I saw Shakespeare in Love, and wept.
It was a bit awkward; my girlfriend, amazed and repulsed, periodically hissed, “You’re not
crying, are you?”
My girlfriend loves to go to movies and neck; it’s almost Pavlovian with her, a kind of
estrous catnip. The lights dim and the kisses start. But she finds my streak of cheap romanticism
appalling. “You even cried at Titanic!” she taunted when we got home. She
offered to curate a crying festival for me on video. (My girlfriend has a mean streak.) “Okay, fuck
off,” I said, sniffing a last quivery sniff for Gwyneth Paltrow, of all people, despite her fake
flimsy moustache (or in a way because of it I’ll get to that later).
But first, to be fair, some my girlfriend’s sneering at the film, not at me
was justified: the script (by Mark Norman, polished up by Tom Stoppard) and the dark, lean Joseph
Fiennes colluded to produce a young Shakespeare with nary a crackle of genuine genius. Just a
vaguely thoughtful, fairly bold bohemian go-getter who rushes back to his garret, vaults his bench
and hastily scribbles down some love-revved verse before scrambling back out to rehearsal. This is
the world’s greatest writer?
The film’s strongest spirit lives within Gwyneth as Lady Viola, the highborn
damsel/muse/one-woman show whom Shakespeare loves furtively for a while, long enough to unblock
him to write Romeo and Juliet. Though I’ve always found the actress rather unexceptional
(I’m a devotee of chubby beauty, an R. Crumb kind of guy), I wept for her anyway. Yes, I fell hard
for Gwyneth. Had she filled out a little, maybe? Put a twinkle in her blandness? No: it was the
moustache. On and off throughout Shakespeare in Love Gwyneth sports a short wig, a skimpy
fringe of lip hair and a soul patch to play her fake cousin, Tom, who has won the part of Romeo in
the film’s aborning production of Romeo and Juliet. (The scripters make hay with the
potential for multiple ironies.)
I have always loved a beauty dressing up as a shorthaired boy. It drives up my pulse every
time. Not because of the gay intimations, but because maleness is being used as a constraint, an
obstruction, like a fan dancer’s fluffy fan, through which femaleness peeks luridly out. Of course
the impersonation is unconvincing, and that’s exactly what titillates. How better to show off
Gwyneth’s femininity than to showcase the impossibility of her looking like a man?
I barked in appreciation when Gwyneth in her moustache shocked unwitting Joe with a sudden
passionate kiss in a row boat on the Thames. (Such female hijinks charm me all the way back to
Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.) I am, furthermore, a sucker for the mutual
love-at-first-sight dynamic. I was hooked through both lips from their first meeting, when young
Joe crashed a fancy revel at Gwyneth’s dad’s Thames-side mansion, and the two immediately
locked soul-dazzled eyes while doing the gavotte (or some such period dance).
Compounding the magic further were Shakespeare in Love‘s tried-and-true
sentimentalities, clichés if you will: the lovers’ difference in class; theirs being a secret love,
what with Gwyneth affianced to the insufferable Lord Wessex. And then that heady, even transcendent
cliché of a finebred, lovely and slightly bland young woman giving herself to all-out reckless love,
trusting heedlessly. Hitchcock stalked the erotics of this fallen-blondes terrain, of course,
though to a nastier and inverted purpose.
The whole rising wave of the movie’s appeal topped and broke in one ravishing rehearsal
scene at the theater, where boy-style Gwyneth speaks a Romeo line, then pivots a moment backstage to
steal a kiss and caress with her ardent playwright, real moustache to fake moustache, then reemerges
to say her next line, then slips behind scenery to neck more seriously. All the heat of loving sex
is there, that swooning rapture of mutual love. This surged on with intercuts of the lovers’ bedroom
sex at night, Will-Joe peeling Viola-Tom-Gwyneth out of her gauzy girdle, and in her arms
spouting the great lines of the play as if spontaneously gushed forth from his ecstasy. Cheesy but
affecting, if you have a weakness for that sort of thing. By now my heart was throbbing for
its own remembered loves-at-first-sight, including the one scowling beside me. Sex is great, we are
reminded; but sex when love is still strange and new that remakes the world.