By Thane Peterson
Just about everyone in Hollywood -- save its most powerful moguls -- is supposedly afraid of Harvey Weinstein, the volatile co-chairman of the Miramax movie studio. The large shadow Harvey casts makes Peter Biskind's well-documented, deeply sourced new book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film (Simon & Schuster, $26.95), all the more remarkable.
This gossipy chronicle is highly critical of other pivotal players in independent movies, including Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford and Bob Weinstein, Harvey's mercurial brother and partner (see BW Online 2/10/04, "Where Indie Films Are Alive and Well"). But the bulk of this 544-page opus -- already No. 8 on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list -- focuses on Harvey Weinstein. It's based on hundreds of mostly on-the-record interviews with actors, directors, competitors, and former employees, as well as with Harvey himself. Biskind, who writes for Vanity Fair, paints the 300-pound movie mogul as a manipulative, abusive bully who's prone to throwing things and tearing phones off the wall.
The question Biskind raises -- and doesn't fully succeed in answering -- is whether Miramax (and Sundance, for that matter) did more harm than good in creating an artistic, independent alternative to Hollywood movies. But when it comes to Harvey, the matter seems almost beside the point.
True, there's little doubt that at his best Harvey is a courageous champion of smaller films, starting with director Steven Soderbergh's pioneering 1989 movie sex, lies and videotape to City of God, a Brazilian film that just received four Oscar nominations. But after reading the book, I couldn't help but wonder how has he gotten away with this so long, especially given that Miramax has been a unit of publicly held Walt Disney & Co. (DIS ) for more than a decade? Even by Tinseltown standards, Harvey's behavior as described by Biskind is outrageous. Take the following two confrontations -- among dozens involving him -- described in the book:
• In November, 2000, Weinstein put New York Observer editor Andrew Goldman, who tried to defend a female colleague whose questions had angered Harvey, "in a headlock and dragged him out the doors onto the street as the guests poured out behind them and the paparazzi snapped pictures. Finally, the Miramax publicists, who were all over Weinstein like Lilliputians on Gulliver, grabbing his arms and saying things like, 'Let him go, let him go Harvey, you're acting crazy', succeeded in separating the two men."
• In early 2001, Eric Gitter, producer of the film 0, earned Harvey's ire by insisting at a meeting that Miramax honor its contractual obligation to promote the movie. "What precisely happened in that room is cloaked in a confidentiality agreement," Biskind writes, "but Gitter suggests that Weinstein overturned furniture, and says that although Harvey never laid a hand on him, he got close enough 'so that I could smell what he had for lunch. It wasn't attractive.'"
Harvey has admitted that he gets carried away because he's so "passionate" about movies. He has often described how seeing The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut's coming-of-age movie, as a teenager changed his life and spurred him to make a career of promoting movies that otherwise might never be widely seen. But this book is full of unflattering accounts from creative people -- including directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Todd Haynes, and Spike Lee, and actors Ben Afleck, Matt Damon, and Ethan Hawke -- of having been manipulated or misled.
Less well-known players, more vulnerable to Harvey's whims, speak of being driven to ulcers, near nervous breakdowns, and the brink of financial ruin by seeing their films delayed or released with virtually no publicity. How exactly is all this about being "passionate" for movies?
Miramax claims the book contains many factual errors that it wasn't given a chance to correct. Miramax also says the extenuating circumstances in some of the confrontations aren't given adequate weight. For instance, spokesman Matthew Hiltzik notes that Goldman hit another guest with a tape recorder Harvey was trying to snatch from him and then refused to apologize. Hiltzik adds that "while Harvey acknowledges and has taken responsibility for having a temper in many instances, many of the claims [in the book] are exaggerated or apocryphal."
Perhaps. But even allowing for exaggeration, much of Harvey's behavior is less than admirable. It's also counterproductive. Biskind portrays him as a frustrated director with a compulsion to leave his stamp on other people's movies. Yet among the more ambitious movies he championed, the ones that have gotten the biggest audiences have been the ones he didn't mess with, including sex, lies and videotape, My Left Foot, The Crying Game, Shakespeare in Love, as well as Pulp Fiction and other movies directed by Quentin Tarantino.
More damaging to Harvey's reputation than messing with movies has been his penchant in recent years for mixing it up with such heavyweights as entertainment baron Barry Diller and Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider -- a major no-no in Hollywood's exquisitely calibrated hierarchy. Indeed, Biskind observes "a growing consensus" that Harvey has gotten "too big for his britches."
While the book is often illuminating -- pointing out, for example, that most of Miramax' profits lately have come from the frankly commercial projects such as Scary Movie and Scary Movie II produced by Bob Weinstein -- it isn't all that well-written. The endless details of movie deals could easily be cut by some 100 pages. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is less than passionately interested in independent films -- or Harvey Weinstein.
In an interview with Biskind, Weinstein admitted that after a contretemps with Frida director Julie Taymor, he realized he needed to get help with anger management. "All my movies got screwed up because of my personality," he recalled telling a Miramax exec at the time. "I have too bad a temper, this has to stop, now. God, what an asshole I've been."
Who knows how many people would argue with Harvey? But it's clear that the world of alternative film would be a lot better off if he could channel his energy away from anger and abuse into his real talents -- marketing and promotion.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell