Beauty . . . and the beast?
photo: David James FRESH OUT OF grad school, I sat in the office of Harvey Weinstein, being interviewed for a job as a humble assistant at Miramax, the most important indie film company in the world. Man, am I glad I didn't get the gig. As described in his new book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (Simon & Schuster, $26.95), veteran film-biz writer Peter Biskind renders Weinstein as a complete monster: obese, chain-smoking, bullying, vulgar, profane, tantrum-prone, journalist-assaulting, tightfisted, occasionally unethical, borderline dishonest, self-righteous, vindictive, uncouth, hectoring, berating, intimidating, and . . . "passionate about film," Weinstein's usual defense (if not apology) for his often outrageous behavior. He's also the best thing about the book. You wouldn't want to work for him, but what a great central character Biskind has found for his follow-up to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Changed Hollywood. Incredibly, Weinstein eclipses the rather dull Robert Redford, who built the indie-film trout pond called Sundance that Miramax has poached so well. For Biskind, who's been around long enough to get the gets and find those delicious inside-Hollywood sources (some named, some not), Weinstein represents both the zenith and the nadir of the U.S. indie film explosion that grew, under the radar, during the penurious pre-video-boom '80s. There wasn't a lot of money for John Sayles, Allison Anders, or Jim Jarmusch to make during that period, which effectively shielded them from Weinstein's rapacious interest.
photo: Vince Bucci / Getty Image That all changed with 1989's sex, lies, and videotape, which grossed around $25 million in the U.S. for Miramax. Indie suddenly went from being small and outside to big and inside, held in the bear hug of Weinstein and a few other rival companies. As Steven Soderbergh said prophetically from the stage at Cannes, where he won the Palm d'Or for sex, "I guess it's all downhill from here," which really ought to be Biskind's thesis in the book. Unfortunately, he really doesn't have a thesis. Covering the period from 1979 to 2003, he just bounces back and forth between anecdotes and commentators, some smart and interesting (Soderbergh), some not (Ben Affleck). Biskind's implicit thesis is really the rise and fall of indie film, since the book ends on a rather pessimistic notevirtually all the indie film companies are divisions of larger corporate entities (Disney owns Miramax); Miramax itself is producing rather safe, bland prestige pictures (e.g., Cold Mountain); and Sundance has gone relatively commercial and mainstream. Boo-hoo. SHOULD WE BLAME Harvey? Should we blame Bob? Biskind calls Redford "passive-aggressive," a guy with a vague, elusive Hamlet complex that's "all vision, no execution." And, well, the charges against Weinstein could fill an encyclopedia. As it is, Down and Dirty reads like a Weinstein friends and enemies list. In one camp, we have loyalists like Kevin Smith, Quentin, Gwyneth, MattandBen, director Lasse Hallstr�and studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg. In the other (larger) camp, there's just about everyone who's worked with, then left the embrace of, "Harvey Scissorhands" (so known for his penchant for endlessly re-editing others' films), including the Coen brothers, David O. Russell, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, and Bernardo Bertollucci, who says of Weinstein, "He's like a little Saddam Hussein of cinema." On the fence are cautious twits like Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke, whom Biskind cites with all the reverence due John Ford. (The author is simultaneously against flattery and logrolling when others do it and for it when it serves his purposes.) Probably the best assessment of Weinstein's toxic clout comes from producer Christine Vachon, who opines: "I realized that an asshole who cares about movies is better than an asshole who doesn't." So Redford actually comes off as nicer and yet worse than Weinstein, perhaps becauseas Biskind forthrightly admitshe didn't give the author so much access as the Miramax honcho did. Yet, you'd prefer to sit down and eat a meal with Bob, rather than be sprayed with food particles from Harvey. Still, someone has got to make a movie about the guy before he chokes to death on a tuna sandwich! If Robert Evans can star in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Weinstein deserves a warts-and-all treatment like The Kid Not Only Stays in the Picture but He Will Fucking Kill You if You Try to Take Him Out. firstname.lastname@example.org