How Harvey Weinstein Destroyed The Oscars, Concluded
The Pain Before, During and After Oscar Night
Note: I accidentally cut out the last paragraph of part 2 of this article, for which I apologize for confusing my readers to this point. I will repost it with the final paragraph later this week.
Usually in the weeks leading up to Oscar night, there is a feeling of anticipation the closer one gets to the actual awards. In the days leading up to March 21, 1999 — a Sunday, a move the Oscars had made for the first time in all their years of broadcasting — the feeling seemed to be closer to dread. Leaving aside the conflict in Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, the weeks the nominations and the awards had shown a series of battles between many Hollywood forces.
Lynn Redgrave’s marriage of thirty three years — one where she had saluted her husband in accepting her Golden Globe for Gods and Monsters just a month before — broke up when it was revealed her husband had been having an affair with a much younger woman. The ugliness of the revelations may very well have damaged any chance Redgrave, previously the favorite for Supporting Actress, had for winning.
New York based producers John Roberdeau and Bobby Geisler had approached Terence Malick about adapting The Thin Red Line in 1989 and had gone to great efforts to support his return to filmmaking. But the longer production went on, a rift began to develop between Malick and the producers to the point that when the film was finally released Malick refused to speak to them and made it clear on Oscar night, that if they were in attendance (as was their right when the film was nominated for Best Picture) he would not be. Malick, a notorious recluse, ultimately chose not to attend.
Dwarfing all of this was the controversy of the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Elia Kazan. Director of such brilliant films as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan’s reputation had been clouded for decades because of his appearance before HUAC in 1951 where he had appeared as a friendly witness and given up the names of ten colleagues who were never able to work in the industry again. His actions were considering even more galling because due to Kazan’s successful theater career, his livelihood was in no real threat. The announcement of his award divided Hollywood, even including those who had not been born before Kazan’s testimony.
I have personally always found the decision to give Kazan a lifetime achievement award one of the strangest decisions in the Academy’s history, most blatantly because it went against one of the general reasons they give such awards. Winners of the Lifetime Achievement are traditionally those who have never won in Oscar in regular competition: the best examples among directors being Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, and just the previous year, Stanley Donen. By contrast Kazan had won two Academy Awards for On the Waterfront and Gentlemen’s Agreement so it wasn’t like he was lacking recognition from the Academy already. If the Oscars had wanted to really honor someone lacking in recognition, there were still quite a few candidates from that era who were still alive, most notably Jules Dassin and Stanley Kramer — Dassin would have been an example of a great director who stood up to Hollywood, and Kramer would have been a premier example of the kind of message pictures that the Oscars tends to pay tribute in their endless montages and there would have been barely a ripple. (But who am I to understand how the Academy operates? Four years earlier, they had given a lifetime achievement award to Clint Eastwood, who had won for Unforgiven just two years prior, and for whom we can definitely say, the best was by far still to come.)
A final gloomy bell rang just a week prior to the Oscars when legendary critic Gene Siskel, who had suffered from cancer for the last two years, passed away. In retrospect, his death was the end of an era — the respect for a film critic on TV. Roger Ebert would carry on for nearly a decade before suffering a stroke that would take away his ability to speak, but no one could fill Siskel’s shoes and we all knew it.
The best one can say about Oscar Night 1999 was that it was not the kind of fiasco we got with the Rob Lowe Snow White dance number a decade before and would similarly see when Anne Hathaway and James Franco would host the show more than a decade afterwards. But it was one of the most joyless and uncomfortable Oscar nights I have witnessed in more than thirty years of watch the show. Whoopi Goldberg came out on stage dressed as Elizabeth I (two women had been nominated for portraying her that year) in whiteface and after startled laughter said: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am the African Queen.”
