I have a confession to make: I admire — and have always admired — Harvey Weinstein. Why? Well, partly because he’s a modern-day Horatio Alger story, having worked his way up from concert promoter to movie mogul; partly because he’s as responsible as anyone for ushering in the indie film movement that’s produced most of the finest films of the past two decades; and partly because he’s a member of a dying breed thats roots trace back to P.T. Barnum, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Cecil B. DeMille: he’s a true showman.
When I speak with Mr. Weinstein — or Harvey, as he insists I call him — by telephone on Friday, it’s 5pm on the east coast of the United States, where I’m based, and 10pm in the evening in London, where he’s spending a few days prior to Sunday evening’s BAFTA Awards. His big awards hopeful this year, “Inglourious Basterds,” was denied a best picture nod there, but several of the people associated with it — including writer/director Quentin Tarantino and supporting actor Christoph Waltz — were nominated, and the film is apparently gaining momentum in the Oscar race back stateside, so Harvey put on his best face face and turned out to support his troops.
Indeed, the first thing that he tells me is that he’s just walked in from a wonderful party at The Groucho Club that Tarantino threw for Waltz (who has won virtually every award for which he’s been eligible thus far and is Harvey’s surest-bet to deliver an Oscar in three weeks). Over the course of our 20-minute call, he repeatedly tries to steer the conversation back to “Basterds,” Waltz, and especially Tarantino, with whom he’s collaborated ever since the boy wonder’s first film “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) 18 years ago. But the reason that I requested this interview was to talk not about the puppeteer but rather about the puppeteer’s puppeteer.
Harvey is one of those people who everybody knows but nobody knows much about, apart from his occasional outbursts/blunders and his unparalleled track record at securing Oscar nominations and wins for his films and the people who made them. (Has anyone been thanked more from the Oscar podium?) Considering that Harvey and his associates might pull off their biggest Oscar surprise yet on March 7, I figured that now was as appropriate a time as any to ask him to share a little more about himself.
* * *
When you were a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Two things: either play shortstop for the Yankees, which I was not equipped for, or make movies, which I seem better equipped for. Although some of my critics wish I’d played shortstop for the Yankees.
Did you go to the movies as a kid? Did you have any particular favorites or influences?
Yeah. I used to go to the Loew’s Valencia, and we would see “Hercules,” and then we’d see “Hercules: Unchained,” and then we’d see “Hercules: Unchained, Part 75.” That was, you know, the things in our neighborhood until one day I stumbled on an art house called The Mayfair Movie Theatre where Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” was playing, and that changed my life because I then went there every week. I mean, they changed the bill every week, and I would see Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Philippe de Broca, you know, whatever. I became an art house devotee, which I’ve tried to do in the movies that I distribute or produce and, you know, continue that tradition of The Mayfair Movie Theatre.
What was Harvey and Corky Productions?
It was a concert production company. Basically, when I went to school at the University of Buffalo, I had to earn my keep, so at 19 years old we formed a company to produce concerts because the University of Buffalo stopped producing concerts. So we raised money privately and produced concerts. And I thought that would be my ticket to meeting somebody who could help me get in the movie business.
And was it? Did that sort of lead to Miramax?
In many ways, you know what I mean? The company grew to be a very big company, so I ended up, you know, meeting loads of people. And I still impress some of the people who work for me when I say hi to Paul McCartney or Phil Collins. But all that knowledge helped me when I did The Concert for New York City [after 9/11] with Jim Dolan and John Sykes, you know? Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, The Who — you know, every one of those bands I had produced in concert at one time — Billy Joel, everybody. And then I was able to do Obama and Bruce Springsteen — I’d done them, too. So, I mean, I’ve known these guys from when I was a kid and they were kids, so we’ve all been there together. So it was supposed to be a vehicle, and it ended up being fairly successful.
Many siblings clash, but you and your brother really seem to work well together. How do you guys get along so well?
I think my dad — who’s, you know, the Max in Miramax — used to say, “You have to emulate the Kennedy brothers.” You know? He said, “John helps Bobby. Bobby helps John, helps Teddy. It’s got to be family first. You can have all your little persnickety differences on somebody else’s time, but not when you’re responsible for doing things.”
And at the company do you guys take on different responsibilities?
