One of my favorite films is 2002’s “The Hours.” It is a melodramatic film in some ways, and hugely depressing, too. But at the age of 17 it was absolutely lyrical for me, and that sensibility has not faded for me in the nearly two decades since. But “The Hours” was crucial for other reasons, too. It’s not just a film I loved at a young age; it’s a film that prompted my entrée to critical thinking and awards-season reporting, as I tracked the movie’s progress from one dusty theater in my 24-screen multiplex to the Academy Awards. I was 17 years old when I first read the name Harvey Weinstein in the pages of my religiously perused Entertainment Weekly. I did not realize then, as I know now, that Weinstein was involved in four out of the five nominated Best Picture movies that awards season — “Gangs of New York,” his personal favorite, as well as “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “The Hours,” and “Chicago,” which went on to win the award. I also didn’t know that Weinstein had basically single-handedly invented the modern-day awards season. But on some level, it was working on me. I watched every single one of Weinstein’s nominated films in theaters that winter. (“Gangs of New York” was my least favorite.) “The Pianist,” the other nominated film, escaped my notice. (In one of his characteristically ruthless Oscar tactics, Weinstein either initiated or encouraged resurfacing gossip about the long-ago rape allegations against its director, Roman Polanski. Irony, thy name is Hollywood.)
This tracks in other years, too: For someone with an embarrassingly spotty record of viewing films, I have a surprisingly comprehensive list of Weinstein films under my belt: “Shakespeare in Love” and not “Saving Private Ryan,” “Chocolat” and not “Traffic.” Is it because those films were good, or because they were aimed at the women that he was so blatantly targeting? Did he understand the mind of the young and impressionable woman that I was, and use that to exploit me? I can’t answer any of those questions. But I learned recently that I was even immersed in Weinstein’s world outside of film: I was an early an ardent fan of Talk Magazine, which disappeared in 2002 after losing, reportedly, $50 million.
The reason I remembered Weinstein, at the age of 17, is because I felt like he didn’t understand the movie he’d produced. I can’t find the quote now — it may have escaped online archiving, or I am misremembering it, although it is almost definitely still on the wall of my childhood bedroom, along with the entire awards-season package EW did for “The Hours.” What I remember is Weinstein taking pride in successfully marketing a film about three lesbians. It gave me pause. There’s no denying that some of the characters are lesbians, of course, but I’ve seen it dozens of times, and no one ever uses that word; it’s too reductive for the identities and sexualities at play in the story.
And I think for the first time I realized that someone could produce a film but not necessarily understand it. I had no concept of what it took to get a movie made in Hollywood, and in many ways, I still don’t. But the more I learn, the wider that gulf seems — between selling a film and feeling a film.
I did not go on to write about film, but I wonder if that might have something to do with Weinstein, too. I have been haunted by almost all of the writing on Weinstein this week, but Rebecca Traister’s piece in the Cut especially gave me pause. One of the reasons the allegations of rape and harassment are coming out against Weinstein now is because his influence in the industry has been slowly diminishing, arguably since 2003, when his campaign against Polanski and “The Pianist” backfired. The kingmaker who brought “Shakespeare in Love” to victory over “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 couldn’t make the same magic happen for Martin Scorsese and “Gangs of New York,” for reasons that boil down to Weinstein’s many contenders splitting the votes against themselves — and a rumbling backlash against Miramax’s high-handed strategies. Maybe I smelled something in the air — a putrefaction of purpose around the contemporary films I loved, which pushed me in a different direction.
At least one of the reasons that the allegations about Weinstein are so disturbing is because movies — Hollywood’s glittering, gorgeous output of transporting magic — are supposed to be better than this. This industry is engaged in the business of entertainment; when it is elevated to art, it is trying to turn people on to the beauty and grace and power of the world, and other people, and what they have inside themselves, too. At the risk of sounding like the bulls—t that is delivered by bored-looking presenters at the Oscars, film has a checkered history, but a glimmering one, too: This is the medium of Sidney Poitier and “Schindler’s List,” of “Paris Is Burning” and “Philadelphia.” Film is an extraordinary medium of vision and empathy, and for all of the industry’s failures, movies and television and pop culture in general are still finding new ways of bringing the audience together in an experience of shared humanity. This is an industry of artists that care about the world, and pour that passion into their work. That this awful abuse could be so central to a producer who produced one prestige hit after another is a perplexing contradiction at the heart of the industry.
Then again, it is mind-boggling, Weinstein’s conviction around “Gangs of New York”; it’s a deeply flawed film, and not for nothing, but the single female character Jenny (Cameron Diaz) is horribly short-shrifted. “Chicago” and “The Hours” are movies about broken or breaking women, and they are in their own ways luminous. Weinstein had little to do with “The Hours,” in the end. He fought with the film’s other titanic movie producer, Scott Rudin, over nearly everything that makes it iconic, including Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose and Philip Glass’ haunting score. He even scuttled its own awards run; in a snit with Rudin, Weinstein refused to submit the movie to the Venice Film Festival.
Did Weinstein even like “The Hours”? He apparently loved the script; he was very fond its star Meryl Streep, who has since condemned him. But I find myself wondering if he saw its three female leads as people, or just as poseable dolls that yielded prestigious dollar signs. He possessed “The Hours,” and he controlled it — this story about three different women who were silently falling to pieces under the subtle ravages of patriarchy. He knew how to sell it. But I don’t think he understood it, not even a little, not at all.