I love gossip. Not the celebrity sort. Not the kind you read when you stumble down a supermarket aisle and spot news racks packed with National Enquirer and People magazines. Not the sexual kind or the relationship kind or the political kind. Is Selena Gomez back together with Justin Bieber? Did Jay Z cheat on Beyoncé? I don’t give a damn.
I don’t even care for industry gossip, at least not the type you might expect. Do I spend time pondering Sumner Redstone’s alleged addiction to sex and steak? Not in the least. Did I eagerly pore over the transcripts of Nate Parker’s rape trial? I skipped them altogether.
But when it comes to Hollywood past, I’m a moth to a flame.
Each time I stumble on an out-of-the-way bookstore (an increasing rarity), I make a rush for the movie section — and not for the arcane volumes on cinematic theory or the movie-maker interviews of the sort I frequently conduct myself. I want scuttlebutt. Tattle-telling. Dirt.
I like rumblings about the larger-than-life tyrants, those monstres sacrés as the French call them, who’ve all but vanished from Hollywood as we know it. I long to gobble up stories about the very people I’d probably be terrified to meet. Because, buried within the pages of old books, they’re safe and even strangely comforting. You can relish their misdeeds without being threatened by them; you can figure out ways to protect yourself, without ever needing to do so. They provide all the drama we could possibly want, without the stress and anxiety that inevitably accompany them in real life.
That’s why it’s so much fun to read something like Otto Friedrich’s wry and witty City of Nets, an account of Hollywood in the 1940s that interweaves hundreds of characters, each at his most feral and raw. There’s John Huston getting into a drunken punch-up with Errol Flynn; there’s Peter Lorre bribing a funeral home to give him John Barrymore’s corpse (just so he could prop it up in a shocked Flynn’s house); there’s a doddering Louis B. Mayer begging a young dancer to marry him, without realizing she’s been having a fling with a rising agent behind his back.
“Do you realize the power you [will] have?” Mayer tells the 24-year-old Jean Howard, in what may be the least romantic proposal in Hollywood history. “If you make me unhappy, everybody in the M-G-M studio would feel it. But if you make me happy, it will make five thousand people happy too!”
Mayer got his comeuppance. Having forced Howard to accompany him to Paris, where he fully planned to make her his own, he was stunned to receive a private detective’s report he had commissioned and learn of her affair with Charlie Feldman.
Summoned by her would-be husband, Howard found him “white and shaking, with a large envelope in his hand,” she recalled. “It was from a detective agency in Hollywood and told him all about Charlie and me. Suddenly he picked up a bottle of Scotch, poured out a whole glass and gulped it down. He never drank and it made him drunk. He went wild. He roared around the room and then, suddenly, made a move to throw himself out the window. The three of us needed all our strength to hold him back. We got him down on the floor, where he wept and moaned.”
* * *
The days of weeping and moaning are long gone.
The corporate owners of today’s Hollywood have taken sandpaper to the gnarled wood of the creative forest. Can you imagine a Bob Iger or Michael Lynton performing the kind of emotional pyrotechnics of a Louis B. Mayer? Or a Richard Lovett being on the other end of the Howard equation?
The era of fun and outrage has ended.
That’s why it’s so hard to get good dish today.
Which partly explains why Power House, the recent oral history of CAA, failed to catch on (beyond agents and executives and a few other insiders). Most people I know — even reporters hungry for the tiniest tidbit of news — never read it all the way through. And that wasn’t just because its stories are, for the larger part, rather picayune; it’s because its characters (with the arguable exception of Michael Ovitz) seem so bland.
When I first wrote about Hollywood, it was peopled by larger-than-life figures who fascinated and repelled me in equal measure. There were guys like David Begelman and Lew Wasserman; Peter Guber and Jon Peters; Barry Diller and Don Simpson. Now even the few that remain have moved on from day-to-day involvement with Hollywood. The old lions have died or retired or exited the Hollywood stage.
Only one man remains who’s as magnetic as any of the grandest figures of the past: Harvey Weinstein.
That’s why this weekend, in need of a good fix, I settled down to read Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, a book I last read when it was published in 2004.
Down and Dirty’s subtitle may lead you to think it’s a scholarly tome about the indie movement and the various players who made it a success, from Steven Soderbergh to Robert Redford to Quentin Tarantino. In fact, Weinstein’s its lodestone. Even when he’s offstage, you keep longing for him to reappear, knowing he’ll suck us in like a whirlpool.
