Harvey Weinstein’s affair with the UK film industry
What does the downfall of convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein mean for the UK’s dwindling film industry?
Harvey Weinstein should have been in a buoyant mood on the evening of 19 November 2015. He was an executive producer of Carol, the acclaimed film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, starring Cate Blanchett, that was receiving its New York premiere. His film studio The Weinstein Company was releasing the film – then hotly tipped for Oscars success – in the US.
But at the after-party held inside Manhattan’s iconic Rainbow Room, the usually brash Weinstein was despondent. That week the Weinstein Company was laying off a fifth of its workforce amid mounting rumours it would soon be up for sale. Elizabeth Karlsen, an English producer of Carol, attempted to lift Weinstein’s spirits at the premiere. “Hold your head up, Harvey!” she exclaimed, animatedly gesticulating in full view of witnesses, including myself.
Weinstein swiftly turned from powerful ally to public enemy within the UK film industry
Of course, matters would get considerably worse for the mogul. Since allegations of sexual misconduct were first reported in the New York Times and the New Yorker three years ago, 100 women have alleged Weinstein tried to sexually assault them throughout the course of his 40-year career in the entertainment business. In March Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in a New York prison for sexual assault and rape. Weinstein has consistently denied charges of sexual misconduct.
Karlsen, who had previously collaborated with Weinstein on the 1992 hit IRA drama film The Crying Game, weighed in on his misconduct. “The real tragedy is not only do you have the damage that’s been done to people in terms of abuse, but there’s the damage that’s felt by the people who weren’t able to speak up for whatever reason,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
The story is recounted not to shame Karlsen who, together with her husband Stephen Woolley, runs UK production firm Number 9 Films. She can hardly be faulted for attempting to cheer up a fellow producer at her premiere. But it illustrates how swiftly Weinstein turned from powerful ally to public enemy within the UK film industry, without any thorough reckoning occurring surrounding its deep-rooted ties to a sexual predator.
The UK film industry has long embraced outsiders. Hungarian-born Alexander Korda was the most powerful UK-based producer-director in the 1930s. And have there been better British period drama exponents than Indian-American duo Ismail Merchant and James Ivory?
The British film establishment embraced Weinstein was unprecedented
But the way the British film establishment embraced Weinstein was unprecedented. Weinstein was awarded a CBE in 2004 for his contribution to the British film industry in producing Oscar-winning hits Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient. He was awarded a British Film Institute (BFI) Fellowship in 2002, the most prestigious honour the UK’s government-backed film body can bestow. Last September the Queen stripped Weinstein of his knighthood while his BFI fellowship was rescinded in 2017.
Weinstein gave the keynote address at the London Film Festival (LFF) in 2011. “Weinstein’s capacity for combining commercial savvy with creative integrity underpins his exceptional success and is emblematic of what our Industry Programme aims to foster and support,” Clare Stewart, then-LFF director, wrote in the festival industry guide. Post-misconduct allegations, Stewart no longer highlighted Weinstein’s “creative integrity”. Instead she said at the 2017 LFF, “I would hope that with more women going into [BFI] senior roles we would not see this kind of long-lived denial of what might have been going on.”
Three years later there has been much well-intentioned focus within the UK film community on how to create cultures that prevent the type of behaviour perpetuated by Weinstein, but minimal attention has been paid to its ties to Weinstein himself. “It’s laughable how the media calls him a ‘Hollywood film producer’ given how much time he spent in London and how he was the biggest outsider supporter of the British film industry,” says a producer who wishes to remain anonymous.
That Weinstein was a committed Anglomaniac was apparent from the outset of his producing career. Born in Flushing, New York, Weinstein founded Miramax Films with his brother Bob Weinstein in 1979. Their first acquisition was The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, a comedy concert filmed in aid of Amnesty International, featuring John Cleese and Billy Connolly.
In 1989 Weinstein achieved his breakthrough hit with Scandal, chronicling the Profumo Affair, a collaboration with Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell’s London company Palace Pictures. Angus Finney’s 1996 book The Egos Have Landed recounts Weinstein saying to Scandal director Michael Caton-Jones about Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, who was playing Christine Keeler, “Michael, you gotta get her to take her clothes off!” (Typifying Weinstein’s clout, Finney struck a deal with Random House in 1998 to write an unauthorised biography of Weinstein entitled Last of the Moguls, only to abandon the project as it would have scuppered his burgeoning UK film producing career.)
