Follow the Money

by David Thomson

The New Republic, October 4, 2004

 Review of:

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film by Peter Biskind (Simon and Schuster, 544 pp., $26.95)
Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession by Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing (Miramax Books, 432 pp., $23.95)
Blockbuster: Or, How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer by Tom Shone (Free Press, 320 pp., $26)

 

More and more, our response to movies becomes Pavlovian, instead of according to Pauline (Kael). We prefer being on or off, up or down, to reasoned argument. Why not? It's what we and the pictures have been demanding for twenty years. So Ebert and Roeper do "two thumbs up" or even "two big thumbs up." Every Monday the official numbers run in our newspapers, and they are so much easier to digest than the rather worldly and "amusing" reviews that still hold their place in Friday's paper. For how much longer? How many ordinary filmgoers even know the names of film critics in print? How many reckon that they are just "names" made up for the ads?

A telling thing happened to me recently. My son and I went to see The Village on its first Friday night at our local eight-plex. We were enthusiasts for M. Night Shyamalan; both of us loved The Sixth Sense, though we were disappointed by Unbreakable and Signs. We had hopes for The Village, sharpened by a sly television "documentary" called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, and by the movie theater's decision to run The Village in its thousand-seat theater. But two hours later my son looked at me and said, "Well, that takes the 'y' out of Shyamalan." "Good night, Night," I agreed. We were speaking naturally in ad copy-ese.

But such ad lines (or in this case anti-ad lines) are the way we have been taught to think. Ten days later the grim numbers came in: The Village had a 68 percent drop-off from weekend one to weekend two. "Catastrophic" was the inside verdict. I knew earlier: on Saturday, I went back to the plex for the 11:25 a.m. showing of The Manchurian Candidate, and now it was in Theater 1 and The Village was off in some ignominiously smaller room. In two hours, The Village died amid weary laughter and dispirited booing.

You can track this grim progress in the publication of books on film, notably in Peter Biskind's latest book, which is a shrewd, fairly reliable, and moderately scandalous piece of business history by a journalist with dishy sources. Of course, Biskind's method risks losing those informants; to talk to him is to risk giving offense to the powers that be. His earlier book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls provoked much outrage from its subjects, the young film-makers who came to the fore in the 1970s. They cried foul and unfair, but so far as I know no one sued and no public admissions of error were made. Biskind's great skill is in knowing the second-level employees and the ex-spouses to take to lunch, the ones with grudges, the ones who once narrowly missed a punch from Harvey Weinstein.

You can also see a development in Biskind's writing. Whereas Easy Riders grew out of a genuine admiration for many films of the 1970s, and a sense that it was piquant news if some of those film-makers behaved badly, in his new book he hardly bothers to assess the films themselves. The emphasis now is all on the bad behavior in a schizophrenic medium where money-grubbing and prestige-mongering go hand in hand in a way that might have been invented by Preston Sturges. (Preston Sturges was an American movie director of the 1940s, a great hit once, and maybe a genius, who believed the world was activated by principles of fraud, rascality, pretension, and excessive credulity.)

Which is to say, if Martin Scorsese, or whoever, desires a book saying that he is a great American artist, he may have to write it himself. Nearly everyone else writing about our movies has come to the conclusion that Scorsese's history is far too interesting and conflicted to be written off as art. What happens to a Scorsese project now seems more enticing than what happens in it. Directors have become employees again. Sometimes they are even fired!

 

Once upon a time in America, starting in the late 1960s, we had books that said, look, the movies are so terrific they may be an art form; or look, get a load of Orson Welles or Nicholas Ray or Alfred Hitchcock. We had books on genres and we had portraits of movie stars. Two years ago, we had a book about Walter Murch, one of the cinema's best editors and sound designers, in conversation with the novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje. It treated many matters in general, but it looked closely at the pulse, the structure, and the meaning of films such as The English Patient (from an Ondaatje novel) and The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was an endlessly stimulating book, but it said nothing about the deals or the numbers. And so it was already a little out of date, for it breathed the air of art (or work, or craft, or creative dedication) for its own sake.

