By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated August 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Among its many blandishments — pretty actors, pretty love story, pretty costumes, pretty music — Shakespeare in Love seduces best with flattery. This clever and ingratiating Oscar winner does viewers the honor of assuming a working familiarity with Shakespearean lore. It counts on an adult appreciation of mistaken-identity plot devices and the Elizabethan tradition of men performing as women. And if it doesn’t demand scholarly knowledge to participate in the fun, at least it rewards a high school diploma. It’s a movie that suggests we’re smarter than we thought we were.

In a field of flicks that make us feel dumb for encouraging blockbuster witlessness, that’s moderate reason enough for praise. But soft: The open-minded videophile will find, anon, that director Ernst Lubitsch was there over a half century earlier with To Be or Not to Be, a gloss on Shakespeare twice as funny, and twice as adventurous.

Which is not to say that Shakespeare in Love isn’t, indeed, literate fun. It’s high on words. (The VCR rewind button is a boon.) For all the attractions of Gwyneth Paltrow at her most long-throated as Viola De Lesseps, the bard-in-training’s lover and muse, for all the lures of Joseph Fiennes’ spaniel-eyed gazes as the titular genius with writer’s block (the actor’s fawnish mopes do nothing for me, but I’ll honor anyone else’s fondness for the type), it’s the language that deserves the huzzahs. With Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard both credited as screenwriters, I have no idea who, in hard actual fact, did what. But there’s no hiding the continental suavity and stagecraft gymnastics that are Stoppard’s signature. One random example: ”Stay but a little — I will come again,” Will urges his beloved, quoting full Shakespeare. That the two are passionately entwined at the time makes for a hot visual pun in a moment steamier than any in all of Eyes Wide Shut.

Of course, Shakespeare in Love promotes not just Shakespeare but also the whole movie and theater industry. ”Love — and a bit with a dog, that’s what they want,” goes one backstage quip. ”Who’s that?” ”Nobody. The author,” goes another inside-baseball exchange. No wonder Academy voters — i.e., actors and directors, screenwriters and producers — garlanded this valentine to ye olde entertainment biz with seven Oscars.

Besides, it’s a production that seems made for the small screen. Director John Madden is partial to snaky tracking shots through the theater and the muddy streets of 16th-century London, but the bulk of the love story is told in video-ready close-ups that don’t require scope. Scope, in fact, is the crucial element missing from the film: Shakespeare in Love is an entertainment as fetching as Elizabethan embroidery and as deep as a layer of satin on the Queen’s corset.

Depth and daring, on the other hand, lend To Be or Not to Be — the glorious Lubitsch creation, not Mel Brooks’ pasty 1983 remake — a majestic subversiveness. In this brilliantly black comedy, a Shakespearean production is the setting for a lot more than well-known snippets of oratory: The troupe of Polish players staging Hamlet (starring ”that great, great Polish actor” Joseph Tura, played to the hilt and beyond by the great, great Jack Benny) do so while invading Nazis are destroying Europe. And it falls to the less-than-stellar theater company, led by Tura and his alluring wife (divine Carole Lombard, in her last role before she died in a plane crash) to expose a double agent and outwit Nazis bent on evil.

That this heroically funny film (as erudite as Shakespeare in Love, but much less self-congratulatory) was made while Nazis actually were slaughtering in Europe left many critics shocked when the film was first released. The deceptive hilarity of Lubitsch’s legendary light touch and his temerity in laughing at Hitler (with far less fey peekaboo than Charlie Chaplin used two years earlier in The Great Dictator) were unsettling for a country just entering the war.

In beautiful black and white, To Be or Not to Be is a masterpiece of structure and script, performance and tone. It’s also a stirring example of just how brave and literate Hollywood can be when it really wants to — and how smart audiences can be too.
Shakespeare in Love: B+
To Be or Not to Be: A

Shakespeare in Love

  • Movie
  • R
  • 122 minutes
  • John Madden (Director)