Recently, Glenn Close made headlines for naming Gwyneth Paltrow’s Best Actress Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love as an example of an undeserved victory, influenced more by external factors than the quality of the performance itself. In an interview with film critic Peter Travers, Close, currently in the midst of her own Oscar campaign for Hillbilly Elegy, talked candidly about the politics of awards season. The actress spoke about how difficult it can be to “honestly compare [nominated] performances” before singling out Paltrow. Close recalls thinking, upon learning Paltrow had won over fellow nominee Fernanda Montenegro, “It doesn’t make sense.”
Twenty years on, Close’s comments are closer to received wisdom than a scalding hot take. Indeed, while entertainment news sites enthusiastically reported the dig, there appeared to be little disagreement with Close’s assessment. The Oscar success of Shakespeare in Love in 1999 has long been ascribed to then-Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein’s overbearing and unprecedentedly expensive campaigning techniques that year. The horrific revelations about Weinstein have only made it more admissible to write off the film’s successes; it’s possible that Close meant to highlight the darker side of awards campaigning by explicitly referencing Weinstein’s most high-profile awards coup. It also doesn’t hurt that Paltrow herself has effectively retired from acting and pivoted to running her wellness and lifestyle brand, Goop. Goop has come under legitimate criticism for peddling potentially harmful pseudoscience, as well as for selling aspirational products with ludicrously expensive price tags. Paltrow and her rarefied existence have become easy to mock and easy to hate.
Look, I’m not here to defend Paltrow as a person or to say that she absolutely deserved to win over the other actresses nominated that year. I’m not going to argue that Weinstein’s notorious campaigning blitz had nothing to do with Shakespeare in Love’s strong showing at the Oscars. But I would like to remind anyone reading this that Shakespeare in Love launched Paltrow into superstardom for a reason: she’s good in it. The actress strikes a pitch perfect note as the cross-dressing, sex-positive, rule-bending Lady Viola de Lesseps.
Shakespeare in Love tells a fictionalised account of how the Bard wrote his romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The incredibly clever script, with its postmodern flourishes, imagines William Shakespeare as a fake-it-til-you-make-it type struggling to find inspiration for his latest play—a comedy he has already sold but not yet written. Will (played here to rakish perfection by Joseph Fiennes) finds his inspiration when he lays eyes on Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and falls immediately in love.
Unbeknownst to Will, he has already met Viola when he “first” sees her. Viola, dressed as a man and using the name Thomas Kent, auditioned for Will’s newest play. An avowed admirer of Shakespeare’s, Viola-as-Kent recites a monologue from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Will, thoroughly taken with the performance, casts Kent as Romeo, the lead. Once Will discovers that Viola and Kent are one and the same person, the lady and the poet begin a romance that carries on as they work together in rehearsals for the new play. Viola is set to marry another man, Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), in two weeks’ time, thus dooming her entanglement with Will to be short-lived. As Viola’s nuptials loom, Will turns his play into a tragedy, immortalising their star-crossed love.
Viola sits at the very center of the film, serving as the audience’s proxy. She begins the movie as a Shakespeare fan; like us, she reveres his words and holds his work in high regard. She also joins Will’s company of players from an outsider’s perspective. By presenting as a man, she gains access to a world from which she had previously been barred by virtue of her gender and class. (“Playhouses are not for well born ladies,” Viola’s nurse reminds her early in the film.) Viola wants to be an actor because she sincerely believes in the power of poetry to move people. Everything about the theatre delights her. She is dazzled as we are meant to be dazzled.
While Viola exudes a starry-eyed naivete in some ways, she also knows what she’s getting into. The script, written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, gives Viola plenty of agency. She is the architect of her own adventure; she decides to pose as a man to audition for Will’s play, and she initiates the romance between them with a desperate kiss. Viola also serves as the voice of reason through the course of their affair, repeatedly reminding Will that their “stolen season” cannot last. She seems acutely aware that her newfound freedom has definite limits.
Paltrow wonderfully communicates how Viola can be simultaneously exceedingly romantic and unfailingly realistic. The great success of Paltrow’s performance lies in the way she operates in the tension between these two aspects of Viola’s personality. Paltrow figures Viola’s romantic, rebellious streak as her inner nature, perpetually prone to come rushing out. Her realistic side is borne of the external pressures she faces daily to conform to a certain model of upper class womanhood. Paltrow conveys the collision of these two forces as a kind of desperation. She plays Viola as a woman who fiercely pursues her chance at adventure on the stage and love with Will because she sees her window of opportunity closing.
Paltrow accomplishes an astounding amount of character work with her voice. The American actress pulls off a fine English accent, but the accent isn’t what makes her voice work in the film noteworthy. Paltrow has a naturally low voice, so she does not have to strain for a deeper register when playing scenes where Viola presents as a man. In one scene, Kent asks Will to describe the lady Viola. “And her voice, like lark’s song?” Kent asks. “Deeper, softer. None of your twittering larks,” Will responds. Paltrow differentiates between Viola and Kent not by changing the pitch of her voice, but by changing the breathiness of her delivery. This results in a dynamic that allows Paltrow to play along a continuum rather than fit into a performative binary.