Go to the list of perhaps the most generous and persevering of film-book publishers--Faber and Faber in London--and you will discover not just countless biographical and critical studies, but a seemingly infinite series in which our leading film-makers talk about themselves, and not just in a self-serving or high-minded manner, but as if the aura of nobility was not too far away. This can grow oppressive, especially if you have spent some time watching real film-makers on the job. They are tricky, compromising, and ruthless. And the auteur theory--and its larger hope, the unsullied adoration of film-makers--can easily conclude that Orson Welles, say, was a great genius constantly beset and victimized by crude rogues of commerce, when in fact he was a strange, narcissistic self-destructive who was his own worst enemy and who regularly queered his own chances at art by being unable to sit down with the sources of the money without insulting them.

You can make an interesting argument that real art--in any art form--should never sit down with the sources of the money. But then you have to find some other way of explaining a whole legion of film-makers who made a lot of money and had no shame or embarrassment about keeping expert track of it. That line would include Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, and Steven Spielberg. Come to that, it would include you or me (if we were filmmakers), for most of us take immense care over what happens to our money. So it's all the more humanly entertaining when some of those moneybags acquire a wondrous way of talking about what they have done. And nothing is more beguiling than their realization that "it" can't be put into words. Movie-makers don't always know the right words. As Biskind teaches us, they say "fucking this" and "fucking that" as much as they can, to show that they aren't clerical, verbal fusspots.

 

Once upon a time, the sensation of the movies was so intense and widespread that no one saw a need for mediation or commentary. The audience of the 1920s, the 1930s, and most of the 1940s was so steadfast in its habit of going to the movies that no one saw much need for persuasion or elucidation. At the same time, few places in American society were impressed with the European notion that the movies might be a medium capable of art. In Hollywood, earnest talk of "art" was a more serious handicap than "Red ties." The American movie was as phenomenal as extreme weather; it was a sudden habit in Americans' use of time, a giddy business and a means to absurd fame; and it was an inadvertent arm of empire--the largely false portrait of a hysterical light and happiness in which Americans might be tanning themselves.

That impact was far more comprehensive than the mere benevolence of "art." Art, after all, is a decoration on the ordinary life: the gentleman connoisseur may read Henry James before breakfast, and drop in on the Bonnard show at lunchtime, and attend a performance of Schubert's lieder in the evening. His soul may be replenished and soothed. He has had his 500 milligrams of vitamin A for Art. But during his regular day he may steadily offend the regulations of the SEC, screw his mistress and his maid, consign his elderly mother to a shabby rest home in Poughkeepsie, and steal taxis from cripples--all of this while carrying on like Cary Grant. After all, he has the power and the right of choice that comes with cultivation. Yet there are forces and climates in our life so much less decorative, so much more prevailing. They alter our ways of thinking so profoundly that we hardly recognize the loss, or the shift. Weather is such a thing, and so are movies, television, the computer, the telephone, bathrooms, automobiles, gambling, the loss of collective memory. We do them all very well, with our cultivated and ever-replenished souls. If you feel this is a little sour, just ask yourself how many hours of your education, or your children's education, were devoted to the onslaught of television, as a new language, as a mediator of reality, as a pretty thing. We expect correct spelling and grammar; we do (we still do, right?) hours and years on words. Yet we hardly know the structures in visual language.

Television had surpassed, or historicized, movies before the notion of film art reared its head in The New York Times, American academe, or the plans of publishers. But in the 1960s, like a shy Kong, that monster began to stalk the streets of the city. The influence of young French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif began to find English-language disciples. The golden days of Hollywood were reassessed (and television played its part, for that's where the young saw so many of the classics). Some masters of the old code, people who would have died rather than own up to their art, yielded to the new hero-worship. With varying degrees of bewilderment, belated vindication, mounting arrogance, or sheer opportunism, they accepted that they might have been artists. Of course, in doing so they had to forget doing it all with other people's money and studio space, with a score of brilliant craftsmen and a few idiotic yet charming movie stars; they even forgot the audience ready to swallow nearly anything. They agreed--humbly (Welles), gruffly (Hawks), mincingly (Hitchcock), exultantly (Nick Ray), sardonically (Billy Wilder)--that, yes, maybe they were artists. In which case, they deserved as many devout books as Charles Ives, Edward Hopper, or Nathanael West. Or more.

 

But it is an intriguing and useful question whether an art movie, or even an artistic picture, has ever been made in the United States. I mean apart from the experimental, personal, and private gestures of self-expression that reach from Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage to ... Mel Gibson. In the matter of feature films made for an audience, there have been odd discrepancies in "independence," artistic autonomy, or sheer isolation (a state that can extend from wealthy monomania to amazing poverty). Which of these was the most independent or artistic venture: D.W. Griffith on Birth of a Nation; David O. Selznick (only the producer) on Gone With the Wind; Orson Welles on Citizen Kane; Charles Laughton on The Night of the Hunter; Michael Cimino on Heaven's Gate; or Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather?