Yeah. Bob created Dimension and I run The Weinstein Company side, the TWC side. But we combine, you know, on most things. But Bob is really the creator of Dimension, the architect of it — you know, he did from “The Crow,” to “Scream,” to “Scary Movie” — together. We always worked together on all of the early movies — “Sex, Lies[, and Videotape],” and “[My] Left Foot,” and “Reservoir Dogs.” But then Bob, you know, just created this incredible division, which does a lot better financially than I do! It’s like Robin Hood: you rob the rich — Bob — and you give to the poor — which is the art house movies.
If there’s one thing that people know about you, it’s that you’re the master when it comes to Oscar campaigns. How do you explain your fascination with the Oscars? And also, for people who may not understand, why is it worth it to spend so much money and time competing for them?
Well, you know, there are certainly financial rewards if you win — you know, you get a whole new life. And even if you’re on video you sell a lot more video copies; if you’re still in theatrical internationally — which we are in a bunch of territories on “Inglourious Basterds” — it just has all sorts of good economic results. And the other thing is just sometimes, in the case of certain movies like this year with “Inglourious Basterds,” I just honestly think that– Quentin has made “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Jackie Brown,” and “Inglourious Basterds”; you know, he wrote “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers”; but, you know, he’s never won the big prize. I just think he’s overdue, and I just really feel this is his best work, and I said it at the time and I say it now: I just think it’s, you know, just one of the greatest films and I’m just really proud of it for a myriad of reasons.
I hope I can quickly pose to you a few “superlative” questions to you about your past Oscar glory days. What was the most satisfying nomination for you?
Hmm. I think “Pelle the Conqueror” because it was the first.
What was the most satisfying win?
All the wins are satisfying. And all the nominations are satisfying. You know, I never look at it that way. Really, it’s an old cliche but it’s the truth: just to be nominated is good enough.
What was the most disappointing “snub,” if you will?
Hmm. One of them — not the most — my brother actually made a movie this year that I’m incredibly proud of, but it’s very tough-minded, called “The Road.” And I think in a better climate, a better economy, you know, where people didn’t get bad news all the time, I think a movie like that could have flourished. And it’s a shame that it didn’t because it takes on tough subjects and it’s incredibly faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s book. And Cormac, you know, coming out and publicizing it, when he never does anything like that? He really fell in love with the movie, and I think that’s a tribute to John Hillcoat; and Nick Wexler, the producer; and Bob, you know, to a large degree, for having the guts to stay so faithful to a tough-minded book. But I think the movie will live on like the book.
As far as the tactical side of the awards season — which everybody now knows about, it’s no longer sort of a deep dark secret — what’s the best awards season move that you’ve ever made?
Just showing the movie, you know, at the end of the day. And I also think sometimes having a second look. That’s what I think is important right now. People are in the process of voting, and all I really would love to do is just say, “Take a look at the artistry of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ one more time. Look at the rich canvas. And, you know, look at all of the other movies, too, because I think there are riches to be gleaned in second viewings.” And, you know, obviously I’m biased, but I just think ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is made by a movie lover; it celebrates movies; it says movies can change history; there’s something idealistic about it; something cinematic and historical about it; something that — you know, I don’t have to tell you — as a Jewish person that’s incredibly satisfying about it; and, you know, just something that’s provoked a worldwide reaction, it’s been great at the box-office, and is a master filmmaker at his best.
Do you know the overall number of Oscar nominations and wins that you’ve produced for your films over the years?
I don’t know, but I think it’s pretty good, you know? And I’m proud of it. But it’s not even about the numbers; it’s all about this year, this movie, and next year, and next year’s movies.
What’s it like being you in the middle of an Oscar race? Last year, you said, “When you’re Billy the Kid, and people all around you die of natural causes, everyone thinks you shot them.”
But it does tend to become a very competitive time, and people point fingers at you and others, and I just wonder what your feeling is about that…
I think the onus on us is to remain lily-white, you know? There were some early tough contests, you know, and I just think that we have to just tow the line better than anybody because sometimes people look at us that way. But it’s never the Academy voters; it’s only the press on a slow Tuesday, you know? But that’s all there really is.
Why do you think “Nine” didn’t click more with voters this year?
