The great betrayers?

An attack on two of Hollywood's biggest names has stunned the American film industry. Is it overdue criticism or personal bile? Andrew Gumbel reports
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It was with something less than the usual pleasure that Robert Redford opened the Sundance Film Festival a few days ago. And no wonder. Just about every Hollywood executive making the annual pilgrimage to the snowy wilds of Park City, Utah, was talking about him in less than flattering terms. Somewhere in each of their suitcases was a brand new book portraying him as an unreliable, dreamy, manipulative, grudge-bearing incompetent who had not so much championed independent film-makers as waffled chronically for more than two decades.

And that's not the half of it. The book is Peter Biskind's latest scandal-laced chronicle of movie mores, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film - and its release right on the eve of Sundance 2004 has provoked rumbles of indignation across the industry.

Redford, it must be admitted, is not the only big name to be manhandled and wrestled to the ground over Biskind's meticulously researched, breathlessly told 500 pages. Nor is he the true villain of the piece, a title that can only belong to Harvey Weinstein, the larger-than-life co-chairman of Miramax Pictures whose reputation as a bruiser and screamer extraordinaire has long since entered Hollywood legend. But it is already more than enough. Redford, who doesn't like being talked about at the best of times, nervously tried to make a joke of it in his one public appearance at Sundance. "Harvey Weinstein and I will be doing a book signing after the screening," he said in his opening remarks. Then he clammed up altogether, declining all interviews and making himself as scarce as possible.

At Dolly's bookshop in Park City, Down and Dirty Pictures sold out within hours of the festival-goers hitting town, with dozens more copies on order for arrival before everyone leaves again this weekend. The Hollywood suits have all insisted to the trade journals that they are focused exclusively on buying and selling films, the real business of Sundance, but nobody entirely believes them.

Anyone who read Biskind's previous book about the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, knows what an addictively good read he can be as he sets famous film-makers against each other and exposes their foibles, their decadence, their drug habits and their altercations on set. The information may be exaggerated or unsubstantiated in places, but as a reader you can't help being swept along by the sheer mind-boggling detail.

Last time out, Biskind was writing largely about directors and producers whose glory days were behind them. The time period of the new book stretches from 1989 - when Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape became the sensation of both Sundance and Cannes - until the present, so his protagonists are still very much in the game.

You have to admire his sheer chutzpah. Within a few pages he is likening Harvey Weinstein and his brother and partner Bob to the Krays. He goes on to describe Harvey variously as a mini-Mussolini, a real-world Don Corleone from The Godfather, and as a psycho with "a neck like a fireplug, and hands as big as lamb chops". In anecdote after anecdote, Harvey pulls phones out of walls, hurls ashtrays, overturns furniture, breaks glass, grabs one hapless journalist in an arm-lock, screams abuse at anyone who dares to disagree with him, tells distinguished directors they are pretentious, arrogant know-nothings, and routinely terrorises his subordinates by telling them they are fired, which they sometimes are and sometimes aren't.

Harvey has a nickname in the industry - Harvey Scissorhands - earned for his habit of recutting films, whether or not the director has a contractual right to final cut, and having few qualms about dumping a film or witholding it from distribution altogether if the film-maker objects. Biskind has some spectacular examples, chronicling how Todd Field developed a bleeding ulcer during the nine agonising months between acquisition and release of his intimate 2002 drama In the Bedroom, or how Billy Bob Thornton's adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel All The Pretty Horses was slashed to near- incoherence and box-office death. Although Biskind concedes that Harvey's cutting was sometimes justified, he also quotes Bernardo Bertolucci, burned over his expensive flop Little Buddha, saying he - like a long list of other film-makers - would never work for Miramax again. "I wouldn't offer a cup of coffee to Miramax. I wouldn't trust Harvey," he is quoted saying. "He's like a little Saddam Hussein of cinema."

In the book as in life, Harvey Weinstein sucks most of the air out of the room and leaves little space for anyone else - a propensity his admirers would say is simply the result of being such a forceful, irresistibly fascinating personality. His quieter brother Bob, whose Dimension division specialises in deliberately lowbrow fare, from the Scream spoof-horror film series to the Spy Kids films, takes a back seat, although there are occasional hints that he may be even worse. "I've never walked down death row, but that's the feeling I got around Bob. He was spooky," Miramax's acquisitions chief in the late 1980s, Alison Brantley.

Redford's alleged shortcomings are altogether less spectacular, but Biskind's dislike of him is still palpable. He is chronicled making promises to Steven Soderbergh that he doesn't keep, failing to make key business decisions while he is off on location to act or direct, routinely showing up hours late for appointments and missing several key opportunities to expand his Sundance empire into cinema exhibition or television. Some of the bile, at least, seems to be personal, since Redford refused to cooperate with Biskind in any way. Redford, he says, "has a long memory and holds on to grudges like a drowning man".

Biskind does have a serious line of argument behind the eye-popping stories which is, in a nutshell, to accuse both Miramax and Sundance of betraying the independent cause by allowing big Hollywood thinking - and big Hollywood money - to co-opt the movement and take much of the spice and originality out of it. Especially after its absorption by Disney in 1993, Miramax went from the edginess of Kevin Smith's Clerks, say, to the pure syrup of Chocolat and Cider House Rules; from the rock-bottom budgets and star-free productions of the early acquisitions to the bloated budgets of Miramax original productions such as Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain.

The argument is fine as far as it goes, but one senses that Biskind is more interested in demonising the Weinsteins personally than he is in assessing their full impact on the movies. Certainly, a handful of Miramax loyalists have jumped into print to defend Harvey and Bob for their willingness to take risks on less than obvious commercial propositions and spin them into box-office gold. Even Biskind admits that the best, most audacious examples of non-mainstream American cinema today - films like Far from Heaven, or Lost in Translation, or Adaptation, or Punch-Drunk Love - are "all children of Miramax, even if their directors don't want to sit on Daddy's lap".

Kevin Smith, who was one of Biskind's most forthcoming sources, wrote a column in Variety last week saying he'd take the Weinsteins over some anonymous studio suit any day, no matter how foul Harvey's temper. "Given a choice between a clock-puncher with his hand on the rip cord of a golden parachute and a guy who, with his brother, set a tone every studio's tried their hand at mimicking, I'm happy to wear a spit-guard on occasion," he wrote.

Miramax has perhaps the best counter-argument of all in the roster of films it has released in the interval between Biskind's book going to press and its publication. These include Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, about the underbelly of immigrant life in London, and The Station Agent, a quirky comedy about a dwarf who inherits a station depot in New Jersey. Not exactly Spiderman.

Intriguingly, Harvey himself has been meek as a lamb about the book, clearly seeing the need for some damage control ahead of the looming Oscars awards season, in which a very expensive Miramax production, Cold Mountain, is vying for both statuettes and a much-needed knock-on effect at the box office.

"I'm ashamed of how I've often behaved," Weinstein said in a mea culpa interview with the Los Angeles Times this week, revealing that he had sought professional help in managing his temper. How much good this may have done is anybody's guess - Harvey the bulldog may have put on a muzzle, but that does not mean he has been de-fanged. Nor, perhaps, should we wish to live in a world in which he has been.