Why Did Harvey Weinstein Get Away With It For So Long?
Power and the myth of difficult talent.
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1. Sonny Bunch
I want to brag on one of my colleagues today.
Our culture editor Sonny Bunch, is—my opinion—one of the two or three best movie critics working anywhere today. But he’s not just a film critic.
Sonny writes a weekly newsletter for The Bulwark about both Hollywood and the business of Hollywood. It’s free. If this stuff interests you at all, you should sign up for it.
And in addition to that, Sonny does a weekly podcast that touches on every conceivable aspect of film with guests who are flat-out fascinating. Here’s just a smattering of my favorite recent shows:
Ron Shelton on writing and directing Bull Durham, the greatest baseball movie of all time.
Chris McKenna on writing the script for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Megan Ganz, the executive producer of Mythic Quest, on what it’s like running a series in the age of streaming.
Zak Penn on the life of a screenwriter.
Lloyd Kaufman on Troma Films and the world of B-pictures.
I could go on, and on, and on. My point is that Sonny’s guests are top-tier and his conversations with them are flat-out great.
Harvey Weinstein once said, by way of explaining his place in the firmament, “I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking town.” He believed—sincerely—that he ruled the world.
He was connected all over the place—famously to the Clintons, but also to Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki. Harvey’s true gift wasn’t as a cinematic taste-maker, it was his understanding of power and how to leverage it.
Auletta explains to Sonny how Weinstein started Miramax Books largely as a vehicle for buying people, giving lavish advances to those whose loyalty he wanted to secure. (He similarly used Miramax Pictures as a way to buy off industry reporters and gossip columnists, by paying them for screenplays that would never be produced.)
Anyway, the central question of Auletta’s book is this: How did Weinstein get away with it for so many decades?
There are many reasons, of course. The biggest one is power. It is both a shield and a cudgel. Another reason is that his crimes were mostly against women.
But a third is that we have in the world a general acceptance of an idea that roughly goes like this: “Geniuses are always difficult. The same qualities which make them monsters are required to make them great.”
I disagree with this pretty strongly. It’s mixing correlation and causation.
Certainly, many people at the top of their fields are bad human beings, or at least very difficult people. There are outright predators and criminals, such as Harvey Weinstein. There are control freaks like Steve Jobs. There are tyrants like Anna Wintour.
But is it really the personality defects which make these people successful? Or is it more the case that one of the privileges of success is that repercussions melt away and people are liberated to be their worst selves?
I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule. I’m sure there are cases where the characterological limitations of an individual were a necessary precondition for them to succeed in their chosen field.
But on the whole, I don’t see it that way. I suspect that if Harvey Weinstein had worked at a 7-11, he would have harassed and bullied and assaulted any female colleagues he had there, same as he did at Miramax. And by the same token, some people have accomplishments that dwarf Weinstein’s and aren’t predators. For instance, I don’t hear a lot of talk about how Kevin Feige has only been able to create the biggest winning streak in the history of cinema because he’s an asshat.1
You can read Sonny’s newsletter about Weinstein here. And really, you ought to sign up for it. It’s great.
2. The Ankler
My second favorite place to read about the business of Hollywood is the Ankler, helmed by my buddy Richard Rushfield.
This week, Richard noted that Marvel is, for the first time since Iron Man, looking like a normal movie studio:
Let’s stipulate that every other studio and streamer would kill for an off-season like the one Marvel's having; a Marvel rough patch would be a game-changing victory elsewhere. . . .
And let's further stipulate that much of its Phase 4 performance is tied to the fact that after the Phase To End All Phases, it didn't play it safe and it moved forward to try new things — to make films based on characters no one had ever heard of; the restocking of the seed corn — creating new IP rather than just mining the pre-established is a move from strength which might yet produce unthinkable payoffs down the road.
I mean, at this moment, for argument’s sake, I would bet on Shang-Chi’s Simi Liu being forced to turn gray-haired in spandex like our Avengers did for decades; but I wouldn't bet that The Eternals characters will go on to helm a galactic showdown film that becomes the biggest film in history. But given Marvel/Feige's track record, I also wouldn't bet that much against that happening someday either.
