Harvey’s Hellhole: Playing for Keeps

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. The column turns two this month. So, let’s celebrate by going back to the ‘80s, when Harvey and his brother Bob tried — and failed — to be the indie filmmakers they would eventually exploit champion.

Once upon a time, the Weinstein bros wanted to be more than movie distributors. They wanted to be filmmakers. 

In their younger days, they tried to get their own film projects off the ground. They collaborated on a baseball script called Grand Slam that went nowhere. They managed to write and produce The Burning, a 1981 slasher movie/straight-up Friday the 13th ripoff. (It did feature Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Succession’s Fisher Stevens in their big-screen debuts.)

But like so many people in the movie biz, what they really wanted to do was direct. They had worked on a script for a coming-of-age comedy about teens who take a run-down hotel in a small town and turn it into a rock-and-roll hotspot. (“MTV in every room!” exclaims Danny.) The story was inspired by Harvey’s early days running the Century Theater, a Buffalo-based rock venue, in the mid-‘70s. They shot a 20-minute reel and went to Cannes to raise money, telling investors that the movie would have a soundtrack featuring A-list stars. After the London-based J&M Films gave them $4 million to make the film, they went to a farm in Bethany, Pennsylvania to shoot Playing for Keeps

It’s the story of three New York-based, high-school graduates — schemer/dreamer Danny (Daniel Jordano), food-loving jock Spikes (Matthew Penn, son of Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn and who also starred in another film about a rock-and-roll hotel), and wannabe pop singer Silk (resident Black guy Leon W. Grant). When Danny discovers the deed to a hotel that was inherited by his mother, he and his pals scrounge up the $8,000 in back taxes needed for them to officially take ownership. (They pull this off by pretending to be Boy Scouts and selling thin mints to horny office workers. On my momma — that’s the plan!)

Things don’t go as smoothly once they get to the hotel, a crumbling, decaying mess that’s also inhabited by an old, ex-Wall Street broker (veteran actor Harold Gould). They also get hella animosity from the townsfolk, who think these city slickers are just horny, dope-smoking hooligans. This is mostly fueled by the town council president (Robert Milli), who wants to buy up the property so a chemical company can turn it into a chemical dump. Nevertheless, they get their friends from the neighborhood (including a young Marisa Tomei as Spikes’s girlfriend) to come in as “stockholders” and help clean the place up.

Just as the three leads in Keeps had problems getting their dream project finished, so did Bob and Harvey. But it wasn’t outside forces keeping the Weinsteins down; it was the Weinsteins themselves. They plowed through the budget (which soon ballooned to $5 million) even before principal photography began. On set, the brothers often argued about how to shoot a scene. As then-production manager Jeff Silver told Peter Biskind in his book Down & Dirty Pictures, “They did a lot of yelling and screaming about the costs, but they would be the biggest instigators of cost increases owing to their inability to decide anything.” Silver also said, “I’ve always called Playing for Keeps the Noah’s Ark of films because there were two of everything.”

Although Keeps was shot in late 1984, Universal — the movie’s distributor — waited two years to unceremoniously dump it into theaters. The few who reviewed it didn’t care much for it. Caryn James of the New York Times said the film “is so low-budget innocuous that it resembles a below-average episode of the television series Fame.” 

Keeps only grossed half its budget back at the box office. Even the soundtrack, which featured ready-for-top-40 tunes from Pete Townsend, Phil Collins, Peter Frampton, Julian Lennon, and Duran Duran spin-off band Arcadia failed to catch a buzz. Considering that the Weinsteins also commissioned a making-of doc about the soundtrack that aired on MTV, the bros were hoping that the soundtrack would be a hit even if the movie wasn’t. (The soundtrack did drop one single, Sister Sledge’s “Here to Stay,” whose music video also features cameos from the Chicago Bears, aka that year’s Super Bowl champs.)

Keeps is quite the lousy artifact, practically overflowing with bad performances, lame-ass dialogue, corny sight gags, and awkwardly-staged dance sequences. (Did I forget to tell you Keeps is also part musical?) Bob and Harvey’s ineptitude as filmmakers shines in every badly-lensed frame. They can’t even properly light a scene where a bosomy young girl doffs her clothes and goes skinny dipping. (I’m quite certain that scene was Harvey’s idea.)

As you might’ve guessed by now, with Harvey as co-top dog of this production, there were accusations of sexual harassment. In a 2018 Hollywood Reporter piece, Keeps producer Alan Brewer recalled one incident where a female crew member came to him and alleged that Harvey invited her to his hotel to discuss work. Once she got in the room, he tried to kiss her. After that, he attempted to perform oral sex on her. Brewer offered to call the police, but she declined and told him to keep Harvey away from her. 

Harvey also invied actress Tomi-Ann Roberts to his apartment to discuss a role in the movie. When she arrived, she saw Weinstein naked in his bathtub. After Roberts turned down his request to take off her top, she left the apartment — and acting altogether. (She went on to become a psychology professor, with studies in sexual objectification.) As she said in a Colorado Public Radio interview, she was shocked, but not surprised: 

“I was not traumatized in 1984. I was certainly terrified in the moment, but I got out of there and I don’t feel traumatized now, but I look back and I think, ‘Well, why wasn’t I?’ Why did I think that that was just an ordinary thing that I ought to have expected, should have happened? And so the power of this MeToo hashtag, I think, is the power of calling out the everyday quality of these continua of experiences for girls and women and I’ve been very moved by it.”

In the annals of Weinstein history, Playing for Keeps is a forgotten failure that made the Weinsteins realize they should stick to producing and leave the filmmaking to actual filmmakers. It’s yet another so-called teen romp, from a time when middle-aged dudes made tone-deaf, painfully unhip entertainment for younger audiences. But kids didn’t take the bait this time. And, thankfully, neither did the women who were propositioned by Harvey Weinstein.

“Playing for Keeps” is available to stream on YouTube.

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