It’s no surprise The King’s Speech is leading the Academy Awards with a dozen nominations. This true tale of a stammering monarch has everything that Oscar loves in a movie: royalty, disability, and an underdog hero with an English accent triumphing over adversity. And if The King’s Speech wins Best Picture at the Feb. 27 awards ceremony, expect to see a beefy mogul who would not look out of place on The Sopranos—the man known by his friends and enemies simply as Harvey—bully his way into the spotlight.
For Harvey Weinstein, The King’s Speech represents a comeback, and a return to the title he seems to covet as if by divine right: Oscar King. After creating Miramax with his brother Bob in 1979, Weinstein became the Midas of independent distributors, beating Hollywood at its own game with Oscar-winning hits such as My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Sling Blade, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago. But the man who created the indie film boom of the 1990s also destroyed it by inflating prices and selling Miramax to Disney. Since parting company with Disney in 2005, and losing their beloved Miramax (which Harvey and Bob had named after their parents), Harvey and his brother started from scratch with the Weinstein Co. After a string of failures, they’re back in the game. And Harvey is back to his old tricks.
The distributor who earned the nickname Harvey Scissorhands for his habit of recutting films recently suggested excising the profanities from The King’s Speech so the movie, now R-rated in the U.S., can get a broader rating and reach a wider audience. David Seidler, the Oscar-nominated writer of The King’s Speech, told me last week that both he and director Tom Hooper disapprove. “Harvey is a master of awards, he’s a master of marketing,” said Seidler. “I do not believe this is one of his better ideas.” The film’s profanity, in fact, is crucial to the story of King George VI (Colin Firth) finding his voice by unleashing his emotion. “It’s not there for shock value or puerile interest,” added Seidler. “It is purely for therapeutic use. It’s based on my own experience as a stutterer.”
The irony of Weinstein proposing to clean up The King’s Speech is that he built his early success on securing X-ratings for art-house fare—such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover—then milking the controversy for mainstream publicity. What’s more, Weinstein himself is notorious for his profane outbursts. In Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project, a new documentary by Canadian director Barry Avrich, former Miramax publicist Mark Urman says Harvey’s violent tirades turned his female employees into “walking ulcers.” Another interview subject, the late filmmaker George Hickenlooper, comparing him to “an alcoholic patriarch,” recalls Harvey screaming at him to reshoot a love scene in Factory Girl between Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) and a fictionalized Bob Dylan (Hayden Christensen): “So Hayden, Sienna, it’s going to be a sex scene! You’re going to hump her and hump her and hump her. Then you’re going to flip her over and do her the other way!” When Weinstein saw the final scene, the director says he exploded: “You’re a f–king loser idiot. I’m going to take a full page out in Variety saying Hickenlooper is a loser and don’t ever hire him for anything.”
What Weinstein lacks in manners he makes up for in commercial savvy. When he bought Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, he paid a record $1 million. Which seemed crazy until the movie grossed US$25 million in North America. His other discoveries range from Quentin Tarantino to the rookie writers of Good Will Hunting—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, whom he froze out of the film’s US$138-million gross.
The son of a Manhattan diamond cutter, Harvey may have inherited his father’s eye for picking gems. But as author Peter Biskind says in Unauthorized, presentation is key: “If you display a diamond correctly, it becomes the only diamond you’re looking at. That’s what Harvey did with movies. He displayed them on a black felt cushion.” Now with The King’s Speech, he has Oscar’s eye trained on a crown jewel.