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 Armageddon Time is currently in theaters, let’s talk about when its director had to deal with Harvey’s douchey ass not once, but twice.
Writer/director James Gray has been calling his latest film Armageddon Time, a semi-autobiographical piece which recounts his younger days growing up in 1980s New York, his most personal film. But if you type in “James Gray” and “most personal” in the Google search engine, you’ll find that many of his films — from his 1994 debut Little Odessa to his 2008 Dostoevsky adaptation Two Lovers to his 2019 studio space movie Ad Astra — have been described as his “most personal,” either by him or someone else. Whether he does an indie film or a studio blockbuster, people just love to say how dude throws himself and his life in every movie he does.
His 2000 sophomore film The Yards has also been hailed as a “most personal” film, set as it is in the world of New York subway repair, a business his father worked in. But chances are you’ve probably never heard of this film — even though it stars Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, and Charlize Theron. Wahlberg (at his most shy and soft-spoken) plays the recently paroled Leo, who went away for a year and some change after taking the fall for his shady-ass friends, led by Phoenix’s suave, hotheaded BFF Willie. Willie is also dating Leo’s cousin Erica (Theron), whose stepdad (James Caan) Willie also works for.
Desperate for work, Leo links back up with his pal, who shows him how to work his way through the corrupt system of subway-repair contractors. This involves greasing palms and getting butt-bald-nekkid with officials (to make sure nobody is wearing a wire). As expected, things go south one evening when Leo, Willie, and the boys go to a rail yard to sabotage the work of a rival firm. Let’s just say that things get heated to the point where Leo has to go into hiding, so he won’t go to jail once again for something his boy did.
And, now, here’s the part of the column where I tell you how Harvey Weinstein fucked over this movie.
Despite having (at the time) three hot, young stars headlining this film, Harvey and them thought the film wouldn’t be marketable for the mall crowd. What made them come to this conclusion? “The movie’s testing numbers with an audience in a mall hadn’t been great,” Gray said in a 2005 interview, “so they argued with me on what the best recourse would be for the picture.” Both Gray (who didn’t have final cut) and Miramax agreed to tack on a more positive ending, unlike the ambiguous one Gray originally shot.
But even with the new ending, Yards was still dumped out into the world. The studio put it in 150 theaters without any TV ads or a street-poster campaign. The premiere, Gray told the Los Angeles Times, was a humiliating affair:
“It was just me, Mark and the seven beautiful girls he brought. They had a seat roped off with Harvey Weinstein’s name on it, but he never showed up. But the so-called premiere in L.A. was really humiliating. The place was half-empty, and no one from Miramax showed up. I saw someone the next day who said, ‘Geez, that was maybe the worst studio premiere ever.’ “
The $24 million movie eventually grossed a measly $889,352. The people who did see it liked what they saw. French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol was a fan, giving it a shout-out in a LA Times interview. Then-New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell put it on his year-end, ten-best list, calling it an “artfully rendered descent into nightmare” that “has the mordant elegiac power of Italian neo-realism, using the best of Visconti as its model.” Roger Ebert also commented on its dark, gloomy tone, saying it “is not exhilarating like some crime movies, or vibrant with energy like others. It exists in a morose middle ground, chosen by Gray, deliberately or not, because this is how his own memories feel.”
It is some morose, well-shot pulp. (The late Harris Savides handled DP duties.) Gray and co-writer/future The Batman director Matt Reeves constructed a blue-collar neo-noir that plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with disapproving parents (Ellen Burstyn plays Wahlberg’s mom, while Faye Dunaway plays Theron’s mom), surprising deaths, and even some incest (Wahlberg and Theron’s cousins had something going on back in the day).
Yards may have died a quiet death in theaters, but Gray did get to release his cut (which is two minutes shorter) on DVD a few years later. The Gray cut has the original ending, along with nips and tucks here and there, cutting out some expository scenes and adding some revelatory ones.
Yards was supposed to be Gray’s first and last time working with the Weinsteins — that is, until Harvey bought Gray’s 2013 film The Immigrant (another “most personal” one), without Gray’s knowledge, from the equity people who raised the money for the $16 million budget.
Since it divided audiences when it played Cannes that year, Weinstein once again wanted changes — especially the ending — if his Weinstein Company was going to release a period piece where Marion Cotillard plays a Polish girl who comes to 1920s New York and gets roped into prostitution by a low-life vaudevillian, played by (you guessed it!) Joaquin Phoenix. But Gray, who had final cut this time, stood his ground. Gray has discussed extensively in print how Weinstein put him through all kinds of hell regarding Immigrant, which was released a year later in the States and grossed $5.6 million. In a recent Vulture interview, Gray even recalled how Weinstein threatened to sell the film to Lifetime.
Since Gray is a filmmaker who can’t help but make personal movies, let’s hope his next film is about a filmmaker who gets tormented by a scumbag movie mogul about making the perfect ending — and the movie perfectly ends with the mogul’s career rightfully destroyed.