For about $100,000, Griffith was transforming the theatrical potential of a medium and organizing the basics of a new storytelling, while aligning it with gross melodrama and worse (so that now we feel obliged to ban the landmark). Probably no film has made more money on its investment, or startled such a proportion of the public. Selznick, hiring and firing directors as he plunged deeper into obsession and gambled ever more recklessly (largely on borrowed money), made the picture that Hollywood reckoned its greatest, and which is still accounted the all-time box-office champion. Offending nearly everyone in pictures, owing to his infamous carte blanche contract, Welles took a studio's money and said, effectively, "Don't disturb me until I'm finished." The result was a well-reviewed flop and a picture that is now monotonously hailed as the best movie ever made, so that it begins to overawe the future of film. Laughton, sixteen years later, with less money than Welles, attempting to coordinate talents as large and diverse as Stanley Cortez, Robert Mitchum, and Lillian Gish, to say nothing of the haunting novel by Davis Grubb and a prolix script by James Agee, made a picture that was nearly a laughingstock--but which is now treasured as a great American film. Cimino largely ignored budget, schedule, and the commonsense business dismay of United Artists (an honorable enterprise) and made a rogue movie that destroyed the company but may one day be regarded as both magnificent and monstrous. And Coppola? He was a hired hand, often in danger of being dismissed for inexperience, but he took a mainstream project and made a huge hit, a modern classic, a deeply personal statement about family.

The flux of circumstances on every production, and the chaos of the work in which the contemplative, searching, inward auteur needs to deal with the questions or the complaints of a hundred idiots and enemies every day while maintaining the openness that hears the one remark loaded with promise--this is not like making art in any traditional sense. These artists, if that is what they are, do not live alone in silence and sublime concentration. Nor is the movie-maker doing it for its own sake, or for self-expression. He is making a picture to open at Christmas for millions of people. He has big non-aesthetic responsibilities. He is surrounded by moneymen trying to restrain their anxiety. He wants rewards, money, a better life, Oscars, glory. He may pick up a bigger house, a new wife, and expensive habits. 

All this certainly applies to many of the "auteurs" I have just discussed. The least vainglorious was Charles Laughton, who had been taken up by a young, ambitious producer named Paul Gregory to pursue the dream he had been timid about admitting: to make a whole film as beautiful and moving as the paintings Laughton collected. And when he failed (as Hollywood insisted he had done), he gave up. Known as the player of tyrants, outcasts, and geniuses--Captain Bligh, Rembrandt, Henry VIII, Quasimodo--Laughton had the least confidence and the most neurotic shame about himself. He really was an artistic soul, a natural loner, whereas most of the others were towering egotists and unbridled show-offs. This is show business, after all.

Now, the films just discussed were not ordinary but extreme. In budget, epic scope, imaginative reach, or violent assertion of genius, they were outstanding--and they all ran into some trouble on that account. It is never easy to make a movie, you may claim, and I would agree, even if some film-makers from Buñuel to Hawks make it look easy, natural, or sweet. But many movies were done with fewer cries of outrage or anxiety. And some of those relatively tranquil efforts by more or less cheerful slaves to the system may be not just superior works, but the best fruit of the American system. Consider this top ten for American talking pictures: Morocco by Josef von Sternberg; My Man Godfrey by Gregory La Cava; The Shop Around the Corner by Ernst Lubitsch; Daisy Kenyon by Otto Preminger; Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock; The Lady Eve by Preston Sturges; In a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray; Midnight by Mitchell Leisen; and Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and To Have and Have Not by Howard Hawks. Very well, that's eleven-- and all in black and white, so quaint now, so antique, that it is old masterish.

 

The years between 1930 and 1950, from Morocco to In a Lonely Place, were rich hours for the American moviegoer. There were more movies per week then than there are now, and with half the population. But the "literature" on movies consisted in a handful of true critics (a few of them were very good, such as James Agee, Manny Farber, and Otis Ferguson, often in these pages), and of course the dreams and din of fan magazines and movie gossip, the smokescreen that has made movie history so uncertain. The real books were few and far between.

