Peggy Noonan on How Harvey Weinstein Clawed Back To The Top

Harvey Weinstein. Brigitte Lacombe for Newsweek

To write about Harvey Weinstein is to face, first, the history of past brutalities. He’s invariably described in profiles as coarse, threatening, given to outbursts, terrifying, and a thug. Boorish and angry are usually in there, too. At the recent Golden Globes, Madonna called him “The Punisher” and Meryl Streep referred to him as “God.” The French actors from his critically acclaimed and award-winning film The Artist called him “Le Boss.”

This makes him laugh.

Madonna’s just mad he made her do publicity. Meryl Streep was teasing. As for the actors from The Artist, they went out on the town after the awards and didn’t show up for a Today show interview. “They’re French or whatever.” He went in their place with Uggie, the movie’s canine scene stealer. “That dog is about to go poop on the couch as the Today show cameras are going, and I’m thinking, Yeah, some God, some Punisher, some Boss.”

We’re talking on a late weekday morning in early February at New York’s Tribeca Grill, where he’s regarded with grave respect by the staff and everyone in the restaurant. In political terms he’s treated less like a U.S. senator than the governor of a big state, with all the staff and security and people walking softly. “The governor would like some water, flat.” “Harvey would like to sit in the back.”

This is how he struck me: friendly, earnest, warily sweet. A little defensive, on the lookout for insult. Also calm and reflective. He has mellowed, he says. And he is grateful.

In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal I had lauded his work. We are at a point in our culture when we all have to pull for grown-up movies, try to encourage them and their creators. David Lean wouldn’t be allowed to make movies today—an Englishman in the desert? Who wants to see a movie about sand? John Ford would be forced to turn John Wayne into a 30-something failure-to-launch hipster whose big moment is missing the toilet in the vomit scene. Our movie culture has descended into immaturity, violence, a pervasive and flattened sexuality. Attention must be paid to those who cut against the grain and try to produce something good.

Which Weinstein, for all his bombast, has. In the past quarter century, movies he has been a part of have received 303 Oscar nominations, and he has produced three—The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago—that are actual classics. When you look at his career and remove the schlock and silliness that encrusts it like fat on a slab of steak, you realize he’s at least partly responsible for some of the great movies of the era. Twice in the past 18 months I’ve seen audiences react with gratitude. The first was at the end of an afternoon showing of The King’s Speech in Manhattan when the full house burst into applause. The second was an early evening in January. At the surprise last line of The Artist, the audience sighed with delight, then laughed and began to clap. Both times it was as if they were saying, “Thank you for a movie we can watch—nothing debased, nothing exploding, just a story about human beings that suggests life may not, actually, be meaningless.”

People are shocked when someone produces a film that’s smart, with art, and heart.

So, quickly: Harvey Weinstein in three acts.

Act I: He comes from nowhere and reaches the top.

Born 1952, Flushing, Queens, son of diamond cutter Max and mother Miriam, older brother to Bob. Falls in love with movies; college in Buffalo; acquires, with Bob, a local theater. Rock concerts, obscure movies. Forms Miramax. Outside investors, second-rate films. Then sex, lies, and videotape. Success followed by constant achievement. An extraordinary run of movies: My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The Piano, Il Postino, The Wings of the Dove, Life Is Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso, The English Patient (Best Picture, 1996), Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture, 1998; Best Actress, Gwyneth Paltrow). Miramax bought by Disney in 1993. Money, fame, power. Big time Democratic Party politics, major moneyman, friend of the Clintons, weekend at Camp David, where he doesn’t like the food. Bullying behavior, raging temper. Full of himself.

Act II: He has Everything, he loses Everything.

Acrimony with Disney, end of the relationship, bad blood, fractured focus. Talk magazine, forays into the fashion industry, the Internet, and publishing. Grandiosity: everything he touches will turn gold. Reality: no, it won’t. Lack of knowledge of the businesses he’s involved in. “I had nothing to offer except cash, and I certainly didn’t have expertise. I failed across the board.” Washed up. Happy enemies.

Act III: the Comeback.

He restabilizes, resummons his energies, refocuses on the movies. A search for investors, early failures—Grindhouse, Bobby. Holding on. Then, in 2008, The Reader, a controversial film that had trouble finding an audience but ultimately succeeded with critics and the Academy (Best Actress, Kate Winslet). “I regained my composure.” In 2009, Inglourious Basterds and in 2010, The King’s Speech. This year, The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn, and The Artist. Comeback stories, jolly interviews. He feels “blessed” to be doing what he’s doing. “That’s how I feel now, and I didn’t appreciate it in the first go ’round, and boy do I appreciate it now.”

harvey-weinstein-fe02-2ndary Harvey Weinstein and Meryl Streep, photographed at the Beverly Hilton. Brigitte Lacombe for Newsweek

Here I must note my editor fears I’m getting rolled. He wonders if I shouldn’t include the testimony of an old Weinstein associate who doesn’t quite buy the story of Harvey’s permanent rebirth. “He’s more like a Phoenix,” the associate says, “who keeps getting born and then flames up all over again. The truth is this time of year Harvey is all humble pie, he eats crow so he can win some awards.” He treats some stars well but not others. “He has a huge team making all this happen, and by Oscar morning they are bloodied soldiers. The day after the Oscars he will fall into his old bad habits again.”

This may be true.

