A few months before its premiere Stateside, Barry Avrich’s doc “Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project” quietly made its world premiere this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Technically a Canadian production (though beyond the presence of TIFF’s Piers Handling as a talking head, it’s hard to tell), Avrich’s doc has been the subject of considerable curiosity since it was announced last summer as “a powerful, uncensored, no-holds-barred account” of Weinstein that IFC would be releasing in the United States (which they will this Spring). A bit of a coup for the fledging Toronto film center (which has had some very inspired programming since the film festival wrapped last September); locals got the first opportunity to see whether the hype for “Unauthorized” was warranted.
In short, it’s not. Though a well-made account of Weinstein’s life and career, “Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project” is unlikely to ruffle too many feathers or offer any startling new information on the iconic producer and indie film mogul. Weinstein declined to be interviewed for the film and persuaded many others not to participate as well, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be particularly offput by the content. Assembling an impressive slate of talking heads including Peter Biskind, Eamonn Bowles, David Carr, Mark Gill, John Irving, James Ivory, Martin Scorsese, Mark Tusk, Mark Urman and the late George Hickenlooper (though bizarrely joining them – with little insight to offer – is Fred Durst), Avrich certainly gets a few – if not most – of them to call Weinstein a big bully, but not without footnoting that designation with a wide variety of Weinstein-directed compliments. In the end, it more or less portrays Harvey as exactly what we all already consider him: A brilliant man with anger management issues who changed the game of acquiring and marketing independent film more than anyone else.
That said, there’s definitely a lot of interesting tidbits in the film. It’s just unlikely anyone who has followed Weinstein’s career or educated themselves on the history of U.S. indie cinema (especially by reading “Unauthorized” interviewee Peter Biskind’s book “Down and Dirty Pictures”) will find any of it new, powerful, uncensored, or no-holds-barred. Nonetheless, here’s some notes:
1. Bob & Harvey accidentally saw “The 400 Blows” because they thought it was a porno: And it apparently changed their lives. At the age of 14, Harvey brought his brother Bob and some friends to see François Truffaut’s classic at their neighbourhood movie theater in Queens. At the end of the screening, Bob and Harvey were the only ones left in the theater, and they said the way that film was marketed – in that it would lead them to think they were seeing a pornographic film – would influence their tactics in the future.
2. Harvey got his start as an all-star concert promoter in Buffalo: It was a choice between the Vietnam War or the State University of New York at Buffalo for young Harvey Weinstein, and he chose the latter. He dropped out of the University shortly thereafter when he became a hugely successful concert promoter in the area. At one point, his company, Harvey and Corky Presents (a collaboration with Corky Burger), was putting on 2,000 concerts a year, and they notably brought The Grateful Dead to Buffalo. But by 1979, he decided to sell his shares in the concert promotion company and move back to New York to start a film company with his brother.
3. He was smitten with his first secretary at Miramax, who would soon become his wife: Miramax employees went so far as to tell Harvey to stop putting dozens of roses on his secretary Eve Chilton’s desk, fearing it was harassment. But Chilton clearly didn’t mind: Within a year, she was married to Harvey.
4. His mother Miriam was Miramax’s first receptionist: “You couldn’t imagine that this sweet woman was his mother,” an ex-Miramax employee recalled of Bob and Harvey’s mother, who worked at the company in the 1980s.
5. He directed a film about a rock and roll hotel: Called “Playing For Keeps,” Bob and Harvey collaborated in writing and directing a 1986 comedy about inner-city teenagers who want to turn a hotel into a rock n’ roll resort. Marisa Tomei had a small role in the film, which very, very few people saw.
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6. Miramax deliberately used NC-17 ratings as a tactic to gain free attention: Twenty years before they fought against “Blue Valentine”‘s NC-17 rating, Harvey and Bob embraced such MPAA decisions to get free publicity, emphasizing the rating to the press to gain attention without paying for it. 1990’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” was probably the best example of how they did so effectively. The film – one of the first to ever get the rating – grossed $7.7 million (or $14.6 million in 2011 dollars), becoming one of Miramax’s biggest hits to date (and remains the 3rd highest grossing NC-17 rated film ever).
7. With “sex, lies and videotape,” Harvey and Miramax revolutionized TV ad campaigns, and the Sundance Film Festival: When Miramax bought Steven Soderbergh’s “sex lies and videotape” at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival for $1 million, few actually attended the fest, and no one spent that kind of money on an acquisition (it was the biggest ever at the time). But after investing a record $25 million on TV ads for the film, and emphasizing its scandalous subject matter, “sex” made $54 million worldwide, and the following Sundance was a total event.
8. He recut “Sling Blade” behind Billy Bob’s back: Given his nickname “Harvey Scissorhands,” it’s not surprising to hear the many stories of Harvey and co re-cutting films against his director’s wishes. But in the case of “Sling Blade” – which Miramax infamously purchased for $10 million, a record at the time – Harvey did not have final edit. So he went behind director Billy Bob Thornton’s back and recut it anyway, which one of “Blade”‘s producers admits in the doc was a genuine improvement on the film.
9. He ensured that Oscar nominees would wear his second wife’s fashion designs: Harvey’s history with the Oscars is a big topic in the film; from his campaigns on “The Crying Game,” “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love” to how he basically invented the art of Oscar campaigning. But everyone knows about that. A more interesting tidbit comes with regard to his second wife, Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman (he divorced Chilton in 2004). Harvey used his infamous tactics for a new cause after marrying Chapman, by ensuring Oscar nominees wore her designs.
10. He’s pissed off Julie Taymor, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Anthony Minghella, Saul Zaentz, Paul Newman, George Hickenlooper…. There’s likely a hundred more names that can be added, but these are the ones “Unauthorized” zeroes in on: He screamed at Taymor in a lobby of a movie theater after seeing a cut of “Frida” he wasn’t happy with; he screwed Damon and Affleck out of money for “Good Will Hunting,” making amends by giving them $1 million checks (after the duo refused to star in “Dogma” unless he did); “English Patient” director and producer Minghella and Zaentz said Weinstein cheated them out of profits on the film; he threatened to make cuts to Newman and wife Joanne Woodward’s film “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” leading Newman to refuse to do any publicity for the film; George Hickenlooper said Harvey repeatedly fired and re-hired him from “Factory Girl” and offered many re-enactments of Harvey screaming at him over the phone. None of this particularly surprising (and most of which has already been widely reported), it’s still fun to have it re-told on the big screen.