Consider the way, in the same scene as mentioned above, Paltrow lets Viola’s breathy voice break through in the moments when Will waxes poetic about Viola’s beauty. When Will goes a compliment too far, Viola’s voice hardens again, sounding more like Kent. “I think the lady is wise to keep your love at a distance,” Kent says. “For what lady could live up to it, close to, when her eyes and lips and voice may be no more beautiful than mine?” Paltrow utters the word “mine” like a sigh, in Viola’s voice. In every scene as Kent, Paltrow’s vocal work lets us know that Viola is there, just under the surface, waiting to be let out with an exhalation.
This dynamic plays beautifully in later scenes, when Will and Viola have begun their sexual relationship, and they take every opportunity at rehearsals to make out offstage. In these moments, Paltrow blurs the breathiness of Viola’s voice with the lustful heavy breathing between kisses. Paltrow locates Viola’s desires—for love, for freedom, for Will—in her breath, which is always ready to burst forth.
When Viola is at her most romantic, Paltrow delivers her lines in the most airy way. Near the beginning of the film, Viola declares that she will have “love that overthrows life, unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.” Paltrow is practically winded by the time she gets to the end of the line. When Viola first learns of her engagement to Wessex, before she has had time to adjust to the inevitability of the marriage, she nearly whispers her reaction to the news: “But I do not love you, my lord.” Even when reciting lines as Viola-as-Kent-as-Romeo, Paltrow imbues the most achingly romantic passages with some of Viola’s swooping cadences.
In the moments when Viola has come back down to earth, and she must face reality, Paltrow’s voice comes down to earth, too. Viola controls her voice not only when she performs as Kent, but also when she knows that she cannot have that for which she truly yearns. In these moments, she cannot let out her air, her breath, her desire; she must contain it.
Paltrow physically expresses the clash between Viola’s essential nature and the constraints of societal norms as well. Early in the film, Paltrow often leans forward and looks outward, as if Viola cannot be tethered to one spot. She’s constantly straining to be somewhere else. The undefined pull on Viola’s body reveals itself as a magnetic attraction once she meets Will. Paltrow consistently orients herself towards Fiennes in their scenes together. The motion makes sense when Will is present.
In Viola’s scenes without Will, the forward gestures look like restlessness. Paltrow keeps the movements small, as though Viola is struggling to keep herself still. In this way, too, Paltrow shows us how Viola’s passionate constitution can barely be restrained. Take, for example, the scene before her wedding to Wessex. Viola walks into the room to find her father settling the dowry with her husband-to-be. “I see you’re open for business, so let’s to church,” she tells Wessex flatly. As Paltrow delivers the line, her head bobs slightly back and forth. She looks as if she’s positively bristling at the thought of being sold to Wessex, even as she accepts what she must do.
In an interview with Variety to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Shakespeare in Love, Paltrow said that she felt uncomfortable in the restrictive period costumes she had to wear as Viola. She lets that discomfort show in her performance, letting the elaborate clothing work as another form of confinement that Viola visibly resists. When Viola dresses as a man, Paltrow’s body language loosens up considerably. When she swaggers onstage as Viola-as-Kent-as-Romeo when Kent shows up for the play’s first rehearsal, it is a thing of beauty.
Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Paltrow’s eyebrows. I am not being facetious when I say that Paltrow does some of my favorite eyebrow acting of all time in Shakespeare in Love. The actress uses her brow to convey the urgency and the intensity of Viola’s feelings. It’s here, in the eyebrows, that Paltrow most indicates Viola’s pressing need to let her emotions out. The actress has been called “luminous” in the role, and I think the descriptor (beyond the obvious use of the word to mean “radiantly beautiful”) gets at this “pressing outward” quality of Paltrow’s performance. Paltrow’s eyebrows act as a gate, lifting to let Viola’s passion pour out and knitting together in an effort to keep it in.
Upon release, Shakespeare in Love earned rave reviews and grossed $300 worldwide—a huge number for an independent movie. The film is still generally well-liked today, and it would be incorrect to assert that the film needs to be reappraised. And yet, the narrative persists that Shakespeare in Love didn’t deserve its Oscar wins. I have always understood an implicit bias against “feminine” film genres in the assertion that Saving Private Ryan should have won the top prize. A romance can’t possibly be serious enough to win Best Picture. Playing a romantic lead shouldn’t win you Best Actress.
All I know is that when I watched Shakespeare in Love for the first time as a teenager, Viola was a revelation. She felt like a fully realised person in a way that many other female film characters didn’t, in no small part thanks to Paltrow’s performance. I saw myself in Viola’s struggle to fulfill her emotional and sexual desires in a society that often dismisses such wants, when held by women, as unimportant. As Will puts it at the end of the film, Viola is a “heroine for all time.” Gwyneth Paltrow deserved that Oscar for truthfully and joyfully revealing the irrepressible naturalness of Viola’s creative and romantic desires.
by Leah Carlson-Downie
Leah (she/her) is a New York-based librarian and pop culture junkie. She is a longtime cinephile who continuously endeavors to learn more about the history of the form. She has always been a writer but has only recently felt comfortable calling herself one. Leah usually digs movie musicals, period pieces, and parody films. You can find her on Twitter or on her blog.