Not until the late 1960s did the retired and mordant voice of Josef von Sternberg give utterance in Fun in a Chinese Laundry, his acerbic and comically self-serving memoir as well as a window into his strange, bitter romanticism. It was the start of a film library, to be followed by dozens and then hundreds of studies in genius. The books served the new college courses, and they secured tenure for the new generation of film professors. It was not long before the discipline--always striving for respectability--bought into the racket of structuralism. Learned articles were written on films, and never mind that the surviving film-makers could not follow a sentence of the texts! This semiotic density has lately gathered at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a weird clash of sun and signs that would have tickled Sturges, and fulfills Pauline Kael's gloomy fear that if there was anything that could kill the movies, it was academic attention.

Kael is crucial to this story in many ways. She was the best-known spearhead of the way that talk about film became staple fare, in the late 1960s, for what the English call the chattering class. She was also someone fiercely determined to defend the pop nature of film--its energy, its vulgarity, its distinct territorial grip on something not hitherto known as Art. As Louis Menand put it in an essay on Kael, "[New Yorker readers] needed to believe that it was possible to enjoy the movies without becoming either of the two things New Yorker readers would sooner have died than be taken for: idiots or snobs." It is a valuable observation, for the best American movies do have a relaxed smartness that seems to say, well, surely anybody with a mind could get this, and like it. And for several decades more or less anyone did get it and like it, and this in turn encouraged those afraid of Art and the academy to think that that they could be usefully entertained. It may be that useful entertainment will prove America's unique creation, one of its greatest gifts to the world.

There is another point to be made about Kael. She went to Hollywood. She was invited to Hollywood by Warren Beatty, and she and Hollywood didn't click, which was hardly a surprise. But Kael had smelled the business side of pictures enough to guess that it was vital--to see that its flux and the pondering over what to film and how to film it were inseparable. You couldn't really judge a movie without knowing why and how the picture came out the way it did. The new generation of film critics and professors (many of them raised as literature students) hated this, because they had been taught that you could take a sonnet or a sonata and analyze it as if it were a bubble in the clear and unattached air. To this day, I know estimable film critics who do not like to talk to film-makers or even to go to Los Angeles. 

Back at The New Yorker, chastened or chilled, Kael let fly with the essay "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers," which was inclined to the view that it was next to impossible for Hollywood to produce anything of value. So it was by 1980, but so it had always been. Hollywood was a factory and a countinghouse; its leaders were scoundrels, fools, and worse. The lowest common denominator pressed on everything. And yet it had produced the eleven films I listed above, and several hundred more that are still worth seeing, still sharp, funny, and fresh. A lot of worthwhile things in life are difficult. 

Over the years, a few books pioneered the attempt to know what Hollywood felt like--to follow the money. In the early 1950s, the reporter Lillian Ross sat in on the making of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage. But was the picture John Huston's, or was it Gottfried Reinhardt's (the producer), or Louis B. Mayer's (the studio boss), or was it a studio property? Ross didn't spend much time on the numbers, but she reported the way the bosses talked, since she was allowed to be in the room. (Hardly anyone has had that privilege since.) The talk was clumsy, profane, egotistical, ugly, crude--and lotsa fun. Ross's book, Picture, is still a model of its kind, and so accurate that Hollywood took fright. And there were other creditable efforts--John Gregory Dunne's The Studio (about Twentieth-Century Fox), David McClintick's Indecent Exposure (about the cronyism that muffled the David Begelman scandal), and Steven Bach's Final Cut, all the more valiant and eloquent in that Bach had been one of the top executives at United Artists responsible for hiring Michael Cimino to do Heaven's Gate and then drawing it closer to hell's portal.

 

In their time, those books were best-sellers--but still the thrall of auteurism held for years more. Until, that is, Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which crystallized the new interest in "inside Hollywood" material and anecdotes. Television had been hacking that mud patch to hell for years with Entertainment Tonight, and in The New York Times Aljean Harmetz had pioneered an excellent line of studio reporting, a task now shared by several writers and as likely to appear in the business section or even the front section as in the arts pages. And now, I think, one can see a wave of books that are prompted by the public's new fascination with the film-as-business genre.

Along with Biskind's new book, which treats Sundance and Miramax (or Robert Redford and the Weinsteins), there is also Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession, written by Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing, two writers at Variety; and the forthcoming Blockbuster: Or, How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer by Tom Shone, once the film critic on London's Sunday Times but now resident in America and clearly crossing over to the business side. These books are lively and proficient. They are determined to show that they have a good new answer to the question of what makes movies work, whereas in truth they are simply catching up with the old answer, or part of it.

