|Harvey Weinstein |
by Kate Salley Palmer
They know him as God, but you can call him Harvey Weinstein
A living Hollywood legend is bouncing back from his troubles towards the Oscars, with an enhanced reputation for good taste
Thu 23 Feb 2018
n Sunday, one man's name will be invoked in Oscar acceptance speeches even more frequently than mom, America and the Almighty. Or at least, one of his monikers will be. At last month's Golden Globes, Meryl Streep referred to him as "God"; Madonna as "the punisher". For Thomas Langmann, the French producer of The Artist, he was simply "le boss".
Harvey Weinstein's producer credit on films such as The Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn, and W.E. has earned him his 303rd Oscar nomination. Surely it's only a matter of time before the academy fires up the foundry and remodels the award itself in his generous image.
Forget an honorary gong – and word is Weinstein wouldn't mind an Irving G Thalberg memorial award, handed out periodically by the academy to outstanding producers – this would be the only truly fitting tribute.
Weinstein's top attack dog this year, with 10 Oscar nominations (and good odds on converting most of them to wins) is The Artist. A fan of French director Michel Hazanavicius's niche spy spoofs, Weinstein saw the film at a private screening in Paris last spring, then forked out for international distribution rights two days before its May premiere at Cannes. It went on to win best actor at that festival, and has hoovered up praise ever since; voracious, ferocious, unstoppable – a little like its master.
Its appeal is obvious for Weinstein whose involvement in a movie can range from buying the rights and masterminding release to overseeing the project from near inception. The Artist, an ode to the glory days of cinema, is smart enough to tickle academy voters and charming enough to woo punters. It also presents an irresistible challenge: the man who could secure a best picture Oscar for a silent black-and-white French film with no real stars is, surely, a man capable of anything.
Plus, the film's plot presents potent personal parallels. Three years ago, Weinstein was looking as washed up as George Valentin, The Artist's dashing hero flailing at the advent of the talkies.
For decades, he had been a living legend, one of the few producers with face as well as name recognition. In 1979 he and his younger brother, Bob, had dropped out of college and set up a distribution company in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which eventually morphed into Miramax (named after their parents, Miriam and Max).
A decade in, they bought the rights to the Steven Soderbergh Sundance winner Sex, Lies and Videotape for $1m, and it took 20 times that. Weinstein discovered a gift for repackaging classy, yet cheap, European fare for the US market, scoring big with Cinema Paradiso, My Left Foot, The Crying Game, the Three Colours trilogy and The English Patient.
In 1993 Miramax was taken over by Disney for $60m. Initially, they were happy bedfellows. Profits rose from £5m to £75m in four years. Weinstein's short fuse (now ascribed to glucose overdose on account of a fondness for M&Ms) was indulged and found to be colourful, marketable even. He told the New York Observer he was "the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town". To some extent, he was right.
His closeness to talent – he holidayed with Gwyneth Paltrow and Bill Clinton – wasn't just unctuousness. In March 2002, he reportedly took issue with director Julie Taymor's positive assessment of a test screening of her film, Frida. "You are the most arrogant person I have ever met," he apparently yelled. "Go market the fucking film yourself!" He then told Taymor's partner to "defend your wife, so I can beat the shit out of you", and fired half a dozen staff.
Such chutzpah went down less well once things started going awry. A venture into publishing, with Talk magazine, ended scrappily, ditto an experiment in the fashion market. Yet he remained defiant. Asked at the time if he was frightened, Weinstein said: "Yes, I am very frightened. I'm frightened I am going to have a better year than last."
Weinstein's health suffered; then in 2004, he separated from his wife of 17 years, Eve. The following year the brothers divorced from Disney to go it alone again, after an escalating conflict with Michael Eisner, then Disney's CEO-
The brothers bought too many titles, too fast – 70 between 2006 and 2009 – and few paid dividends. "Harvey felt if he sat out he would lose his edge," according to one unnamed former Miramax executive. "Well, the first movie was Derailed, with Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen, which was pretty bad. Us Jews are superstitious. This was just bad karma."
Then the recession kicked in. "Bob and I had never done debt," Weinstein said. "The investment bankers would say to us, 'Debt is cheap money.' No, it's not. Debt can be the most addictive thing in the universe, and it can kill you. You get used to living high off the hog."