Alongside championing American directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Weinstein regularly co-produced movies with UK production houses such as BBC Films and Film 4, the film arm of Channel 4. Weinstein’s social largesse at the annual BAFTA Awards was legendary. Guests at the last BAFTA party hosted by Weinstein before his downfall, held in 2017 at Holborn’s Rosewood Hotel, ranged from Alan Yentob to Mel Brooks.
“British films don’t usually make money so there was something intoxicating about Harvey Weinstein,” said Chris Atkins, a BAFTA-nominated documentary filmmaker who recently published his own prison diary A Bit of a Stretch after he was convicted of film finance-related tax fraud. “Suddenly we were having hits, producers were making money and they were winning Oscars. The industry completely dropped its shorts for him.”
Over 35 per cent of UK best actor and actress Oscar nominations between 1989 and 2017 (18 out of 51) were in films co-produced or released by Miramax or the Weinstein Company (the studio set up by Harvey and Bob after the brothers acrimoniously split from Miramax’s corporate owner Disney in 2005).
Most UK film executives have been conspicuously silent on Weinstein’s conduct
Weinstein, whose second wife was English fashion designer Georgina Chapman, wasn’t merely drawn to UK-themed productions (his projects ranged from an underwhelming 2011 adaptation of Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It to an unrealised ambition to make a film of historian Andrew Roberts’ 2015 Napoleon biography). He knew how to market British films. Take The Crying Game. While Miramax originally declined to invest in Neil Jordan’s film owing to its edgy gender plot twist, following its ill-fated UK reception Weinstein knew exactly how to sell the twist to American audiences, generating an Oscar-winning commercial phenomenon in the process.
Although renowned as a brazen bully, Weinstein successfully hid his sexual misconduct for three decades. The Metropolitan Police is still investigating 16 allegations against Weinstein from 11 women. A few Brits have spoken out, notably Weinstein’s former London-based assistant Zelda Perkins, who received a settlement in 1998 after complaining of sexual harassment, and actress Lysette Anthony who alleged Weinstein raped her in the eighties.
But most UK film executives have been conspicuously silent on Weinstein’s conduct. “Being seen as this God by the British film industry helped enable him to become a serial rapist,” said Atkins. “The two go hand in hand. It’s like Jimmy Savile and his charity work – you can’t separate the crime and the work because he was using the work as a shield for his crime.”
One British producer who did come forward was Paul Webster, head of production for Miramax between 1995 and 1997. He told BBC One’s Panorama in 2018: “I think we were all complicit … it didn’t take too much brain power to put it together that a man who was so abusive and bullying in every aspect of his life would bring that abuse into the sexual arena. I think looking back that I did know and I chose to suppress it. I chose to hide from that fact.”
It’s not only producers who are hiding from the facts. Weinstein’s ability to persuade high-profile British actors to act in his films was unrivalled. They included Kate Winslet, Benedict Cumberbatch and Steve Coogan while Dame Judi Dench made ten films with Weinstein and infamously boasted she had a fake tattoo of him on her bottom.
Illustrating his cosy connections to British celebrities, Weinstein told The Guardian about his 2014 animation flop Escape from Planet Earth, “We had Stephen Fry come in and write the narration for Ricky Gervais’s character.” Fry co-hosted a London dinner with Weinstein in 2013 to promote his mental illness romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
Predictably, British thespians are reluctant to shout from the rooftops about their former benefactor. No reference was made in the New Yorker’s recent lengthy profile of entertainer James Corden to One Chance, his only lead feature film role, which Weinstein released and on which he was an executive producer.
James Graham, perhaps the best playwright of his generation, and whose dramatic subjects have included Rupert Murdoch and Edward Heath, worked closely with Weinstein when he wrote the book for the 2015 Broadway musical Finding Neverland. Despite this ringside seat to power being a recurring theme of his work, Graham told me in an interview last year he had no plans to write about Weinstein. “It is not necessarily yet my story to contribute to,” he said. “There are people who have more interesting and urgent perspectives on this than I do.”
Some think the reticence goes beyond reputational reasons. “People don’t want to be seen as accomplices after the fact and asked why they didn’t stop the rapist who was in their midst,” said Atkins. “They’re not going to talk about the things that border on criminality. They’re going to hope it all goes away.”
UK filmmakers are now grappling with renewed industry pressures during Covid-19 but they were already struggling to fill the void caused by the lack of high-profile British hit movies in a post-Weinstein climate. One Weinstein passion project that he never did produce was a remake of Carol Reed’s 1948 classic The Fallen Idol based on the Graham Greene short story. Yet given the absence of transparency and reckoning over the extensive shadow cast by Harvey Weinstein, the UK film industry has now remade its chequered past with its own fallen idol.
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