Biskind doesn’t exactly like him, even though he acknowledges the man’s ability to charm. Here’s how he describes their meeting after Weinstein has summoned the author to discuss his book-in-progress:
“Harvey was seated behind a vast desk made out of some kind of polished wood with a high red gloss. Although it has taken a long time, he has finally found his look: a black golf shirt open at the neck — revealing the tracheotomy scar from his Christmas 1999 illness — and dark pants held up by wide suspenders. I couldn’t help noticing the baseball bat in the corner, leaning against the wall. Reading my mind, he quickly moved to disarm with the self-deprecating humor that’s become his trademark, shouting [to then-publicity vp Matthew Hiltzik], ‘Matthew, get in here! It’s time for your flogging!’ Bob [Weinstein], dark and brooding, sat slumped in a chair to the left in front of the desk, playing Caliban to Harvey’s Prospero, while I sank into a bottomless black leather couch so low it had me staring up at him, all too aware of the mini-Mussolini-ness of it all. The odor of menace hung in the air like the smell of burning tires.”
If Biskind eyes Weinstein warily, Weinstein eyes journalists no less skeptically, and even grabs one, Andrew Goldman, in a headlock at a party.
“Sweating heavily, his face red and engorged, Harvey swung around to him,” Biskind writes, “and drilling a hole in his chest with his forefinger, screamed, ‘This is going to be you and me, I want this mano-a-mano, I’m taking you outside and I’m gonna fuckin’ kick your ass.’” He lurches for the journalist’s tape recorder, causing him to bump into an actress, then lashes out at him. “Pointing at the Observer reporter,” Biskind continues, “Harvey shouted, ‘Look at what this fucking guy did, look at what this piece of shit did. He hit this woman at this party, I’m gonna take him outside and I’m gonna fuckin’ kill him!’ He put Goldman in a headlock and dragged him out the glass doors onto the street as the guests poured out behind them and paparazzi snapped pictures. Finally, the Miramax publicists, who were all over Weinstein like Lilliputians on Gulliver, … succeeded in separating the two men.”
The indie world Biskind describes — even as recently as the 1990s —bears scant resemblance to the indie world of today.
“If Hollywood is like the mafia, indies are like the Russian mob,” he writes. “In both cases, the bad guys will cap the good guys, but in Hollywood they do it with a certain degree of finesse … while the indies just whack you — and your wife and kids for good measure.”
* * *
Roaming around Telluride during the annual film festival earlier this month, I searched vainly for any of the whacking ilk.
There were all sorts of people I liked, ones who genuinely care about the movies, but none who would maim, wound, torture and kill to get their picture made. And whatever Weinstein’s faults, nobody ever questioned his love of film.
I thought of that last week, when I slipped into a Weinstein Co. screening room, slid into a leather armchair and watched as one of the gems of this awards season unspooled.
Lion, set to open on Nov. 25, is a small film, reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire (both star Dev Patel), about a 5-year-old Indian boy who’s separated from his family and spends years trying to find his mother again. The picture is beautifully acted and shot, with fine supporting performances from Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara. When it was over, I didn’t want to leave the screening room.
Just a few years ago, there was no question what Weinstein would have done with a project like that. He’d have taken it all the way to multiple nominations and even a few wins. If he could do so with Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, heaven knows what he could do with this.
Watching him do so may have been an eye-popping experience. It may have made his rivals’ blood boil (and mine too, on occasion). But it made his movies central to life in Hollywood, and even to life in America.
Now I wonder if he can do it again. He’s parted ways with his longtime Oscar campaigner, Lisa Taback, and there are all sorts of questions as to whether he has the money (and drive) to perform on that level again. But I’m rooting for him, because if he goes, it’ll leave a gap that won’t be filled.
I know all the horror stories and I have no illusions as to who Harvey is. But without him, the independent business wouldn’t even exist. Without him, we wouldn’t have Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting and Strictly Ballroom and The English Patient and Flirting With Disaster and dozens of other pictures. Without him, who knows what would have become of filmmakers from Anthony Minghella to Tarantino to Zhang Yimou.
Like Mayer and the moguls of yore, Weinstein doesn’t follow the rules. He doesn’t bend to fit our expectations of what an executive should be. He’s rough and tough and sometimes uncouth. Social propriety means nothing to him. He’s the id to our super-ego, the Donald Trump to our Hillary Clinton.
But he’s also the man who made Lion.
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