Back to the interview. The first question has to do with a theory: The Artist is a metaphor for Weinstein’s career, and that is why he was drawn to it. Like George the actor, the star of the movie, he’s a great success and then makes bad decisions. He doesn’t second-guess them, his inner demons rise, he suffers a painful fall. Lessons are learned, he comes back humbled, happy, and productive.

Harvey likes this a lot. He hadn’t thought of it but, yes, “I guess you could say that may be true in my case, a very apt description.”

Unfortunately, I had another theory.

Not only is The Artist a metaphor for your career, I say, but it contains within it two iconic understandings of you. The first is the man who loves art and is misunderstood. The second is the big, cigar-chomping, vulgar producer played by John Goodman. He’s barking orders, denigrating people. Are those the two sides of Harvey Weinstein, the artist who gives us Shakespeare in Love and the vulgarian who produced Zack and Miri Make a Porno?

He didn’t like that question. Which is understandable, as it wasn’t a particularly polite one.

He looked wounded. Then he rallied: resentment. Then he edited: don’t show resentment, they’ll only take whatever you say out of context. Keep cool, but don’t let go of the subject throughout the interview.

“I enjoyed John Goodman’s performance to no end, but I never related to it, because it’s not me. It’s the stereotypical image, I think, of what a producer does…and it’s so far from the truth.” He is “deeply uncomfortable” with the stereotype. He is a reader from childhood: “I was reading the Americans by the time I was 10 or 11, and by 11 I was reading the Russians.” He loves history. He reads four, five newspapers a day, magazines. Any “cigar-chomping mogul” can come to his house, where all he’ll see is books. “So that image, in some sense it irritates me because it’s so—it’s such the antithesis and people want you to play that role for them.”

Well, I say, people like stereotypes because: A) they help you cut to the chase, and B) we amuse ourselves with them, with archetypes and iconic images. People want you to be Harry Cohn, the legendary ruffian of Hollywood producers.

“They want me to be Harry Cohn,” he agrees. “If I have to model myself on somebody it’s either Irving Thalberg or David Selznick. That’s the goal.”

Why Thalberg? “He had a magic gift that he could work with filmmakers and get the best out of them. And he understood movies so well that his suggestions were taken seriously.” He picked the material, supervised the material, and had the authority to demand reshoots.

What you’re talking about is taste, I say. Thalberg had impeccable taste. People have sometimes said that of your work.

Yes, he says. “I think it comes from reading.”

Here another query from my pest of an editor: there are rumors in Hollywood that Weinstein has been throwing his weight around behind the scenes to be given the Irving G. Thalberg Award. “He’s using muscle to get an award for gentleness! Shouldn’t we mention this?” No, I say, leave it alone. He sweetly promises it won’t make the final edit.

When he read the script of The Artist “I thought it was amazing.” He saw a rough cut in a screening room in Paris. “At that moment, almost like an epiphany, I saw the movie…the same way an audience would.” An hour later he had the whole publicity campaign in his head. His brother, Bob, and people at the Weinstein Company were dubious. They’re going to produce and sell a black-and-white silent movie? “People said, ‘You’re obviously feeling euphoric after The King’s Speech.’” They thought it was “hubris.”

What is the message at the heart of the film? It’s not that love redeems all. Actually, he says, it’s a film about technology. We are surrounded by all these magical gadgets, we’re texting, tweeting, reacting, and blurting, but it’s getting in the way of our humanity, just as the advent of sound was getting in the way of George’s art. “What’s happening with technology, people can’t really have conversations.” But you don’t have to give in, you can resist. “Just because technology changes doesn’t mean you have to let it change you.”

At weekly dinners with his daughters in Manhattan, he says, “OK, everyone show,” and they take out their BlackBerrys and smartphones. “I said it was like the old Westerns, ‘Take your guns out and put ’em on the table.’ And they go, ‘No way, Dad, you first.’?” “No phones, no emails, no ‘Emily’s calling,’ no girlfriends, no boyfriends, no anything. You’re just dealing with dad, you know it’s gonna be boring for an hour, you just have to live with it.” The first time he did it, “Within 10 minutes the little one, ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ ‘OK, go.’ She takes this thing, I go, ‘Bring that back!’ She’s just trying to smuggle her phone out!”

We can’t hate technology, it’s there, but it doesn’t have to distort or blunt relationships.

His ultimate professional goal?

He doesn’t want to sound pretentious or elitist—he is, in fact, defensive about the idea that his audience might be seen as highbrow, exclusive. “I want to create an artistic but populist cinema.” This involves an emphasis on writing. “I once heard Steven Spielberg say that special effects were the words.” He will do a movie about Max Perkins, the legendary literary editor, with Colin Firth as Perkins and Michael Fassbender as Thomas Wolfe. “I make that movie, I don’t make the movie about James Bond.”

He’s acquired a documentary called Bully, about children who are pushed around at school and on the Internet. “I’m about to do my redemptive act for all those years of bad temper.”

Next act?

“I would like to just continue to innovate and to help the innovation of American taste so that we can grow the American taste to expand and to be more welcoming and less parochial.”

Is that a way of saying “I want to tell good stories”?

“It’s a way of saying: enough with these Superman movies!” he says, laughing. “Enough.”

OK, corny question, I know, but is there anything people don’t know about you that you feel they should know?

“I think people should know that I don’t smoke cigars.”