January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

What is the sound of Oscar buzzing?

It’s the sort of answerless question best pondered by Lao-tzu or Roger Ebert. But by our estimation, it is the crash of a coffee cup dropped by a busboy in a West Hollywood cafe after Gwyneth Paltrow strolls in to be interviewed about her much-fussed-over new period comedy, Shakespeare in Love. It’s the predawn announcement of six Golden Globe nominations for Shakespeare, including Best Picture, best director, best screenplay, and Best Actress for Paltrow. It’s the absence of sounds — no coughing, no chattering, and, amazingly, no snoring — at the Los Angeles screenings of Shakespeare in Love for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s the giggling of women on The View going gaga over Joseph Fiennes (Ralph Fiennes’ 28-year-old younger brother), who plays the dashing young playwright himself.

It’s Hillary Clinton announcing at the Shakespeare premiere in New York that the film has lured her into a movie theater for the first time in five years. And this amid her husband’s impeachment inquiries!

Now, on a balmy mid-December afternoon in Los Angeles, Oscar buzz has been transmogrified into the faint rustling of a napkin in the trembling hands of an autograph-seeking teenager named Lana, who, with her father, has spotted Paltrow being interviewed for this story at a sidewalk table outside La Bottega Marino on Santa Monica Boulevard. Lana is too bedazzled to say much, but her British father rambles about how ”dead-on” Paltrow’s English accents are in Shakespeare in Love, Sliding Doors, and Emma; how ”absolutely exquisite” she looks in period costume; and how the 25-year-old California-born, Manhattan-bred actress is pretty much the best thing to happen to corsets since titanium underwire.

”I notice that people shake more lately,” Paltrow admits, after they walk away. ”That didn’t use to happen, but I definitely sense a little extra shakiness.” Paltrow should get used to it, since even bigger jitters could be just around the corner. In a year with surprisingly few Oscar nomination shoo-ins, Shakespeare in Love seems uniquely primed for Academy Award success. Paltrow is certainly in the running for a Best Actress nomination. The director, John Madden, nominated last year for Mrs. Brown, stands to get a nomination here, too. And so does Dame Judi Dench, whose scene-stealing, roughly eight-minute pancake-makeup performance as Queen Elizabeth may be, if she won the Oscar, the briefest Academy Award-worthy role ever. If nothing else, Shakespeare is virtually guaranteed nominations for art direction and costume design, as well as a nod for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s highly literate, joyously intricate screenplay about an imaginary romance that inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet.

”To create something of that magnitude,” Stoppard explains, ”he was no doubt hopelessly and desperately in love with a very, very special woman.” With daring flashes of anachronism (check out the scene with the pub waiter straight out of ’90s L.A. offering daily specials like ”pig’s foot marinated in juniper berry vinegar served on a buckwheat pancake”), the film begins with the young Shakespeare suffering a frustrating writer’s block. Enter Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps, an aristocrat who dons a mustache and manly swagger, infiltrates an all-male theatrical troupe, and becomes — when she puts her dress back on — the playwright’s muse.

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