You know, Rob [Marshall, the director] and I sat down; we could have made any musical we wanted; we could have done a really entertaining musical-comedy; we had a variety of things to do; but we said after “Chicago” we wanted to challenge ourselves: could we do a serious musical? You know, if there is such a thing — and, Lord knows, I don’t know anymore if there is. And that was the challenge, you know? To take really difficult subject matter; an anti-hero, not a hero, you know; and see if we could do something. And, you know, you look back at the histories of movies that have dealt with tough subject matter, and the one that always comes up to me is “Sweet Smell of Success” — it didn’t succeed commercially, but I think it’s in everybody’s top twenty, you know? And there are so many other examples of that kind of movie, you know, that dealt with tough subjects, and then years later got their due critical acclaim. People look back and say, “Wow, I see what they were trying to do here.” I think that it was a movie that was maybe misunderstood.
You understand this stuff as well as anybody, so tell me: Can “Inglourious Basterds” beat “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar”? And, if so, how?
Well, I think it’s fairly simple. I mean, if you do the Oscar math, the movie is supported by the actors — it won the Screen Actors Guild against “The Hurt Locker” and a bunch of other good movies. And I think that, you know, everybody in the world is gonna pick Kathryn Bigelow for best director — Quentin’s already announced he is — so I think that she wins that. And I think that there’s room for this movie to win best picture — I think the actors will lead the charge. And I think that, you know, as people re-look at the movie– There were 450 members of the Academy on Tuesday who watched the movie again — you know, the movie’s out on video, but they went to the theater and saw it again. So I think that kind of buzz and the excitement it’s generating is making people take a second-look at all the movies. And, you know, that screenplay, and those actors, and that panorama of movies — you know, it’s just glorious, not to make a pun. I just think it’s one of those great upsets in the making. And it’s gonna happen.
Would that be your biggest success at the Oscars? Biggest surprise?
I don’t know. They said that about “Shakespeare in Love” — they said we’d never win. You think about it: they had Harrison Ford [who collaborated with "Saving Private Ryan" director Steven Spielberg on the "Indiana Jones" films] up there announcing the award. [laughs] I mean, was that a symbol it was supposed to go the other way? And he’s such a great guy but, you know, obviously, you know when you’re competing with “Saving Private Ryan” and you see Harrison Ford you go, “Whoops, okie dokie.” And then they call your name. I think, you know, just to see Quentin up there getting the best picture would just be– You know, it’s been 20 years that he’s been loyal to me. But, more importantly, he’s been loyal to filmmakers both young and old. He takes actors who are having a tough time and gives them jobs, and he takes actors that nobody’s ever heard of and gives them jobs. He’s an actor writing for actors; a writer who writes great parts for actors; and a director who loves actors and, you know, just loves old-fashioned moviemaking. There’s no CGI — very little effects — in the movie, you know, probably less than the two favorites. He’s just, you know, old-fashioned, and he represents the history of movies — I mean, he champions Roger Corman; he champions filmmakers all the time, you know, some of the veteran filmmakers and the veteran actors. He’s a great goodwill ambassador for the movie industry. And it’s his time.
* * *
HARVEY’S GREATEST HITS
Major Oscar Nominations & Wins During Harvey Weinstein’s Tenures at Miramax (1979-2005) and The Weinstein Company (2005-present)
- Best picture: “My Left” Foot” (1989), “The Crying Game” (1992), “The Piano” (1993), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Il Postino” (1995), “The English Patient” (1996) WON, “Good Will Hunting” (1997), “Life Is Beautiful” (1998), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) WON, “The Cider House Rules” (1999), “Chocolat” (2000), “In the Bedroom” (2001), “Chicago” (2002) WON, “Gangs of New York” (2002), “The Hours” (2002), “The Aviator” (2004), “Finding Neverland” (2004), “The Reader” (2008), “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
- Best director: Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” 1989), Stephen Frears (“The Grifters,” 1990), Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” 1992), Jane Campion (“The Piano,” 1993), Woody Allen (“Bullets Over Broadway,” 1994), Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” 1994), Michael Radford (“Il Postino,” 1995), Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient,” 1996) WON, Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” 1997), Roberto Benigni (“Life Is Beautiful,” 1998), John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” 1998), Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules,” 1999), Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” 2002), Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” 2002), Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York,” 2002), Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator,” 2004), Stephen Daldry (“The Reader,” 2008), Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds,” 2009)
