A Glorious Feeling
“Love, and a bit with a dog,” Geoffrey Rush, as slimy theatre producer Philip Henslowe, tells William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) in Shakespeare in Love. “That’s what people want.” And while we laugh derisively at the idea of giving the world’s most celebrated playwright such lowbrow advice, the line works because it’s true about audiences to this day. Just consider the many romantic comedies in which one of the leads owns a cute pooch, inevitably humping someone’s leg.
When explaining how Shakespeare in Love beat out critic-favourite Saving Private Ryan for the best picture Oscar in 1999, Entertainment Weekly suggested that the Academy voters chose the film they felt an affinity with, the film about writers and actors. I’d go one step further: Shakespeare in Love, while being set in Elizabethan England, is about not just entertainers, but about entertaining the masses and the movie industry.
Because the film takes itself seriously and has an all British cast (save for Gwyneth Paltrow and then-boyfriend Ben Affleck; the former’s accent much more believable than the later’s) it took a couple viewings for me to notice the many deliberately anachronistic jokes poking fun at the modern day entertainment industry. In one of the early shots, Shakespeare crumbles up a page and throws it at a mug which has written on it “A Gift from Stratford upon Avon”, a joke about present day Stratford being a tawdry tourist trap. Throughout the film, characters deliver lines like “Good title!” or, in reference to a role, “Ned’s wrong for it”, clichés of movie industry talk. And at one point, when a riverboat rower, acting like a talkative cab driver, discovers he has Will Shakespeare in his boat, he tells him “I’m a playwright myself, as it happens…” and tries to hand off a script. Despite the multitude of Shakespearean references, Shakespeare in Love can be seen as Hollywood laughing at itself.
Which is what 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain is all about. Acknowledged universally as a classic and the quintessential Old Hollywood musical, Singin’ in the Rain lampoons the changes that occurred due to the introduction of sound in movies in 1927. Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent film star who has made a series of popular swash-buckling romances with Lina Lamont (the hilarious Jean Hagen). But the days of silent movies are numbered and as The Jazz Singer takes the nation by storm (the first movie with recorded songs and bits of dialogue featured Al Jolson’s remarkably prescient throwaway line “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”) sound technology threatens to expose Lina’s terrible secret: that her voice is a shocking, uneducated shriek. Fortunately, Don falls in love with perky ingénue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who can stand in for Lina’s voice, the movie portraying the invention of both sound-technology and dubbing!
Both Singin’ in the Rain and Shakespeare in Love are romantic comedies set amidst the difficulties of staging shows (Singin’ in the Rain about film studios grappling with new technologies, Shakespeare in Love about theatre companies faced with lack of money, violent rivalries and the constant threat of being shut down due to the plague). Both feature love stories between a man established in the industry and a newcomer actress who must be kept secret (Don and Kathy hide their affair from Lina and the studio, Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, the part that made Gwyneth Paltrow a star, because women are not allowed on stage).
The fact that female roles are to be played by girlish men (“Pip-squeak boys!” as Viola calls them) leads to another commonality: both talented heroines have their stardom threatened by squeaky-voiced usurpers: Lina in Singin’ in the Rain, who tries to force Kathy to dub for her indefinitely, and the “pretty” Sam Gross in Shakespeare in Love, whose high-pitched voice (Shakespeare asks “They haven’t dropped, have they?” while pretending to grab Sam’s supposedly undescended testicles) allow him to play female parts, in this case Juliet.
A subtle homosexual undercurrent is alluded to in both films. That gay jokes would be featured in Shakespeare in Love is unsurprising. Famous homosexual actor Rupert Everett was cast as famous homosexual playwright Christopher Marlow, though the small part, basically a cameo, has not one queer suggestion. Perhaps the makers thought it was too obvious, and the casting would speak for itself. Sam, who wears a dress and blond wig in most of his scenes, is presented as potentially-gay, fulfilling a sissy stereotype by hiding from a sword fight and remarking, after a tryst with a prostitute, “I quite liked it…”, implying it was his first time with a woman. Forced into cross-dressing as well, Viola dons a short brown wig and pretends to be a young man, scoring the part of Romeo opposite with Sam’s drag Juliet. Before Shakespeare discovers her disguise, Viola in full-costume plants a would-be gay kiss on his lips. My friend Jeremy told me of someone who, viewing the film only from the midway point on, missed that Gwyneth Paltrow was a girl and read the love story as queer one until the end.