The change in movie economics, which these writers do not really note properly, is that today's big numbers come from very much reduced theatrical audiences. Indeed, not many pictures would flourish any longer if they had to get their money back in American theaters. What has rescued them is the mounting importance of "foreign," or the sale of American films abroad as part of the Americanization of the world. And if you want to look for underlying reasons why that world is now so dismayed with America, consider the impact of all these American films that are only brash, youthful, pointless, and so stupid as to be depressing. Once upon a time, our films stood for the attractiveness of America: maybe people here really were as casually witty, as merrily intelligent, as Myrna Loy and William Powell. It was so damn cool you wanted to be there.

What is striking (and so disturbing) in these books is the uncritical tone of this business history. Hayes and Bing and Shone seem to say that the way things are going is not just natural, but admirable. It's a business, after all. You feel that these writers are gently trying to prove their suitability for a studio job. But the gelding of film criticism is part of the larger failure to stand up and denounce the wretchedness of what this complacent business is churning out.

Another way of saying the same thing, or conveying the sense of a hole opening beneath one's feet, is the story that Budd Schulberg tells about his novel What Makes Sammy Run? When it was first published, in 1941, Hollywood read it as a nasty satire by a boss's son who had been to Moscow and learned to despise Hollywood. Sammy Glick, its protagonist and young wanna-be, was a toad on the way to becoming a shark. In more recent years, however, Schulberg has been approached by people who wanted to film Sammy. "Now self-confident young men come up to shake my hand because 'I learned so much from your book; it helped me get ahead--the more I read the more I wanted to be Sammy.'" Sammy Glick, a hero!

 

Biskind's book is better because his focus is narrower, and because he has a point of view. He is a longtime observer of the film scene, and he has a chilly instinct for discovering the worst in people. He goes to the heart of so much Hollywood indecision in seeing that "independence" is one of the most vexed or fallacious concepts of our day. Biskind has made a very effective page-turner by telling the story of Redford's Sundance Film Festival, the heaven and hell of the indie movement, and the way in which the Weinstein brothers seized upon the new mood and imposed their own rather old-fashioned idea of a film studio on it. Why not? Harvey Weinstein grew up as a great admirer of David O. Selznick; and so there are two pretty good studios in existence in America today, Miramax and HBO.

Biskind on Robert Redford is flat-out baleful, though not as comic as he might have been. Though he once played Jay Gatsby, Redford has become as crass as Tom Buchanan, but there is no need to concoct grief over that. Anyone looking like Redford, anyone as glorious as he was in the late 1960s and 1970s, and anyone who can edge the Sundance festival toward the Sundance merchandise catalogue is a chump, dazzled by his own mirror and begging for satire. Biskind explains convincingly that Redford is passive-aggressive and woefully muddled, but he never admits that the man is not very bright and, worse, horribly afraid of being made a fool of. Does the handsome image really deter Biskind from the mockery that Nathanael West might have found in such a figure, and that was strongly suggested in The Way We Were in the manner in which Streisand's character stroked the stuffed beauty of Redford's vacant face?

The man Redford played in that film, Hubbell Gardiner, says in a story, "He was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him." Once, maybe, but not lately. Today Redford is all too painfully available as a metaphor for movie-star (or American) clout at a loss over what to do. He is sixty-seven, struggling to keep some vestige of his looks (above all in the way he is photographed), with these lamentable recent credits: The Claim, Spy Game, The Last Castle, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Horse Whisperer, Up Close and Personal. Whether he is acting or directing, these films are full of a moony self-idealization devoid of all character and interest. You have to go back to Quiz Show to find a compelling picture--and Biskind makes plain how thoroughly (and dishonestly) Redford tricked that project away from his own Sundance protégé, Steven Soderbergh.

What a contrast this anemic egocentricity makes with Harvey and Bob Weinstein, a pair of brothers who sometimes seem in competition over which one of them is the bad cop and which one the worse. I suspect that what prompted Biskind toward this subject was the chance to write about these men, because they are the most colorful and controversial force in American film. They represent a throwback to the era when executives and producers--Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, Harry Cohn, Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner--were regarded as the decisive "creative" figures in American film. That may have been meant as a slur on our movies: how could moguls be more important than artists? But once upon a time, the would-be artists, the directors and the stars, took it for granted that the tycoons ran the show. When F. Scott Fitzgerald looked at Hollywood with that special mixture of wistful and mordant as he came to write his novel The Last Tycoon, he had no doubt but that a studio boss--he named him Monroe Stahr--should be the protagonist. Fitzgerald saw how much of the responsibility and the cultural decision-making rested on such a figure.

