Many Oscar-watchers still view this one as the ultimate upset. On one side, you had Steven Spielberg, generally regarded then, as now, as the most successful director of all time. That success had bred envy, which had cost him the Best Picture race in 1983 (when E.T. lost to Gandhi) and 1986 (when The Color Purple went 0 for 11, while Out of Africa took Best Picture). Finally, in 1994, the undeniable force of Schindler’s List earned him Best Picture and Best Director. Saving Private Ryan (pictured), another serious epic about World War II, seemed destined to earn Spielberg two more top Oscars.
Its rival was Shakespeare in Love, a period romantic comedy with a literate, witty Tom Stoppard script and sumptuous production values. Oscar tends to favor war epics over romantic comedies, but this one had Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein on its side, and he made sure that voters were impressed by its literary pedigree and by the luminous breakthrough performance of Gwyneth Paltrow. Early in the ceremony, when Supporting Actress went to Judi Dench for one of the briefest performances in Oscar history, it seemed clear that an upset was brewing. Sure enough Paltrow won Best Actress (over frontrunner Cate Blanchett’s remarkable turn in Elizabeth), and while Spielberg did land Best Director, collective gasps were heard ’round the moviegoing world when Shakespeare took Best Picture. Having pulled off a similar victory two years earlier with The English Patient, Weinstein had now proved he was the king of Oscar campaigning. By the way, Shakespeare, among other things, was a backstage farce featuring Ben Affleck; does that mean this year’s competition between Argo and Spielberg’s Lincoln is a rematch?