The fact that Singin’ in the Rain, made during the height of Cold War gay-baiting paranoia and after MGM had already begun reining in the camp fantasies of directors like Vincent Minnelli, features a queer subtext is remarkable, but for the modern viewer it’s difficult to see Donald O’Connor’s character Cosmo, Don Lockwood’s best friend and former vaudeville partner, as anything but a nelly. He and Lina are inexplicably hostile to each other while jockeying for Don’s attention (“You look pretty good…for a girl”). It’s Cosmo who comes up with the idea of using Kathy’s voice for Lina’s, and to demonstrate he asks Kathy to stand behind him and sing while he exaggeratedly mouths along to her voice.
“Well, what do you think?” he asks the incomprehending Don.
The original line read, “Great, what are you doing this evening?” a joke far too overtly queer for the censors. It was changed to the more mildly flirtatious “Enchanting. What?”
And I won’t even go into the campy fifties-does-twenties costumes and Lina Lamont’s drag queen potential.
Gay men have played significant roles in the entertainment industry, both onstage and behind the scenes, since (at least) Elizabethan times, but they must be cleared off the stage in order to focus on the central heterosexual pairing.
At the opening of their new film, ‘The Dancing Cavalier’, the audience believes Kathy’s voice as Lina’s, but shout out requests for a live performance. In order to sabotage Lina, Don orders Kathy to sing behind the curtain for Lina to mouth along to. Halfway through the number, he yanks open the curtain, exposing Lina as a counterfeit talent, and she exits the stage, her career presumably over. (Sadly, this would be the highpoint of Jean Hagen’s career as well.)
Kathy, runs from the stage, allowing Don to deliver the classic lines, oft-quoted by my family, “Stop that girl! That girl running up the aisle! That’s the girl who’s voice you heard! She’s the real star of the picture!” The audience dutifully follows Don’s orders (he is a movie star, after all) and Kathy turns around, tears picturesquely running down her cheeks. Don begins singing ‘You are my Lucky Star’ as Cosmo races into the orchestra pit to conduct their accompaniment (the queer character literally moved offstage in order to romantically help out the leads). The film ends with a heavenly chorus and a poster featuring Lockwood and Selden as cinema’s new It Couple, their real life love authenticating their screen romances.
The climax of Shakespeare in Love is also about opening a show: in this case, the first performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Although forced to marry the pudgy Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), Viola sneaks into the theatre after her wedding to watch the play she’s spent weeks rehearsing. But just as Lina’s voice almost proved the downfall of ‘The Dancing Cavalier’, Sam’s voice threatens to ruin the play. It has suddenly changed (perhaps his testicles finally dropped) and he now speaks with the up-and-down warbles of a teenage boy. Luckily, Viola knows “every word” of the play. At the last second, they stop Sam from entering (here, the queer character is literally yanked off stage, never to be seen again) and Viola gets to play Juliet opposite Shakespeare’s Romeo. Delivering lines that he wrote about their love, Shakespeare and Viola are brilliant as the “star-crossed lovers” (especially now that all that goofy cross-dressing has been disposed of, we’re to think) and bring the audience to a standing ovation, during which the pair, breaking character as two corpses, rise and kiss passionately.
Both films work as comedies sending up the pretensions of theatrical folk (Affleck’s pompous actor Ned Alleyn is not dissimilar to Don Lockwood’s self-important star) but ultimately both convince us of the magic of the theatre: Singin’ in the Rain leaves you tapping your toes like in a musical, while I have never watched Shakespeare in Love without wishing I was also on stage. They allow us to laugh at the pretensions and phoniness of plays and movies while reminding us why we still love them.
The endings of both films suggest that a fictional love story, be it ‘Romeo or Juliet’ or the musicals that Don and Kathy are to set star in, is made that much better, that much more authentic , if accompanied with a real love story offstage. It’s lovely to think that Shakespeare, a man estranged from his wife, actually felt those glorious feelings he wrote about, even if it means inventing an entirely made-up history.
Even though we know that plays and movies are fictions, we want to believe there’s genuine emotional behind the curtain and camera lens, that happy endings continue after the applause end and the credits roll.