The Legacy of Harvey Weinstein

Photograph courtesy of Reuters

Harvey Weinstein has been sentenced to 23 consecutive years in prison today on two charges of sexual assault and rape, and the only words I can say to express my feelings are thank — fucking — God. This pathetic excuse for a human being got exactly what he deserved, and not a moment too soon. Today marks a victory for every women who spoke out about their abuse at his hands, every other woman he ever wronged, for every filmmaker he ever tortured, and for the reporters who brought him down successfully (Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Ronan Farrow) and the ones who tried their hardest (the late David Carr, who tried in vain to break the story back in 2001.)

If there was not a man like Harvey Weinstein, we would have to invent one, and I imagine that at some point in the future we will get film adaptations that do for him what Shakespeare did for Richard III, cementing his place in villainy. I hope that dramatists will hold off on that for a while: I for one have no interest in seeing any story featuring this man for a long, long time, and that includes the film adaptation of Kantor and Twohey’s story announced in 2018. It will take at least 20 years — perhaps even longer — for us to fully process the dual legacy this man has left in his wake.

As a film distributor, there is no question that Weinstein single-handedly changed the trajectory of show business. Thanks to his marketing savvy and his excellent taste in films and filmmakers, he became the most influential player in the independent film movement. He revolutionized the concept of awards campaigning, and there’s a reason he was thanked more times at the Oscars than just about anyone — even God. People who love film will forever have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of seeing the Miramax or Weinstein Company logo appear before films we love, whether they’re 90s classics like Pulp Fiction or cult films like Snowpiercer. (My advice: flip off the screen every time you see it. It’s as much of a moral imperative for me as flipping off Trump Tower whenever I walk by it.)

Then there is the other side of his legacy: as a rampant abuser of power, and a serial violator of women’s bodily autonomy. Because of his crimes, he destroyed women’s lives and careers, and his tangled web of NDAs and payouts made it impossible for reporters to cover the story properly until 2017, when The New York Times and The New Yorker published their landmark takedowns.

And even his prowess as a film distributor has its dark side. Weinstein, who never met a film he wouldn’t try to take away from its director, often committed artistic murder. He forced James Gray to shoot a completely different ending for his 2000 crime drama The Yards; then, in 2013, bought his film The Immigrant behind his back and dumped it in theaters the following spring with little to no fanfare. In 2014, he oversaw the limited release of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, which he had withheld for two years because he wanted Bong to cut 25 minutes (When I saw the film at the Brattle Street Theater in Cambridge with a sold-out audience, the theater actually booed when the Weinstein Company logo came up.) Incidents like this earned him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands.”¹

This puts Weinstein in contention for the title of the most consequential person in the history of show business: it is rare enough that a person changes show business once, but it is even rarer that they change it twice. Thanks to his actions, he has forced people across all industries to engage in much-needed conversations about abuse of power and women’s role in the workplace. It will remain, along with the films he midwifed, the only good thing to come out of his ugly, destructive life.

What happens next is out of our control. He could spend the rest of his life behind bars — he could face another trial in Los Angeles — he could even pull a Jeffrey Epstein and commit suicide. Regardless of how the rest of his life plays out, his reputation is in tatters and will never be restored. To paraphrase what Robert Altman said reflecting on the death of Paramount executive Don Simpson, I am only sorry that he will not live longer and suffer more.

[1] The most famous instance of a filmmaker standing up to Weinstein came when he acquired the English-language distribution rights to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. After sending a letter to the director requesting he make cuts to the film, he received a kitana blade with the words “No cuts” engraved in Japanese.

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