12 Facts About Shakespeare in Love

Miramax
Miramax

Shakespeare in Love will likely never win any accolades for its historical accuracy, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the most romantic movies of all time. The 1998 film, which cleaned up the following year at the Academy Awards, told the tale of a writer's-block-stricken William "Will" Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), and how he went on to compose his most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet.

While Shakespeare in Love's version of how Romeo and Juliet came to be is an imagined one—the movie's plot has the penniless Will falling for the fictional Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy merchant's daughter who subsequently becomes his muse—many of the characters in the film did exist in real life. Still, as the old saying goes, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," which explains co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard's argument that it's okay for the movie to be a far cry from reality.

"This film is entertainment," Stoppard told The New York Times in 1998, "which doesn't require it to be justified in the light of historical theory."

That being said, there are some honest-to-goodness facts that can be culled from Shakespeare in Love, which took home more than $300 million at the worldwide box office. So read on for 12 things you may not have known about this lavish, Elizabethan-era rom-com, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

1. It caused a major Oscar upset.

In what is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture trophy in 1999 over Steven Spielberg's WWII masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. While Saving Private Ryan garnered a win for Best Director for Spielberg, and finished out the evening with five awards total, Shakespeare in Love remained on top with seven Oscars. These included Gwyneth Paltrow's Best Actress win for her portrayal of Viola de Lesseps, Judi Dench's Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth I, and Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's award for Best Original Screenplay.

2. Judi Dench had less than 10 minutes of screen time, but still snagged an Oscar.

Queen Elizabeth I appears a total of three times in Shakespeare in Love, but that didn't stop a powerhouse like Dame Judi Dench from stealing each of her scenes from the rest of her fellow actors. Still, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role (see video above), Dench immediately acknowledged the awkwardness of being honored for an eight-minute performance. More than a decade after Dame Judi's win, the argument continues to be made that the Shakespeare in Love Oscar was a consolation prize for Dench not being given the Best Actress trophy the previous year for her portrayal of another English monarch, Queen Victoria, in Mrs. Brown.

3. The two actresses who played Dench's ladies in waiting in Shakespeare in Love also played her attendants in Mrs. Brown.

Guess it's hard to find good help in any time period, be it the 1500s or the 1800s: Bridget McConnell and Georgie Glen played Judi Dench's courtiers in both Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown. While serving Dench's Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, they were given the anonymous "ladies in waiting" billing. However, as attendants to Dame Judi's Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, McConnell appeared as "Lady Ely" and Glen as "Lady Churchill." This repeat casting is hardly a coincidence considering both Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown were directed by John Madden.

4. Jim Carter, who played butler Carson on Downton Abbey, also played a servant in Shakespeare in Love.

The man who will forever be known as the Crawley family’s faithful butler Carson in Downton Abbey portrayed (fictional) actor Ralph Bashford in Shakespeare in Love. As was the custom of the time, women were banned from performing in the theater, so actors like Ralph had to take on the female parts. Carter’s character played Juliet’s Nurse in the final production of Romeo and Juliet, slipping out of his affected high-pitched voice upon realizing Paltrow’s Viola had illegally stepped into the role of Juliet.

Another fun fact about Carter’s portrayal of Ralph/Nurse? The actor’s real-life wife, Imelda Staunton, played Viola's Nurse, who inspired the Romeo and Juliet role in the film. Both Carter's and Staunton's performances can be viewed in the above clip.

5. Many of the film's characters are real historical figures.

The story of Shakespeare in Love may be fictional, but in addition to William Shakespeare, his rival Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) and, as previously mentioned, Queen Elizabeth I, many of the other characters featured in the film did exist during the Bard's time. Elizabethan-era actors Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) and Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) were indeed the equivalent of modern Hollywood superstars—Affleck even referred to Alleyn as "the Tom Cruise of his day.

Geoffrey Rush's buffoonish, always-in-debt theater manager Philip Henslowe may appear to be someone straight out of the creative mind of Tom Stoppard (who, let's not forget, gave us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but he, too, was a real person; his diaries defend the idea that he was as much of a kook as the film suggests.

