Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films, New York City, 1989. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Talentless Mr Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein’s disruptive career in film

Sunday’s news that Harvey Weinstein, once master of all he surveyed, is now suffering from coronavirus while in prison has not been greeted with the sympathy that other victims of the illness have received. Instead, the reaction has been swift, often witty and contemptuous, with the overarching feeling being that, at a time when thousands are suffering, at least a truly loathsome figure has joined their number. Although Weinstein has done his best to cut a pitiable character during the course of his trial and disgrace, appearing at court with walking supports and being treated for numerous illnesses, the damning testimony of his victims has erased any sympathy that the kind-hearted may have felt.

His defence lawyer deserves credit for having advanced any kind of mitigation in favour of her client, rather than simply shrugging and saying ‘A fair cop, m’lud’, but it was especially irksome to many that one central argument she made was that Weinstein’s services to the film industry somehow merited a lighter sentence. Whether or not one accepts that Weinstein was a vastly influential figure in the business for good rather than ill – and we shall come onto that – his pictures were undeniably made for profit as a commercial endeavour, rather than out of altruism. Some of these films were very good, others dreadful, but the Weinstein influence over all of them was, at best, hands on, and, at worst, thoroughly pernicious, both for filmmakers and for cinema as an entity.

Weinstein’s career at his production company Miramax, along with his brother Bob, began nearly forty years ago, when he released the Amnesty film The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in America. Its starry cast (Sting, Eric Clapton, John Cleese, Alan Bennett etc) and combination of music and comedy saw it become a minor commercial hit, beginning a lucrative career that allowed Miramax to buy and release arthouse films such as Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror. There was controversy relating to his re-editing and dubbing foreign films for US release, but this remained a relatively obscure area, one for the arthouse connoisseurs and the trade press. His artistic ambitions were, at this stage, unrealised. An attempt by both Weinstein brothers to move into writing and directing with the little-seen 1986 film Playing for Keeps was unmemorable.

Harvey was interested in creating a bigger splash. A loud, abrasive figure who liked a fight and for people to admire his pugnacity

Yet Harvey was interested in creating a bigger splash. A loud, abrasive figure who liked a fight and for people to admire his pugnacity, he first ensured that the John Profumo drama Scandal attracted some controversy by making a fuss about an orgy scene that threatened the film with an X certificate. The ensuing publicity (and three seconds of edits) saw it become a minor box office success. A less prurient distributor might have instead focused attention on John Hurt’s performance as Stephen Ward, which deserved but did not receive an Oscar. It began the first phase of Weinstein’s career in earnest: take a relatively obscure European film with a strong sexual theme, loudly complain about the censors’ desire to restrict the rights of free-born Americans to enjoy it, attract attention that would have otherwise never been there and watch the box office receipts rise. It worked with unlikely films such as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, but Weinstein looked at the acclaim and awards that My Left Foot received and thought ‘I’d like some of that’.

The shift in his career from, essentially, a huckster with an eye for an opportunity to a big businessman, in all senses, came with Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. A downbeat (and highly prescient) drama about sexual identity disguised as an IRA thriller, it was released to indifferent box office in the UK, where its sympathetic presentation of an IRA foot soldier hobbled its commercial chances at a time of national paranoia about their operations. Weinstein, however, saw an opportunity to promote the film’s major twist as its selling point, begging the audience ‘not to reveal the secret’, and took its box office to dizzy heights, to say nothing of its being nominated for several Oscars. (It won one, for Jordan’s screenplay.) The film’s success led to Miramax being acquired by Disney for $80 million, establishing the Weinstein brothers as Hollywood players. Harvey’s dreams were coming true.

It was not long until he switched focus from distribution to producing, developing and releasing films with the might of the Miramax millions behind him. He had a spectacular success with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which attracted critical acclaim and a cult following, but his instincts were to focus on vaguely soapy literary dramas, either based on bestselling novels or featuring literary figures. On and on they went – Tom and Viv, about TS Eliot, Restoration, based on the Rose Tremain book, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre – and all were greeted with polite disinterest. When Weinstein tackled the zeitgeist, the results were often electrifying, as with Larry Clark’s vastly controversial Kids, but he seemed happiest in his comfort setting of undemanding, unexciting prestige films, most of which were designed (and failed) to win Oscars.

This frustrated Weinstein, and he was fortunate enough to work with the vastly more able Anthony Minghella on his WWII epic romance The English Patient. Head and shoulders above the middlebrow dross that the company had been releasing, it won numerous Oscars and did extremely well at the box office. Never mind that Demi Moore, then at the peak of her fame, had been approached to play the role of an upper-class adulterous wife that Kristin Scott-Thomas assumed, nor that some creative accounting (production cost: c$30 million; box office receipts: $230 million) indicated that it had never turned a profit. It represented the crowning of Weinstein as possibly the best-known producer in Hollywood, a figure who could combine commercial acumen with creative genius. Nobody would dare underestimate the boy from Queens, now.