It was all downhill from there. Goldberg, normally one of the better Oscar hosts in my lifetime, had her weakest stint overall, somehow off-key and off-step the whole night. Other legendary comedians presented, but their jokes had the ring of darkness. Coming out to present, Jim Carrey burst into mock tears: “It doesn’t matter if you win. It’s an honor just to be nominated…Oh God.” Then he pointed a barb straight at the man who took spot. “I have made way for Roberto! He has jumped into my ocean!” Everyone laughed, even Benigni who didn’t seem to notice or care he’d just been zinged. Chris Rock, who even before he hosted the show for the first time had a history of making people uncomfortable went right for the jugular involving Kazan. “Robert Deniro’s outside. And you know how he feels about rats.” You could sense the discomfort everyone was feeling through your TV screen.
The actual awards didn’t make people much happier. While people applauded Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow’s wins, they only truly became enthusiastic on three occasions. And I have to say even more than a quarter of a century earlier, the first one never made me happy. When they presented Best Foreign Film, and there were cries even before Sophia Loren, shouted out: “Roberto!” the audience went wild as Benigni jumped on to the seats and climbed over his fellow patrons to accept the prize. I could quote his broken English speech here, but I haven’t the heart: even at twenty everything was embarrassing — especially the standing ovation they gave this buffoon. I think I was utterly stunned when Benigni took the Best Actor prize — it made less sense to me then than it does now.
Aside from Steven Spielberg’s standing ovation, the only truly happy memory I have of the entire awards was Norman Jewison, the legendary director of In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck, receiving the Thalberg award, dancing a little on stage and receiving a genuine ovation. He seemed vibrant and full of energy and his speech was the one pure moment of the night, finished with a note of optimism: “I hope to see you here again next year.” (He was putting the finishing touches on The Hurricane, a Denzel Washington biopic of Ruben Carter that would warrant its own level of controversy. But that’s a story for another article.)
In contrast, the presentation and acceptance of Elia Kazan’s award was one of the most excruciating moments in all my years of watching the Oscars. At home, it may have looked like he was getting a standing ovation. In reality, the camera went out of its way to avoid showing how many people were sitting down — and that those standing were seat-fillers bussed in for the occasion.
All of this paled in comparison to the final award. When Harrison Ford came out to present Best Picture, Saving Private Ryan had won five Oscars to Shakespeare’s six. Ford — Indiana Jones himself — looked like the fix was in. But I can still remember the shock in his voice and the massive exhale that filled the theater when he announced the winner was Shakespeare in Love. The applause that followed seemed stunned and a little perfunctory.
Almost a decade after the fact, Entertainment Weekly ran a poll of Oscar voters anonymously, asking them, going back through five year intervals, whether there were any choices among the winners of certain years that they had regrets about. One such year was 1998.
Asked which film they would vote for Best Picture, a plurality of voters said they would rather they’d chosen Saving Private Ryan.
I’ve always question the veracity of polls, and this one was no exception. A major reason for my doubts were that, when it came to Best Actor, these same voters would have passed over Roberto Benigni not for Tom Hanks or Ian McKellen, but Edward Norton for American History X, a film I doubt Academy voters had seen, at the time of the poll or before. But even if that was a true reflection of most voters’ thoughts, my reaction is simple: Too little, too late. The genie was out of the bottle, and there was no putting it back.
The night after the awards, Weinstein called Ian McKellen and supposedly said: “You gave the performance of a lifetime. But I saw an opportunity and I took it.” It was as close to an apology as Weinstein ever gave for anything.
McKellen, of course, has had a certain measure of revenge — his post Gods career in the Lord of the Rings and X-Men franchise led to him being discovered and finally receiving the commercial success rivaling his critical one. Benigni, in contrast, disappeared almost immediately afterwards. He would never have anywhere near a success like that, and after appearing in a disastrous adaptation of Pinocchio, he was pretty much finished in Italy as well. He has become what he should have always been, a punch line.
DreamWorks, the studio behind Saving Private Ryan, vowed revenge. The next year their major Oscar film was American Beauty a dark comedy that didn’t receive nearly the praise Ryan did and looks far worse in hindsight given all the controversy surrounding Kevin Spacey in recent years. But the studio learned the lesson and campaigned American Beauty as relentlessly as Miramax had pushed Shakespeare. In 1999, the film won five Academy awards and utterly devastated Miramax and its big films The Cider House Rules.
