Harvey’s Hellhole: The 2003 Oscars

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. Since the Oscars are on Sunday, let’s go back twenty years, when Miramax basically ruled the Academy Awards – and Harvey was determined to get another Best Picture win.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Oscar Wars, Michael Schulman’s recently-released book on the Academy Awards, has a chapter devoted to Harvey. 

Titled “The Harveys,” Schulman takes us back to the ‘90s and early aughts, when Weinstein used his talents as a huckster and bully to get some Oscar gold during every awards season. It began in 1994, when Weinstein tried to steal away the Best Picture Oscar from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (considered a shoo-in for Best Picture that year) by making newspaper/trade ads for Jane Campion’s The Piano, Miramax’s Best Picture contender, boasting its success with New York and Los Angeles critics’ awards. The ads had “BEST PICTURE” printed at the top and, in parentheses and small print, “Runner-Up” below it. The plan didn’t work – List won Best Picture. This must’ve stuck in Weinstein’s craw since, a few years later, Weinstein pulled a lot of foul shit in order for Shakespeare in Love to get the Best Picture Oscar over Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan

Reading the chapter reminded me how Weinstein spent the following Oscar seasons raging war on DreamWorks (which released Ryan) and its Best Picture nominees. It’s a war Harvey lost three years in a row, as DreamWorks releases American Beauty, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (which DreamWorks released internationally) respectively all won Best Picture Oscars, defeating middlebrow Miramax entries The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and In the Bedroom. Considering how out-of-pocket his tactics were during this time (he’s still seen as the one responsible for that ugly whisper campaign against Mind), it appears Oscar voters were getting fed up with his incessant strong-arming.

While Schulman devotes a bulk of the chapter to how Weinstein’s mad ascension as the industry’s dirtiest player led to Shakespeare’s shocking win, he only drops a few paragraphs on Weinstein’s true finest hour: Miramax’s takeover of the 75th Annual Academy Awards in 2003. Weinstein made sure he’d get some statuettes by packing up the final months of 2002 with a bunch of awards bait, including the Julie Taymor-directed Frida Kahlo biopic Frida, the George Clooney-directed Chuck Barris “biopic” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Phillip Noyce’s previously delayed adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. Miramax eventually received a whopping forty nominations, more than any studio that year. And, in the Best Picture category, two of them (Chicago and Gangs of New York) were Miramax releases, while Harvey and his brother Bob had a hand in producing two others (The Hours and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).

Since Harvey was betting on Gangs being the Best Picture victor for Miramax, he spent a heavy amount of time over director Martin Scorsese’s shoulder during its production. A big-screen adaptation of Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book, about the brutal gangs who fought each other for supremacy in 18th-century New York, was something the filmmaker had been trying to get off the ground since the ‘70s. Unfortunately, he had to get in bed with “the devil himself,” as Spike Lee called him when Scorsese told Lee about it, in order to do it. 

I could spend the rest of the column listing all the ways Harvey made Scorsese’s life a living hell on the Gangs set (which was based in Rome, not New York), as stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis feuded on-screen while Scorsese and Weinstein feuded off. But this Independent piece that surfaced during the film’s 20th anniversary a couple months ago basically says it all. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Scorsese worked with Weinstein again a few years later, when he stepped in for Michael Mann to direct DiCaprio in the 2004 Howard Hawks biopic The Aviator. But Scorsese made certain that Weinstein was not welcome on that set. 

Gangs was nominated for ten Oscars – and didn’t win a damn thing. It turned out Weinstein should’ve been putting his support behind Chicago, debut director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the famed musical that co-writer/director/choreographer Bob Fosse first brought to Broadway in 1975, starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as fame-seeking murderers in the roaring ‘20s. It had 13 nominations and won six, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Zeta-Jones. Plus, the $45 million picture was a box-office hit, grossing over $306.8 million worldwide. (Gangs, which budget ballooned to $100 million during filming, only made $193.8 million.) And, unlike Scorsese, Marshall had positive things to say about his boss, who apparently had good notes and didn’t meddle much. (Of course, Weinstein was too busy hassling Scorsese in Rome to get all up in Marshall’s business.)  

Chicago wasn’t the only big winner for Weinstein that night. Frida got two wins, for Best Original Score and Best Makeup. Rings also got a couple Oscars, for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects. Despite facing scrutiny for wearing a prosthetic nose, Nicole Kidman won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in Hours, a movie that now bears the unfortunate honor of being produced by the alpha-asshole duo of Weinstein and Scott Rudin (who has also been called out for his abusive behavior over the years). 

That would be the last time Miramax won big at the Oscars. A few years later, Harvey and Bob formed The Weinstein Company and the elder Weinstein continued his toxic knack for scooping up Oscar trophies, eventually scoring Best Picture wins for The King’s Speech and The Artist. It’s kinda unfortunate that when people think of scandalous Academy Award ceremonies, they think of what happened last year with you-know-what, and not about those two-and-a-half-decades of Harvey Weinstein straight-jacking Oscars.

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