6. QUEEN ELIZABETH II’S YOUNGEST CHILD, PRINCE EDWARD, ASKED TO BE TITLED AFTER COLIN FIRTH’S CHARACTER.

When Prince Edward got married in 1999, his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was going to make him the Duke of Cambridge (the title eventually bestowed upon Prince William when he married Kate Middleton in 2011). However, according to a 2010 article in The Telegraph, Edward asked to be styled the Earl of Wessex instead, after seeing Shakespeare in Love and noticing Colin Firth's fictional character was named "Lord Wessex." Apparently the prince just liked the sound of “Wessex” (there is no proof that he was a fan of Firth’s snobbish and greedy nobleman). Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, are now known as the Earl and Countess of Wessex.

7. Lord Wessex took his new wife to a colony that didn't exist.

Spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the film: Will and Viola don't end up together. Instead, Paltrow's character honors her duty by marrying the loathsome Lord Wessex and agreeing to accompany him to his tobacco plantation in Virginia. There's one tiny snag with that plan: Shakespeare in Love takes place in 1593, and the first American colony wouldn't be established for another 14 years. Then again, it would make sense that someone as idiotic as Lord Wessex would make arrangements to move halfway across the world to a place that existed only in his head.

8. The movie's cast participated in a classroom video supplement on Shakespeare.

Those of us who were in school during the late 1990s and had a cool enough teacher to pop in this educational video got a chance to learn all about William Shakespeare from such experts as Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Dame Judi Dench, Ben Affleck and Geoffrey Rush. "Shakespeare in the Classroom" used Shakespeare in Love as a visual and historical aid to teach students about life during the Bard's time.

9. The film is peppered with references to multiple Shakespeare works.

Before Will even begins writing Romeo and Juliet, he overhears a minister ranting about "a plague on both your houses!" (which would eventually become one of Mercutio's most famous lines in the play). Other notable works by the Bard referenced in Shakespeare in Love include Hamlet (Will tosses a crumpled-up paper at a skull), Twelfth Night (Paltrow's character of Viola, with both her name and tendency to cross-dress, is suggested to have inspired the future Shakespeare comedy) and "Sonnet 18" (Will compares Viola to "a summer's day").

10. PALTROW SAYS HER BREAKUP WITH BRAD PITT ALMOST COST HER THE OSCAR-WINNING ROLE OF VIOLA DE LESSEPS.

During an interview with Howard Stern in January 2015, Paltrow opened up about how she initially turned down the part of Viola de Lesseps, citing emotional distress following her breakup with Brad Pitt. Paltrow told Stern that she was "very sad" and said, "'I'm not going to work' and all that nonsense" (listen above at around 31:20). Eventually, she was persuaded by Miramax producer Paul Webster to go out for the role, and the rest is Oscar history.

11. The boy who exposes Viola's deception is future playwright John Webster.

In Shakespeare in Love, Viola de Lesseps secretly poses as male actor Thomas Kent in order to subvert the laws preventing women from performing onstage. However, her scam is revealed by a meddling, rat-loving street urchin, who happens to go by the name of John Webster. Webster would go on to make a name for himself as a writer of grisly plays such as The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil.

Early in the film, the dialogue includes a tip of the hat to Webster's penchant for gore, when Will asks the teenage ragamuffin his opinion of Titus Andronicus: "I like it when they cut the heads off," answers young Webster. "And the daughter mutilated with knives … Plenty of blood. That's the only writing."

12. The film is a fictional examination of what the Bard was up to at the end of his so-called "Lost Year."

One of the reasons co-screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard were able to take so many liberties with the script was that not much is known about Shakespeare's life between the years 1585 and 1592. (The aforementioned educational video featuring the Shakespeare in Love cast alludes to this fact as well; other than a few dates pertaining to his marriage, christening, and death, there wasn't a lot of concrete evidence available regarding the playwright's life.)

"What's glorious is that so little is known about this period that you're not trapped by any kind of historical circumstance," director John Madden told The New York Times in 1998.

This article originally appeared in 2016.

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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