Oscars Rewind: When Harvey Weinstein Was a Force in Oscar Campaigns

When Harrison Ford went onstage to present best picture at the 1999 Oscars, it seemed obvious that he would be handing the statuette to his old “Raiders of the Lost Ark” pal Steven Spielberg for the World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan.” After Ford opened the envelope, the director John Madden recalled, “in my head, he seemed to take an extraordinary amount of time to absorb what he was reading.” Then Ford announced Madden’s film, “Shakespeare in Love,” and “it was completely surreal.”

Nobody could have predicted that outcome eight months earlier, when “Ryan” opened to rapturous reviews and terrific box-office returns. (It ultimately earned more than $485 million worldwide.) “Should we just FedEx the Oscars over to Spielberg’s house now and save everybody the trouble of voting?” one academy member was quoted as saying in Variety.

Harvey Weinstein had other ideas. The Miramax mogul had established himself as a master Oscar campaigner, having shepherded such disparate films as “My Left Foot,” “The English Patient” and “Pulp Fiction” to wins in major categories in previous years. Now, though sheer force of will, it seemed, he wanted to pull off one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history.

“He’s a man of extraordinary passion and determination, whether anybody likes it or not,” Madden said of Weinstein, who now faces five charges including rape and two counts of predatory sexual assault. Weinstein has denied the accusations. “He was obviously a force of nature within the industry, and in other ways we hadn’t understood and are appalled to look back on.”

In mid-December 1998 — the 11th hour in Oscar season — Weinstein decided he would throw his then-considerable clout behind “Shakespeare” for best picture. The film had a long and troubled path to the screen, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Julia Roberts slated nearly a decade earlier to play the titular playwright and his romantic muse, and Edward Zwick (“Glory”) set to direct. That plan fell apart, and Kenneth Branagh and Winona Ryder stepped into the main roles. Finally, Madden (who had directed the 1997 Victorian drama “Mrs. Brown” for Miramax) came on board, with Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow as his stars.

In the editing room, Madden and Weinstein clashed over the film’s tone and ending. The studio executive “wanted it to end like a romantic comedy — in other words, the boy gets the girl,” Madden said, adding that the prizewinning playwright who co-wrote the screenplay, “Tom Stoppard, and I pointed out, ‘Well, that didn’t happen.’”

Madden prevailed, and critics and audiences embraced the film even as the Bard and his beloved Viola went their separate ways. Weinstein’s team lobbied journalists and voters to convince them of the merits of “Shakespeare” — and the shortcomings of its main competitor.

“‘Private Ryan’ was hit with one of the first whisper campaigns, when a rumor is spread to manipulate viewers into thinking something negative,” Sasha Stone, founder and editor of awardsdaily.com, said in a recent email. The spin? That the movie peaks in its opening sequence, a harrowing recreation of the D-Day invasion, and goes downhill from there. “Everyone knew that Weinstein played dirty,” Stone added. “Subtle but dirty.”

At the same time, Weinstein appealed to academy members’ sentimental sides. “His gift, why we called him the Oscar whisperer, is he knew voters better than they knew themselves,” Stone said. “He gave them the justification they needed to vote with their hearts, not brains.”

The voters’ hearts were with “Shakespeare” — especially since the largest bloc in the academy is actors, and “they love movies about themselves,” Stone said. As Madden noted, “the movie is a love letter to the theater and acting.”

In fact, “Shakespeare” had won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble. “That should have telegraphed it to Oscar watchers more than it did,” the Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger said in a telephone interview.

Miramax and DreamWorks, the studio behind “Private Ryan,” both spent millions on “for your consideration” ads, yet the race became seen as a David-and-Goliath battle, with Spielberg and company as the giant. “It always seemed like a hilarious juxtaposition — two movies more unalike are hard to imagine,” Madden said. “That’s why the Oscars are so fascinating.” (Spielberg ended up winning best director; “I never imagined for a second he wouldn’t,” said Madden, who was also nominated.)

When “Shakespeare” was named best picture, Weinstein took the stage along with four other credited producers, including Zwick, who had remained nominally attached to the project. “Their contributions to the film as producers were hard to define,” Madden said. “Harvey was not a producer when we were making the film” but gave himself the title later.

That irked some academy members, and rules were soon changed limiting the nature and number of producers eligible to receive Oscars. “It’s unbecoming for studio heads to insert themselves into that space, and a rampant ego produced that circumstance,” Madden said. “But success has many parents and failure is an orphan, as we know.”

Weinstein refused to apologize for his strong-arm tactics. “I believe in supporting films,” he said at the time, adding later, “I think you should get in trouble in this town for not supporting films.”

Not everyone bought his justification. “Your campaigns are obnoxious, and they do create the appearance of influence-buying,” the critic Jack Mathews wrote in a post-Oscars open letter to Weinstein in The New York Daily News. He added, “What should be remembered as a great night for ‘Shakespeare’ is being remembered as an ugly fight over a gold-plated geegaw.”

Madden, for one, has fonder memories. “Though I’ve made many films since that I’ve felt equally proud of, ‘Shakespeare’ stands out because of the extraordinary arc of its journey,” said the director, whose more recent credits include the hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel. “I’m perfectly happy to go down with that title next to my name.”

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