So. Those caveats acknowledged. And it may be totally unfair that we are judging Marvel by its own completely unprecedented standards, rather than the Earth-bound tracks of other studios and product lines.
Nonetheless. All that said, the Marvel magic feels like it's been flailing as of late. . . .
For a label with not just a near-unbroken historic winning streak in Phases 1-3, accustomed to not just defying the laws of gravity, but to smashing through records and dominating the cinema like no label before it, just tell me what you make of the line-up we've seen in Phase 4.
Black Widow (Disappointment/release issues)
Shang-Chi (Did very well by the standards of a challenging moment)
The Eternals (Genuine, expensive flop)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (Mega-hit, but with several fathers)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse (Hit)
Thor: Love and Thunder (Disappointment)
Again, for any other place, this is a record to kill for. But if your starting place is unstoppable juggernaut — well, that's not exactly what this looks like.
To quote Che Guevara singing to Eva Peron, "You were supposed to have been immortal. That's all they wanted. Not much to ask for."
Watching Marvel over the last year I’ve been thinking about Pixar.
Remember when Pixar had the longest streak of success Hollywood had ever seen? From 1995 to 2009, Pixar released ten films, all of which were commercial successes and most of which became instant classics. Pixar could not miss.
Then things started to wobble. Cars 2 was kind of embarrassing. Brave was disappointing. Monsters University was an obvious cash grab.
And before you could blink, Pixar had regressed to the mean. In its last eight movies, Pixar has produced one breakout hit (Incredibles 2) alongside a lot of disposable product and two genuine flops (Onward and Lightyear). It’s a studio that has lost its way.
That happens. I hope you all enjoyed the Marvel golden age while we had it. Because even if it’s not over yet, some day it will be.
3. Molly Jong-Fast
Here I am recommending another friend. Sorry. It just sort of happened that way.
Molly Jong-Fast writes a newsletter for the Atlantic and it’s great. Last week she did a piece (not really for the newsletter, but for the Atlantic; so close enough) about what Donald Trump learned from his first divorce.
It’s pretty canny:
The funeral for the first wife of former President Donald Trump, Ivana, took place on a hot July day at St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, not far from the townhouse where she died at the age of 73. Her golden casket sat next to a large poster board of her 1992 Vanity Fair cover, which read Ivana Be a Star! The story, by Bob Colacello, chronicled the junketing and jet-setting that went along with Ivana’s effort to reinvent herself after her 1990 divorce from Donald.
Although, at the time of her death, Ivana had been out of the public eye for years, she had helped make Donald, as the editor who put her on that magazine cover told me.
“I do think Ivana was hugely important to Donald Trump’s rise—she domesticated the beast socially,” said Tina Brown (who left Vanity Fair to become editor of The New Yorker shortly afterward). “Before and after her, you never saw Trump at any top gathering or cultural opening. She brought him into circles he had ogled from outside and created a glamour aura.”
Ivana may have succeeded in gaining the couple access to more exclusive echelons of Manhattan society, but above all, their parting, not their pairing, was what transformed them into prominent characters in the 1990s’ new culture of tabloid-gossip-driven celebrity. . . .
Donald gave away a lot in the divorce—precipitated, after all, by his highly publicized affair with Marla Maples. Ivana’s divorce lawyer was Michael Kennedy, a crusading attorney (and friend of my parents) known for representing members of the Weather Underground and the United Farm Workers. With his help, Ivana got: $14 million for herself; $650,000 a year in alimony and child support to raise Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric; a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut; and an apartment on the Upper East Side.
But what Donald got from the divorce from Ivana was a realization that making a shameless spectacle of yourself could be boffo. As his biographer, the journalist Tim O’Brien, told me: “The lesson Trump drew from it was that he could endure a grotesque personal debacle, which he set in motion by his cheating on Ivana, and come out the other side even more an object of interest than he was before.”
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I don’t know Feige personally, but he has the opposite reputation: That he’s a normal and professional guy who is respected and liked by colleagues and employees.