Will a small British indie called Philomena take home any Oscars? If it does, its cast and crew will have Harvey Weinstein to thank. And they won’t be alone. Here’s a recent tidbit from the March 2014 issue of Harper’s:
Number of Academy Award winners in the past twenty years who thanked God in their acceptance speeches: 7
Who thanked Harvey Weinstein: 30
Everyone who knows something about Hollywood has heard of Harvey Weinstein. He and his brother Bob started out circa 1970 as concert promoters. Soon, taking a tip from the Roger Corman playbook of that era, they formed a company called Miramax (named after their parents, Max and Miriam) and began importing challenging art-house flicks from Europe. The strategy worked. Looking for material closer to home, they soon had some major hits on their hands. These included Errol Morris’s powerful documentary, The Thin Blue Line, and Steven Soderbergh’s provocative chamber-piece, sex, lies, and videotape, which blew away audiences at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. By the time Miramax scored once again with The Crying Game, Disney was angling to buy the company for big bucks. Under the Disney umbrella, the brothers started producing as well as distributing, and the hits kept on coming. (Harvey and Bob eventually left Disney to form The Weinstein Company, though I've heard they’re now planning to buy Miramax back. But that’s another story.)
Harvey Weinstein, it goes without saying, is a control freak. It’s not unusual to see him yank a film off the distribution schedule seven weeks before its planned opening. That’s what he did in January with the Nicole Kidman starrer, Grace of Monaco, after feuding with the director over editing issues. But he’s a genius when it comes to promoting his films. Everyone in Hollywood believes it was his clever marketing that helped push Shakespeare in Love past Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in the 1999 Oscar race.
Harvey’s films, which include the whole Quentin Tarantino canon, have continued to do well at the Oscars ever since. (He’s also been accused of trying to take down his rivals, for instance spreading rumors about some unsavory aspects of John Forbes Nash’s character when A Beautiful Mind was looking Oscar-bound.) This year, boosting Philomena along with August: Osage County and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, he has been particularly ingenious. When Philomena, the true story of an Irish mother looking for the son who was stolen from her by the Catholic Church, was rated R by the MPAA because of a few expletives dropped by Steve Coogan’s character, Harvey swung into action. He quickly persuaded the film’s star, Judi Dench, to assume her “M” role from the James Bond films to humorously threaten the MPAA in a video clip. It went viral, and soon Philomena was reclassified PG-13. That new rating made it a far more comfortable fit for the mature audiences who shy away from the sex and violence that an R-rating generally implies.
Next Harvey took advantage of opposition to the film by some Roman Catholic groups, placing enormous ads that boldly parried their complaints. But his real coup was getting the actual Philomena Lee, a charming and gutsy eighty-year-old, to show up at press events and help spread the word. Focusing on her own story rather than the film version, she has not run afoul of the Academy’s rules for Oscar campaigning. Still, her presence has its own sort of clout, and the undauntable Harvey is clearly positioning her as a potential spoiler in this year’s Oscar race.