A best actress Oscar for Kate Winslet in 2008 for The Reader helped regain cash and composure. In 2009, they had a major success with Quentin Tarantino whose career they'd championed years before. Inglourious Basterds clocked up $321m worldwide, coffers swelled further in 2010 with The King's Speech ($414m worldwide, four key Oscars).
"You don't hear the horrific Harvey stories you used to," says Peter Biskind, whose book Down and Dirty Pictures traced Weinstein's story through to the Disney split. "He seems to be regaining his normal stature as a master at manipulating the academy audience.
"My guess is he's been a little bit chastened, that his experience post-Disney was a real struggle. He lost weight, he got a new wife. It might be an exaggeration to say he's a new Harvey but he went through some difficult times and I think it made an impression on him."
Everybody, including Oscar voters, loves a narrative arc of hubris and redemption. These days, Weinstein peppers his press with the word "blessed". "I didn't appreciate it in the first go-round, and boy do I appreciate it now."
How much salt should be swallowed with this? Murkier subplots certainly bubble; offstage whispers suggest ominous undercurrents (Weinstein is a man people are strikingly reluctant to discuss, even off the record). "He's still perceived as an absolute nightmare," says one industry insider. "He buys movies, changes them, buries them, fucks over young filmmakers, gets furious when he doesn't get the mention in the acceptance speech."
Even long-term cheerleaders, such as the British producer Stephen Woolley, seem sceptical about the scale of his overhaul. "He hasn't changed much. But it's the condition of the job; you have to have somebody who's fairly Machiavellian to compete against the studios."
Grisly litigation suits continue; most recently an ugly spat, settled last week, with Michael Moore over profits from Fahrenheit 9/11. Some of the talent Weinstein once fed has bitten back. Ten years ago, Clerks director Kevin Smith said of the brothers: "Those dudes have been my role models. Without Harvey and Bob, there's no Pulp Fiction. Quentin is still working in a video store."
These days, Smith trashes his former mentors, although Woolley ascribes much of this sort of behaviour to sour grapes. "Harvey is somebody everybody loves when they're releasing your films, and somebody they feel bitter about if they're not."
But the more pressing headache is financial. Last week, the Weinstein Company applied for a $150m (£95m) loan to – amongst other ventures – help settle debts. Earlier this week they announced a potentially lucrative partnership with Netflix, which might help address the home entertainment haemorrhage. Steven Gaydos, of Variety, says: "The victory that eludes [Harvey] is how to produce and release speciality films in the post-DVD revenue bonanza world in a way that creates stable sustainable profitability. That's the real gold."
And while The Artist is set to repeat the trick of The King's Speech in terms of an Oscars sweep, it has failed to set tills ringing to the same tune. At this stage last year, The King's Speech had made $114m in the US. The Artist has so far taken $28m.
The more wounding total may be that for My Week with Marilyn, which, despite its arguably more alluring premise, has taken just $13m. To some extent The Artist is an anomaly in Weinstein's catalogue: everything about it was fixed before he got his mitts on it. Marilyn he shepherded every step of the way, consciously trying to cook up a successor to The King's Speech. It may sting a bit that the film which has made the running this year for Harvey is the one other people have put together.
The critical success of The Artist is, nevertheless, a powerful acknowledgement of Weinstein's good taste. And 2012 is shaping up promisingly: at least three Weinstein titles – Tarantino's Django Unchained, The Wettest Country and Coogan's Trade – seem set for a bucketload of awards a year from now.
"I think if he can keep winning Oscars and put the company on a firm financial footing, he'll be a happy camper," says Biskind. "His achilles heel has always been his ambition, but I would hope he's learned his lessons." It's a cautionary note. A comeback is one thing. A second second-coming may be too much.
Born Flushing, New York; March 19, 1952
Career to date Prolific and polarising. His genuine passion for cinema coupled with a straight-talking approach to making cash has inspired love, fear and loathing.
High point This Sunday. Weinstein already has already been a part of some 69 Oscar wins. The likes of The Artist and The Iron Lady may take him into the 80s.
Low point The mid-noughties. Divorced and out of his depth for the first time, with dwindling kudos and funds.
He says "Everything about it in my gut said, 'Do this'. "But my team said, 'No, we should focus on bigger movies'. I didn't listen to my very significant gut ... And that was a big bloody mistake." [On his failure to pick up US film rights to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo]
They say "The truth is this time of year Harvey is all humble pie, he eats crow so he can win some awards … The day after the Oscars he will fall into his old bad habits again." [One anonymous source]