The ripple effects of the battle of Weinstein’s campaign would not truly be felt for years. For several years major Oscar nominees would still come out in the summers, films as diverse as The Sixth Sense, Gladiator and Moulin Rouge. But none would have the same gravitas that Saving Private Ryan did and slowly but sure the kind of film that Ryan was — the serious blockbuster that came out in the summer — became scarcer and scarcer until it became all but non-existent.
Weinstein and Miramax, by contrast, never had the same cache that they did at the Oscars again. It would be awhile before the ramifications were felt — the studio would have a nominee for Best Picture every year for the next decade. But the sense around Hollywood was that he had gone too far in his drive for Shakespeare and had done damage to Miramax’s brand. This became clear in 2000, when his pushed for the relatively ordinary romantic comedy Chocolat — a film with Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench that was Oscar bait with no quality — managed to get nominated for Best Picture over such clearly superior films as Wonder Boys, Almost Famous and Billy Elliott. Even when his film would dominate — such as in 2002 when three of the five best Picture nominees — Gangs of New York, The Hours and Chicago — were Miramax films, it became clear the studio could no longer bully the Oscars into submission the way they once had. Weinstein relentless to push to get Martin Scorsese his first Oscar backfired spectacularly when Roman Polanski, a truly controversial figure even then, took Best Director for The Pianist, a film that looked very much until the last minute on Oscar night looked like it was going to take the grand prize away from Chicago. It didn’t, but the fact that Weinstein was clearly sweating by the end showed just how little Hollywood wanted to recognize him.
But even as Hollywood began rejecting Weinstein, they continued to follow his methods. The Oscars have in the nearly quarter of a century since Shakespeare in Love’s upset have been becoming far less about artistic blockbusters and more about campaigns. Fewer and fewer people now see the films that get nominated for Best Picture, and it is hardly a coincidence that the ratings for the Academy Awards themselves have been going in a straight downward trajectory ever since then. And considering the direction Hollywood has been going when it comes to the films they make, it is unlikely this trend will ever reverse itself, if it even can.
Something else happened Oscar night that I’m sure no one else –certainly not me –was paying attention to. While every other major network ran reruns, HBO on Oscar night 1999 was continuing its schedule and running an episode of its new hit series The Sopranos. I’m sure no one in Hollywood knew or even care about it, but I remember the Golden Globes in 2000. And I know the property that had everybody thrilled beyond words was none of the movies that were nominated, but rather the way that The Sopranos completed dominated the TV awards, taking four prizes and becoming the first cable drama to win Best Drama. I don’t think that correlation equals causation in this case, but the era of Peak TV began pretty close to the time that filmmaking became far less ambitious, certainly for Oscar nominated films. HBO was the only channel at the time that would have dared run any episode of an original series the same night as the Oscars or the Super Bowl, or the World Series. Now it’s a given — if you’re not watching some streaming form of TV.
When this year’s Oscars take place in two weeks, the ratings will probably have gone up from last year absolute nadir — its hard to imagine they won’t have. But as much as the Academy wants to consider it Hollywood’s Biggest Night, it really isn’t any more. There are countless reasons why this is so, but at least a substantial part of it can be traced back to the effects of what happened when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan. Is it the worst thing Harvey Weinstein ever did? Not by a long shot. But in all honesty, I think there are more people in Hollywood upset about that than all the hundreds of women’s lives he utterly ruined. It would not shock me if there are people in Hollywood who make sick jokes along the lines of: “I’m not surprised. Guy was screwing the Oscars over for years.” And why wouldn’t they? Careers in Hollywood are always disposable, but Oscars matter. Then they’ll go on with the same kind of campaigns that he created, because imitation is all Hollywood does now, even if the ‘inspiration’ was a monster to begin with.