The Mogul Strikes Back

Article excerpt

Byline: Peggy Noonan

Harvey Weinstein was an unstoppable hit maker with hundreds of Oscar nominations under his belt. Then it looked as if he'd blown it. Peggy Noonan on how he bulldozed his way back to the top.

To write about Harvey Weinstein is to face, first, the history of past brutalities. He's invariably described in profiles as coarse, threatening, given to outbursts, terrifying, and a thug. Boorish and angry are usually in there, too. At the recent Golden Globes, Madonna called him "The Punisher" and Meryl Streep referred to him as "God." The French actors from his critically acclaimed and award-winning film The Artist called him "Le Boss."

This makes him laugh.

Madonna's just mad he made her do publicity. Meryl Streep was teasing. As for the actors from The Artist, they went out on the town after the awards and didn't show up for a Today show interview. "They're French or whatever." He went in their place with Uggie, the movie's canine scene stealer. "That dog is about to go poop on the couch as the Today show cameras are going, and I'm thinking, Yeah, some God, some Punisher, some Boss."

We're talking on a late weekday morning in early February at New York's Tribeca Grill, where he's regarded with grave respect by the staff and everyone in the restaurant. In political terms he's treated less like a U.S. senator than the governor of a big state, with all the staff and security and people walking softly. "The governor would like some water, flat." "Harvey would like to sit in the back."

This is how he struck me: friendly, earnest, warily sweet. A little defensive, on the lookout for insult. Also calm and reflective. He has mellowed, he says. And he is grateful.

In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal I had lauded his work. We are at a point in our culture when we all have to pull for grown-up movies, try to encourage them and their creators. David Lean wouldn't be allowed to make movies today--an Englishman in the desert? Who wants to see a movie about sand? John Ford would be forced to turn John Wayne into a 30-something failure-to-launch hipster whose big moment is missing the toilet in the vomit scene. Our movie culture has descended into immaturity, violence, a pervasive and flattened sexuality. Attention must be paid to those who cut against the grain and try to produce something good.

Which Weinstein, for all his bombast, has. In the past quarter century, movies he has been a part of have received 303 Oscar nominations, and he has produced three--The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago--that are actual classics. When you look at his career and remove the schlock and silliness that encrusts it like fat on a slab of steak, you realize he's at least partly responsible for some of the great movies of the era. Twice in the past 18 months I've seen audiences react with gratitude. The first was at the end of an afternoon showing of The King's Speech in Manhattan when the full house burst into applause. The second was an early evening in January. At the surprise last line of The Artist, the audience sighed with delight, then laughed and began to clap. Both times it was as if they were saying, "Thank you for a movie we can watch--nothing debased, nothing exploding, just a story about human beings that suggests life may not, actually, be meaningless."

People are shocked when someone produces a film that's smart, with art, and heart.

So, quickly: Harvey Weinstein in three acts.

Act I: He comes from nowhere and reaches the top.

Born 1952, Flushing, Queens, son of diamond cutter Max and mother Miriam, older brother to Bob. Falls in love with movies; college in Buffalo; acquires, with Bob, a local theater. Rock concerts, obscure movies. Forms Miramax. Outside investors, second-rate films. Then sex, lies, and videotape. Success followed by constant achievement. An extraordinary run of movies: My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The Piano, Il Postino, The Wings of the Dove, Life Is Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso, The English Patient (Best Picture, 1996), Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture, 1998; Best Actress, Gwyneth Paltrow). …