman who is unaware of his marriage. I’m not sure how he ended up in both movies in such similar roles, but I guess he plays Elizabethan adulterers well. Geoffrey Rush is in both films, too, but the men he plays are polar opposites: Elizabeth’s spy and assassin in Elizabeth; a slightly befuddled producer in Shakespeare in Love. Because they are so different, he makes it work much better than Joseph Fiennes.
But that brings up another issue I saw in all these historical movies. The makeup has to be done very well, or else the viewer will see the actor, not the character. As much as I loved Ben Affleck and Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love, they didn’t look like 16th century men. They looked like Ben Affleck and Rupert Everett in funny clothes. Thin Red Line had the same problem; so did Saving Private Ryan, although to a lesser extent. I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors in Life is Beautiful, so it wasn’t a problem there. Elizabeth was the one movie where I didn’t feel that with any actor. Yes, Joseph Fiennes was obviously Joseph Fiennes, but since I’ve only ever seen him in Elizabethan garb, my first thought was not, “Oh, there’s Joseph Fiennes!”, but “Oh, there’s Shakespeare!” Since I’m not a makeup artist, I’m not sure what would have to be done to fix it, but it is a problem.
So do I believe Shakespeare in Love truly was the best picture of the year? Nope. It was a fine movie. It was a cute love story. But I feel that in order to be the best picture, a movie should be more than cute. A movie needs to mean something, to reveal something about the human condition. And while Shakespeare in Love did many things well, it didn’t have a deeper meaning. Life is Beautiful did. Saving Private Ryan did. I would have accepted either of those as best picture over Shakespeare in Love. The fact that Shakespeare in Love won makes me wonder exactly what Harvey Weinstein did in his campaign to convince the Academy that it was the best movie.
If I could change the past, which would I have picked? For me, it would have been a contest solely between Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan, but in the end I would have to go with Saving Private Ryan. I don’t like feeling like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but I really do feel that Saving Private Ryan was unfairly slighted. It is a masterful piece of storytelling and filmmaking. The meticulous recreation of D-Day alone should have been enough to win the Oscar, but it went beyond that. It really is an amazing movie, and in my opinion, the best picture of 1998.
How do I rank the nominees?
4. The Thin Red Line
3. Shakespeare in Love
2. Life is Beautiful
1. Saving Private Ryan
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