The Observer Profile: Harvey Weinstein

The Hours, Chicago and Gangs of New York are all from the Miramax stable. Its ebullient co-founder has been accused of bullying his way to the top but with 40 Academy Awards to his credit and 40 more nominations this year, he's not perturbed

When Harvey Weinstein was 10 years old, growing up in Queens, New York, his eye was 'poked out'. The schoolboy spent six months recovering from the injury and, in the absence of good TV, began to read every book he could lay his hands on. 'So at an early age,' he has recalled, 'I read all the great stories and was just entranced. Maybe I needed to go to another world.'

The movie mogul dates his compulsive interest in good writing from this point and believes his film company, Miramax, is still flavoured by the experience. In a business where there are no reliable formulas for success, Weinstein's love of the written word seems to have worked pretty well.

This Oscar season the celebrated producer, who already has more than 40 Academy Awards to his credit, could improve his lifetime's score by half as much again in just one evening, although admittedly it is one very long evening.

Miramax has collected an astonishing total of 40 Oscar nominations across various categories. Chicago, the film of the stage musical, has earned 13 nominations, including Best Actress for Renée Zellweger and Best Film, while Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese's eccentric spectacular, is nominated in 10 categories, including Best Film. Not content with dominating the field with flamboyant box office hits, Miramax will also justifiably claim some glory if Stephen Daldry's more reflective offering, The Hours, wins the title, or if New Line's co-produced Tolkien sequel, The Two Towers, gets lucky.

So the corpulent Weinstein finds himself sitting on a rainbow, looking down on all those who predicted the beginning of Miramax's decline only a few months ago. It was argued back then, not least by journalist Ken Auletta in a 16-page New Yorker magazine piece, that after the flimsy appeal of the romance Chocolat in 2001 and the ignominious collapse of Talk magazine, a project co-funded with the Hearst media empire, Miramax had lost its golden touch. Asked at the time if he was frightened, Weinstein replied feistily: 'Yes, I am very frightened. I'm frightened I am going to have a better year than last.'

At the age of 50 Weinstein is behind many of the most popularly acclaimed films of the last decade. If you have been to the cinema to see The English Patient, Il Postino, Pulp Fiction, Sliding Doors, Life is Beautiful, Good Will Hunting, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Wings of the Dove, Emma, Shakespeare in Love, In the Bedroom or The Quiet American, then you have put change in Harvey's pocket.

The industry theory is that Weinstein has gained his pre-eminent position by bullying, and indeed he is often physically compared to either a bull or a bulldog, if not a toad. A big cartoon character of a man, he dresses in dark suits and wears braces and admits to a ready temper. Staying at the exclusive Eden Roc on the Cap d'Antibes during the Cannes Film Festival or slumming it at the chic Colombe d'Or restaurant, he is famed for his talent with 'the talent', the delicate film stars, and he has developed particularly protective, avuncular relationships with actresses Julia Ormond, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman and Tara Fitzgerald.

Three years ago, when Weinstein was holidaying in the Caribbean with his wife, Eve, and two young daughters, he was hospitalised with a suspected heart attack and had to endure dipping out of the film business for a period of frustrating recuperation. In fact, he had picked up a painful bacterial infection from which he recovered, a slightly leaner man.

No matter where he is, in Cannes, LA or New York, there are always fresh anecdotes and rumours circulating about him. He has crossed swords with directors Jim Jarmusch and James Ivory, but other auteurs love him. He has a particular affinity with British directors, having formed good relationships with Stephen Frears, Anthony Minghella and John Madden, the director of Shakespeare in Love .

'He is an anglophile,' Madden told The Observer. 'It is an unexpected alliance and I have benefitted from it. Harvey likes smart scripts and he likes selling them to big audiences. He is also the best at doing it.'

Madden is about to make a film adaptation of Tulip Fever, backed by both Miramax and Dreamworks, and thinks Weinstein has 'mellowed over the years'.

'He still behaves instinctively, though. It is not a business where you can predict anything but, given that people were predicting his total demise because he took this huge risk on Gangs of New York and because no one knew what Chicago was going to be like, his instincts are doing well. The emphasis is in the right place: on the script.'

The jury is still out on how Weinstein really got on with the fiery Scorsese during the making of the $97 million Gangs of New York. 'Mutual respect' may be the apt phrase. 'Marty and I have been friends for over 20 years,' Weinstein recently wrote, 'and we have always talked out any differences.'

If he does develop a problem with a director, it usually stems from the fact he doesn't want to be seen simply as a money man.

'Every movie is a passion project for Harvey. He is obsessive,' says Madden. 'The great thing about him is that he is passionate and it is a fantastic quality in a producer. It gets him into trouble too, of course, but the worst thing for me would be indifference or expediency.'

Eschewing Hollywood, Weinstein works from a TriBeCa office in hip downtown Manhattan, above the TriBeCa Grill he owns with Robert de Niro. It is also six blocks from Ground Zero and for days after the attack on the World Trade Centre it offered free meals to those dealing with the disaster.

At this stage in the impressive Weinstein story it would be unfair if we didn't stop and ask: 'What about Bob?' For, just like Orville Wright, Charles Saatchi or Jack Warner, Harvey Weinstein has a significant brother (although in the case of Warner Bros, there were four altogether). Harvey's younger brother Bob runs the highly profitable Dimension Films branch of the business, responsible for a whole tranche of mass-market hits, such as Scream, Spy Kids and The Others.

Harvey refers to Dimension as 'a financial shield' and it has enabled Miramax to take risks on arthouse scripts. Last year the brothers were jointly awarded an honorary fellowship by the British Film Institute and Weinstein The Elder is acutely aware of his debt to Bob.

After their childhood in Queens, the boys dropped out of college together and started to promote rock concerts from a one-bedroom apartment. Soon they had graduated into small-scale film distribution, buying up odd titles and putting them about, including live films of the Secret Policeman's Ball shows.

In 1979 the brothers founded Miramax, combining the names of their Mom and Dad, Miriam and Max, but their first critical hit came nearly a decade later with sex, lies, and videotape. They bought the rights to the Steven Soderbergh film for $1 million and took a $17m gamble on selling it. Cinema Paradiso, My Left Foot, The Crying Game and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy followed, before the company's dramatic rescue of Minghella's The English Patient established them as saviours of quality entertainment. Miramax was taken over by Disney in 1993 for $60m, but the arrangement was beneficial. Profits went up from £5m to £75m in four years.

Weinstein became a controversial figure in 1999 when he delayed the release of Shakespeare in Love and was accused of playing with the votes of the 5,500 academicians who decide on the Oscars. Miramax strongly denied allegations that it had bad-mouthed Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and was rewarded with the Best Film award. A determined interest in Oscar victory is still there. As Madden says: 'Harvey does not like losing, or giving in. When he gets behind a project he stays behind it. Like Churchill, he is the last one awake at the conference table. His energy is amazing.'

In the end, after going $13m over the original $84m budget for Gangs of New York, some might think Weinstein can be excused for hoping for a big dollop of Oscar kudos in return. He may be guilty of creating for himself the larger-than-life image of an old-style movie magnate, a Sam Goldwyn, Harry Cohn or Irving Thalberg, but that doesn't mean he is not the genuine article - because those guys invented themselves in exactly the same way.

DoB: 1952, New York

Family: Married to Eve (two daughters)

Job: Co-chairman (with his brother Bob) of Miramax Films Corporation

Films: Include: Scandal, Pulp Fiction, Prêt-à-Porter, Jane Eyre, The English Patient, Emma, Jackie Brown, Wasteland, Love's Labour's Lost, The Quiet American, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Chicago


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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