And for a time, the films got better. He was responsible for some excellent, unusual pictures, such as the still-underrated Henry James adaptation Wings of a Dove, Good Will Hunting and Kevin Smith’s best film, Chasing Amy. He continued his associations with directors such as Tarantino and Smith, building up a so-called ‘Miramax stable’ of filmmakers and actors such as Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench. His peak probably came at the beginning of 1999, when John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (which Weinstein had taken a rare production credit on, showing his unusual interest in its success) won multiple Oscars, defeating Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. On the night, Weinstein puffed himself up with arrogance and pride. He was, as James Cameron had vaingloriously described himself the previous year, ‘king of the world’. What could possibly go wrong?

Weinstein was only as good as the vastly more talented writers, actors and directors who he surrounded himself with

Everything, it transpired. Although nobody realised for a time, Weinstein was only as good as the vastly more talented writers, actors and directors who he surrounded himself with. If he allowed them to work and didn’t interfere too strenuously, the films succeeded; even his insistence on Ben Affleck being cast in a supporting role in Shakespeare in Love did not irritate too badly. But thereafter, he began to dictate terms with greater vehemence, convinced of his own genius. The boring middlebrow literary adaptations that he produced (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News) were nominated for Oscars, but nobody cared any more. There were ugly public fights with directors, whose films ended up being released in compromised and edited versions, and consistent stories emerged of Miramax buying up films at festivals, never to release them. He somehow failed to capitalise on the best film made during this period, Minghella’s masterpiece The Talented Mr Ripley, concentrating his efforts instead on The Cider House Rules. People were frightened of him, and attempted to curry favour. It was calculated that, during Oscar acceptance speeches between 1966 and 2016, the three figures thanked most often were Steven Spielberg, God and Harvey Weinstein.

One man who did not thank Weinstein, publicly or privately, was Martin Scorsese, who collaborated with him on his long-standing passion project Gangs of New York. The film was beset by endless production difficulties, something of a Weinstein trademark by now, and artistically compromised by the unresolved tension between Scorsese’s desire to deliver a complex, coruscating account of the birth of 19th century America, and Weinstein’s wish to have a commercial blockbuster with star performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. It eventually made a small profit, garnered attention for Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary, outsized performance as the film’s antagonist Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting but remains a curate’s egg, with scene after scene running into one another chaotically: a clear relic of a difficult editing process. When a minor character pleads ‘Don’t make that noise again, Harvey’, it seems like a heartfelt plea on the part of the director.

As his artistic career, now conducted through his new company the Weinstein Company, slowly waned, Weinstein continued his social and political manoeuvrings. He was an ostentatious supporter of the Clintons and the Obamas, a regular dining companion of Anna Wintour and Tina Brown, and a shining star in the Democrat firmament, not least for his commitment to organising lucrative fundraising events. He occasionally attempted to keep the old magic going – 2011’s pleasant but slight My Week with Marilyn, about Marilyn Monroe, busts a gut to elevate itself into an Oscar-worthy heritage drama – but he was a faded and largely artistically irrelevant figure long before his final downfall. One of the last films of his that appeared, 2017’s Tulip Fever, tried to revive some of the kudos of Shakespeare in Love, with a Tom Stoppard screenplay, appearances by Miramax Oscar-winners Judi Dench and Christoph Waltz and a 17th century setting, but its failure meant that all was up for Weinstein in the new era of Marvel, streaming and social responsibility.

Ironically, for a man whose politics were impeccably liberal, it was the emergence of the #MeToo movement that did for him on both a personal and professional level. But Weinstein was already a busted flush by then. He was never a great figure in cinema so much as a hugely disruptive one. For every bona fide discovery of his, a Tarantino or a David O Russell, there was an adherence to promoting mediocre yes-men over true visionaries who would represent no challenge to his own vision. (Women remained unchampioned.) Had he remained at the earlier level of a carnival barker, titillating his audience with the promise of forbidden flesh while loudly fighting the forces of censorship, he might have had a happier and more contented life. But his hubris and desire to be A Name is what contributed to his downfall just as much as his sexual violence towards women, and so, as he lies on a sickbed that could yet be his deathbed, he has to consider a final paradox. There will never be anyone else quite like Harvey Weinstein, and, for the sake of both cinema and humanity, this is a very good thing indeed.

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