- Best actor: Max von Sydow (“Pelle the Conqueror,” 1987), Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot,” 1989) WON, Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game,” 1992), John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction,” 1994), Massimo Troisi (“Il Postino,” 1995), Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” 1996), Billy Bob Thornton (“Sling Blade,” 1996), Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting,” 1997), Roberto Benigni (“Life Is Beautiful” (1998) WON, Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom,” 2001), Michael Caine (“The Quiet American,” 2002), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York,” 2002), Jude Law (“Cold Mountain,” 2003), Johnny Depp (“Finding Neverland,” 2004), Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator,” 2004), Colin Firth (“A Single Man,” 2009)
- Best actress: Anjelica Huston (“The Grifters,” 1990), Joanne Woodward (“Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” 1990), Mary McDonnell (“Passion Fish,” 1992), Holly Hunter (“The Piano,” 1993) WON, Miranda Richardson (“Tom & Viv,” 1994), Diane Keaton (“Marvin’s Room,” 1996), Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” 1996), Helena Bonham Carter (“The Wings of the Dove,” 1997), Judi Dench (“Mrs. Brown,” 1997), Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love,” 1998) WON, Meryl Streep (“Music of the Heart,” 1999), Juliette Binoche (“Chocolat,” 2000), Judi Dench (“Iris,” 2001), Sissy Spacek (“In the Bedroom,” 2001), Salma Hayek (“Frida,” 2002), Nicole Kidman (“The Hours,” 2002) WON, Renee Zellweger (“Chicago,” 2002), Judi Dench (“Mrs. Henderson Presents,” 2005), Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica,” 2005), Kate Winslet (“The Reader,” 2008) WON
- Best supporting actor: Jaye Davidson (“The Crying Game,” 1992), Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction,” 1994), Chazz Palminteri (“Bullets Over Broadway,” 1994), Robert Forster (“Jackie Brown,” 1997), Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting,” 1997) WON, Geoffrey Rush (“Shakespeare in Love,” 1998), Michael Caine (“The Cider House Rules,” 1999), Jude Law (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” 1999), Jim Broadbent (“Iris,” 2001) WON, Ed Harris (“The Hours,” 2002), John C. Reilly (“Chicago,” 2002), Alan Alda (“The Aviator,” 2004), Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man,” 2005), Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds,” 2009)
- Best supporting actress: Brenda Fricker (“My Left Foot,” 1989) WON, Annette Bening (“The Grifters,” 1990), Joan Plowright (“Enchanted April,” 1992), Anna Paquin (“The Piano,” 1993) WON, Jennifer Tilly (“Bullets Over Broadway,” 1994), Dianne Wiest (“Bullets Over Broadway,” 1994) WON, Rosemary Harris (“Tom & Viv,” 1994), Uma Thurman (“Pulp Fiction,” 1994), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite,” 1995) WON, Mare Winningham (“Georgia,” 1995), Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient,” 1996) WON, Minnie Driver (“Good Will Hunting,” 1997), Brenda Blethyn (“Little Voice,” 1998), Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love,” 1998) WON, Judi Dench (“Chocolat,” 2000), Marisa Tomei (“In the Bedroom,” 2001), Kate Winslet (“Iris,” 2001), Queen Latifah (“Chicago,” 2002), Julianne Moore (“The Hours,” 2002), Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago,” 2002) WON, Renee Zellweger (“Cold Mountain,” 2003) WON, Cate Blanchett (“The Aviator,” 2004) WON, Cate Blanchett (“I’m Not There,” 2007), Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” 2008) WON, Penelope Cruz (“Nine,” 2009)
- Best foreign language film: “Pelle the Conqueror” (1987, Denmark) WON, “Cinema Paradiso” (1989, Italy) WON, “Journey of Hope” (1990, Switzerland) WON, “Ju Dou” (1990, China), “The Nasty Girl” (1990, Germany), “Mediterraneo” (1991, Italy) WON, “Close to Eden” (1992, Russia), “Farewell My Concubine” (1993, Hong Kong), “Fresa y Chocolate” (1994, Cuba), “The Star Maker” (1995, Italy), “Kolja” (1996, Czech Republic) WON, “Ridicule” (1996, France), “Beyond Silence” (1997, Germany), “Four Days in September” (1997, Brazil), “Children of Heaven” (1998, Iran), “The Grandfather” (1998, Spain), “Life Is Beautiful” (1998, Italy) WON, “Everybody’s Famous!” (2000, Belgium), “The Taste of Others” (2000, France), “Amelie” (2001, France), “Hero” (2002, China), “The Barbarian Invasions” (2003, Canada) WON, “Twin Sisters” (2003, Netherlands), “The Chorus” (2004, France), “Tsotsi” (2005, South Africa) WON, “Days of Glory” (2006, Algeria)