Back in 2002 I wrote a harsh review of the biopic “Frida” that I wish I could have recalled in mid-air. Unfortunately, Internet postings and Ronald Reagan’s ICBM’s are not subject to such intervention. I am afraid that my review might have been as destructive as a guided missile for those who put hard work into making the film, especially the screenwriter Clancy Sigal who defended his work on the film in an email to me. After reading Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”, a massive (544 pages) and brilliant take-down of Harvey Weinstein, I wonder now to what extent the Miramax boss’s meddling impacted the film that I saw. I had read Biskind’s book as background for an article on Miramax for a new Marxist journal. That article is forthcoming but I could not resist saying a few words now just on the Harvey Weinstein-Frida Kahlo brouhaha. It is enough to turn you into a revolutionary, if you weren’t one already.
Despite my cultivation of a “bad boy” (or bad old man at this point) reputation on the Internet, being called to order by Clancy Sigal made me want to repent. For those unfamiliar with my fellow Counterpunch contributor, I can only recommend his “Going Away” as not only the best novel about the cold war and McCarthyism from the perspective of a radical, but also a great work of art. When I read it in the early 1980s, I tugged at the lapels of every leftie I knew to read the book, especially people like me who had dropped out of the Socialist Workers Party. Although Sigal’s book is focused on the CP milieu, the palpable sense of dislocation in a post-1930s world would remind any of my contemporaries what we were feeling in a period of cocaine, disco and campus apathy.
“Frida”, along with what seems like dozens of other Miramax films, was a victim of Weinstein’s scalpel. Nothing got Harvey Weinstein more worked up than films that exceeded 90 minutes or so. If a director under contract presented him with a finished product that ran for 180 minutes, he’d have a fit. It was not a problem with the content of the film but the problems it presented in terms of screening revenue. A two-hour film began at 8pm and end at 10:15 or so, plenty of time for another screening. But if a three-hour show ended at 11pm, who would buy a ticket for the next show that ended at 2am, especially on a weekday?
You can get a good idea for how mammon defeated art in chapter five of Biskind titled “He’s Gotta Have It 1993-1994”, subtitled “How Miramax knocked Bernardo Bertolucci on his ass”. Bertolucci is a self-professed Marxist with a distinguished career making political films like “The Conformist” and “Before the Revolution”. By the 1990s, he had developed an interest in Buddhism. I can understand why, given the deep traumas the left had suffered over the past decade.
Miramax had become a big-time player after introducing Quentin Tarantino to film audiences but that did not mean it had the sensitivity or background to distribute Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha”. In fact, it probably militated against such a partnership. Biskind describes him as bullying Bertolucci from the get-go. If he didn’t make 13 minutes worth of cuts, the film would go straight to video, the fate that usually awaited B-movies with no-name casts. To prove to Bertolucci that the film was not marketable as it stood, he previewed it in a New Jersey strip mall in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Weinstein presented Bertolucci with a fait accompli. He made his own cuts and would show the great Italian director the Weinstein version of “Little Buddha”, something equivalent to Guy Lombardo giving Duke Ellington advice on an orchestral suite. Despite allowing 18 minutes of the film to be cut, Miramax never followed through to promote wide distribution of the film. Bertolucci summed up Harvey Weinstein to Biskind:
Bertolucci wonders now why Weinstein bought Little Buddha in the first place. “He’s a snob,” he says. “Snob means sine nobilitate, ‘without nobility’—he is a snob because he has no nobility, so he wants nobility, and maybe he likes to go after movies that can make him look more noble. But then in my case it was just to punish the thing that can make you better. It’s complicated. He had a certain kind of sense of smell for things. Then, as Harvey Scissorhands, he started to believe too much in himself as auteur of the film, and there’s where he started to go out of [control] with that kind of megalomania. You cannot believe in a quality film made by personalities, like these movies are, and then go and overcome the personalities of the people who made the movies with your not very luminous ideas.”
By 2001, when Julie Taymor, the director of “Frida” came under contract to Miramax, Harvey Weinstein had morphed into another typical studio boss, especially geared to the corporate expectations of his new partners at Disney. He had also become even more brutal to filmmakers on the need to make cuts, caring less than ever if they subverted their aims.
The rough cut of “Frida” was two and a half hours. The version released to the theaters was two hours and three minutes. When I mentioned to an old friend yesterday that I was going to write about the cuts Weinstein’s forced on Taymor, he said that this helped him to understand why the film seemed so disconnected. It was as if large portions of the original reel had disappeared. Exactly.
After an early screening to a test audience, Weinstein warned the director that changes must be made to make the film more relevant to a focus group. He said, “They were confused about Trotsky, Communism in Mexico.” One imagines that Weinstein implicitly placed himself in the focus group. When Taymor and several of her creative partners met with Weinstein at Miramax offices, she replied that since the film scored fairly well with a focus group, there was no need to make changes especially since it was about an artist and not about Communism.
At this Weinstein flew into his typical tantrum and told Taymor to “go market the fucking film yourself.” Turning to her agent, he added, “Get the fuck outta here.” Next, he told Elliott Goldenthal, Taymor’s companion and an Oscar-nominated composer who wrote the music for “Frida”, “I don’t like the look on your face. Why don’t you defend your wife, so I can beat the shit out of you.” And, finally, for good measure he told all the Miramax executives at the meeting that they were fired. All in all, it evoked that scene from Hitler’s bunker in the film “Downfall” that has gone viral.
Weinstein used other more subtle measures to force his agenda on filmmakers. He had developed an entourage of friendly journalists and film reviewers to attend screenings of rough-cut versions of films. The practice had always existed on an informal basis—Pauline Kael was a regular dispensing advice—but Weinstein made it wholesale. If Weinstein’s regulars found something wrong in a film, he’d use that as a blackjack against the director and screenwriter. In this instance he showed Taymor negative comments by Tina Brown, one of his regulars who was also a partner in Talk Media. One can say with some certainty that if Tina Brown does not like your work, you are on the right track. I thought that director James Mangold’s take on this practice pretty much sums up my view of the film business:
There is a kind of strange incestuous relationship between film critics, market testing, and studios, where the critic becomes complicit in an act of recutting, and puts the filmmaker in the grave. Now it’s not just what the shopping mall said, we also know that Peter Travers liked the movie, but was bugged a little by this or that. It’s a kind of Alice in Wonderland world you’re living in.