Harvey’s Hellhole: Little Buddha

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. With Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer screening in both IMAX 70mm and 70mm formats — and 70mm film festivals happening in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York — let’s revisit the one and only time Harvey and them distributed a film in 70mm.

If you want a better example of how even iconic, international auteurs weren’t exempt from Harvey Weinstein’s bullshit, look no further than the story of Bernardo Bertolucci and his 1993 opus Little Buddha.

The Italian filmmaker behind The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor decided to make another movie about a little kid who gets a lot of responsibility thrown on his shoulders. This time, it’s a blonde-haired, nine-year-old boy from Seattle named Jesse (Alex Wiesendanger). A bunch of Tibetan monks from the Himalayan province of Bhutan show up at his doorstep to inform him and his parents (Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaak) that he may be the reincarnation of great Buddhist teacher Lama Dorje. 

Initially skeptical, the parents eventually go along with it. Buddha’s second storyline appears when the mother starts reading Jesse a book given to him by the monks. It’s about Prince Siddartha (Keanu Reeves, hella miscast), who left his comfy surroundings and went on a spiritual quest to learn more about universal suffering before he became the Buddha. The father, who has no qualms telling the monks he doesn’t believe in reincarnation, later takes the kid to Bhutan, where the boy meets two Nepalese tykes who are also in the running to be the next Lama Dorje.

For a filmmaker who spent the ‘70s making controversial, challenging sagas that were politically charged, sexually explicit or both, Bertolucci pulled off his most shocking, subversive feat with Buddha. He basically made a family film — albeit a family film featuring striking cinematography from longtime Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro. (With the way the Seattle scenes are shot in dreary-but-hypnotic blue hues, you’d swear Bertolucci and Storaro got prepared to film in America by watching a bunch of Michael Mann films.) Both grandiose and far-fetched, this $35-40 million fable of an American lad who easily takes to spiritual enlightenment is Bertolucci at his most audience-friendly. “In this new film, I take the middle way,” he told the Virginian-Pilot in 1994. “Little Buddha is the discovery that the middle way can be creative – and still need not be banal.”

According to Peter Biskind’s invaluable indie-movie history Down and Dirty Pictures, Bertolucci’s road to the middle immediately got rocky when Miramax got involved. After reading the script and watching a 20-minute reel, Weinstein snapped up the North American rights for $8 million. He was down to work with the legendary director, even when Jeffrey Katzenberg told him that Bertolucci’s rep for making epic, lengthy films (his 1976 historical drama 1900 ran for over five hours before a heavily truncated cut hit the States) would drive him batty. “I shoulda listened to Jeffrey on that,” Weinstein later said.

When Harvey and little bro Bob flew to London to see a cut, Harvey went into full Harvey Scissorhands mode and demanded that Bertolucci cut 12-13 minutes. Even when Bertolucci compromised and made some changes — especially when Weinstein began threatening that he would send the movie straight to video if he didn’t get what he wanted — the two still couldn’t come to an agreement on Buddha’s length. Weinstein went so far as to get someone else to make another cut. Bertolucci, who was in New York to view the film, was so incensed when he found out, he took off to a bar where he slipped on some ice outside and fell on his ass. “Okay, that’s it. That’s my situation,” Bertolucci recalled thinking to himself.

Even after Bertolucci cut 18 minutes, Weinstein gave Buddha an extremely limited run in late May 1994, as it only took in $4.8 million. Since the film was shot on 35 and 65mm film, 70mm prints were struck and shipped out to theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta for exclusive engagements. A 70mm print was also shown in Seattle, where it served as the opening-night film for that year’s Seattle International Film Festival. 

The critics were divided as hell. Siskel and Ebert disagreed on this one. Gene gave it three-and-a-half stars, saying it “succeeds in capturing the spirit of Buddhism,” adding, “You might not think of this as a family film, but it is a great one.” In Roger’s two-star pan, he said it was “a slow-moving and pointless exercise by Bertolucci, whose The Last Emperor was a much superior telling of a similar story about a child who is chosen for great things.” However, over at the now-defunct New York Press, Godfrey Cheshire loved it so much (in his review, he said it kept him “in tears through large parts of its 125 minutes”), he later placed it high atop his ‘95 ten-best list. In fact, both he and fellow Press critic Armond White put it in their lists for best films of the 1990s.

Even with those accolades, Buddha is a forgotten part of Bertolucci’s filmography. It’s currently not available on any streaming platform, but Australian Blu-ray label Imprint Films did release a special-edition Blu-ray earlier this year. Before passing away of lung cancer in 2018 at age 77, Bertolucci spent his post-Buddha years making mature films again. He directed Stealing Beauty in 1996 and the NC-17-rated The Dreamers in 2003, both erotic tales of rebellious youth that featured a luscious brunette (Liv Tyler in Beauty, Eva Green in Dreamers) occasionally wearing clothing. Still smarting from the Buddha debacle, Bertolucci chose Fox Searchlight Pictures to distribute those pictures over here, practically saving himself from any more disappointment – and also saving his actresses from having to see Weinstein’s pervy ass on set during their nude scenes. 

Little Buddha” may not be available on any streaming platform, but you can view it here and here.

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