The best way to sum up the Weinsteins may be to say that, at the same time as the formation, the survival, and the considerable success of DreamWorks SKG, the amalgamation of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, the lead story in the picture business has been the rise of Miramax, and the way in which it identified and exploited the audience for more challenging films than mainstream Hollywood was willing to risk. Miramax began cautiously by marketing a few foreign films. Next it moved to the territory of American independents. And by now it is a small studio run as if we were still in the 1920s, which is to say that Bob and Harvey act out the role of being in charge as if they were rowdy little boys who have never lost the urge to behave like Jimmy Cagney--or is it Groucho and Chico?

A better analogy to the 1920s is with Louis B. Mayer, not just tough, manipulative, devious, bullying, sentimental, but an actor playing all those parts. Indeed, veterans of the old MGM setup would admit that Mayer was not just the greatest or the most constant actor on the studio property, but a "shuteye"--a professional magician who had forgotten it was all a trick. Mayer really believed that he had made Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland into the proper children of America. This was dreadfully vulgar and a hideous shattering of the views of children built up in, say, What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age. (Don't smile at that comparison, not if you have any sense that the army of youth is one of the great cultural dangers in America now.) But people such as Mayer were crazy for show business, not just because it made them rich and powerful, with the opportunity to survey and to sample young female loveliness, but also to make the stories that would shape America and make it comfortable for barely educated Jewish escapees from Eastern Europe, guys who started selling gloves, furs, and hats and moved on to motion-picture stories.

 

I find it hard to love movies without loving those guys. And so I like producers, and I enjoy the Weinsteins. Yes, I am prepared to accept Biskind's suggestion that there is hardly a female employee at Miramax who has not been reduced to tears over the years, and I do believe that in tantrums and foul-mouthed explosions Harvey Weinstein has thrown most bits of office equipment, and even punches, at his guys. But why did anyone go into the picture business if they didn't want melodrama, excitement, and stuff to tell Peter Biskind? Perhaps there are quiet days and calm routines in other trades, and there are Bartlebys there who have gone numb in their corners. Harvey loves pictures, he loves glory, he adores the gamble, and he thinks very well of Harvey. And such a package is essential if you are going to take it upon yourself to decide which movies get made and shown.

The Weinsteins have done badly by some pictures. They used to buy up more than they could handle properly. There is ample evidence of Harvey's urge to re-cut other people's pictures, even when he had no right; there are also cases where his suggestions and his cuts worked very well. Why not? Editorial revision is exactly the talent for which Thalberg, Selznick, Zanuck, and Jack Warner were known. Of course it is intrusive and interfering, but it comes with the laws of property, and do not ever forget that the people who put up the money own American pictures. (It is a rule that applies in the rest of the country, too.) The literature and the fans can choose to celebrate the directors, and no one should ever doubt that some directors are far better than others; but the studios and the moguls let those "artists" function. Orson Welles was not shy of being mistaken for a young god who could do anything and everything, but he needed RKO, and RKO stuck by him after Welles's rare liberty had elected to make an unnecessary and entirely schoolboyish attack on William Randolph Hearst.

The Weinsteins have made lurid mistakes in overpaying for some pictures and missing others altogether. But they have been the enablers of sex, lies and videotape, Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, Life Is Beautiful, Cold Mountain, Fahrenheit 9/11, and so on. I don't like all those films. I hate some of them. But I think that several of them might not have reached the screen but for Miramax. And while it is true that the once-independent studio took on Disney as its master in 1993, this did not stop Fahrenheit 9/11, which was not to Disney's liking. Disney did prevent Miramax from going ahead with The Lord of the Rings, and its executives likely cringe every time that mistake is mentioned.

There is talk of some reshaping at Miramax, of Bob looking after the Disney connection while Harvey moves back toward independence. Miramax has also laid off 13 percent of its staff. It has not been a fat year. Now the studio has Scorsese's The Aviator as its Oscar shot. But will it fly? Harvey is young enough to do big things; he is also, as many have observed, a stress case ready to explode. Is there a risk of megalomania? Is his lifestyle dangerous? Orson Welles lived seventy years under the selfsame threats. This is show business, and if some people are in it for the art, others need to make money dance like Fred Astaire.

David Thomson 's new book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, will be published by Knopf in December.