Citizen Insane

“We are in a street fight,” seethes Leonardo DiCaprio, as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, speaking about his nemesis, Pan Am owner Juan Trippe. “And I’m not going to lose.”

When last we met on the Harvey Weinstein–Martin Scorsese field of battle, it was about two years ago; the producer and the director were in their own street fight, and it had gone beyond the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” stage. It wasn’t. But like a screwball comedy in which a couple falls in love, splits and remarries, they’re back together.

But this time, the plot has a bunch of knots that the drunkest story conference in old Hollywood couldn’t have come up with: Mr. Weinstein is on the verge of dissolution with the film company he built, Miramax, with a $115 million gamble he’s co-producing with a phalanx of partners, including Warner Brothers and Initial Entertainment Group. Mr. Scorsese is back in Mr. Weinstein’s embrace. Everybody’s reputation is on the line. The picture is two hours and 48 minutes long, about a manic-depressive, obsessive-compulsive billionaire whose glamorous Lindbergh- and Valentino-like reputation was hidden by his mad-hatter old age-and who nobody under 45 can remember. The chairman of Disney, which owns Miramax, can’t stand Mr. Weinstein and would like to see him boil in oil; Mr. Weinstein, likewise. There is no longer a T.W.A. or a Pan Am Airways.

It’s a gamble Hughes would have loved. You could even sell tickets to it. The notorious entrepreneur, film director and test pilot’s story-beginning with the making of his own crazy movie gamble, Hell’s Angels, to the flight of the world’s biggest aircraft and his ensuing loves’ insanity-will begin its campaign to win your heart Dec. 17, courtesy of Warner Brothers and Miramax.

Harvey Weinstein is not Howard Hughes. He has no mustache. But he can relate. For the last six months, the co-chairman of Miramax Films has been engaged in a very public imbroglio over the future of the mini-studio he and his brother Bob founded almost 25 years ago. He has gone to the mattresses with the only man more disliked in Hollywood than himself, Michael Eisner-the surprisingly tall, monomaniacal titan of Disney, recently playing himself in a Delaware courtroom .

But the street-fight gusto of Mr. Weinstein’s Fahrenheit 9/11 stand in May, when Disney refused to distribute the controversial documentary, has dissolved into a roiling story that he will be leaving Miramax by early next year, that he is already dismantling his crack staff-thus making The Aviator the de facto last stand, the last big-budget hurrah in the Weinstein era of Miramax.

“This is the first of many swan songs for Harvey,” said one longtime film publicist. “We all should expect an infestation of swans.”

And on Dec. 17, the Oscar race with Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Scorsese and Mr. DiCaprio as protagonists, plus: Clint Eastwood’s female boxing picture, Million Dollar Baby, and James L. Brooks’ Adam Sandler movie, Spanglish. Five days later, Joel Schumacher’s $60 million version of The Phantom of the Opera. Alexander Payne’s Sideways, which has generated the most attention up to this point, and Bill Condon’s Kinsey will be in wide release. Mike Nichols’ Closer shows up, with Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Jude Law, and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic will already have had a small head start.

Hollywood awaits it all, but The Aviator jacked up the stakes Nov. 24, when Variety hit the Internet with Todd McCarthy’s review: “An enormously entertaining slice of biographical drama,” Mr. McCarthy wrote to every agent, producer and Academy voter in town. ” The Aviator flies like one of Howard Hughes’ record-setting speed airplanes …. Martin Scorsese’s most pleasurable narrative feature in many a year is both extravagant and disciplined, grandly conceived and packed with minutiae. Although he was not exactly born for the role, Leonard DiCaprio is in terrific movie-star mode.”

Socko!

Suddenly, the morning line was set in Hollywood. This wasn’t Gangs of New York, a bloody film they had been dragged into kicking and screaming. This was a retelling of one of their own, the most mythologized and remythologized man in Hollywood history, the hero of The Carpetbaggers and Melvin and Howard!

The Aviator is a two-hour-and-48-minute pedigree production-culled from Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Weinstein’s thoroughbred stable-that speaks to every branch in the Academy and explains the man who owned R.K.O. and produced the first Scarface. It was directed by America’s Greatest Director Who Never Won an Oscar, a topic Mr. McCarthy spoke to: “If Gangs of New York felt heavy and never found its rhythm, The Aviator runs like a dream on all cylinders with scarcely a sputter or a cough.”

And although the company has high hopes for Marc Forster’s J.M. Barrie biography, Finding Neverland, bringing home the gold for Mr. Scorsese after his four nominations would satisfy Mr. Weinstein in a kind of special way.

Asked if this was his swan song, Mr. Weinstein purred-and growled. “No,” he said, adding that negotiations between him and Mr. Eisner continue to be amicable.

“But that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

Mr. Weinstein wants this picture to work. Both he and Mr. Eisner have had their share of difficulties lately. Mr. Eisner has had to endure the trial brought by Disney shareholders regarding the $100 million or so severance package received by former CAA boss Michael Ovitz when he was fired from the No. 2 spot at Disney in 1996. And even though Mr. Weinstein’s Miramax is on course to match last year’s domestic box-office total with fewer films, Miramax’s internal disintegration has provided ample fodder for tabloids, trades and blogs, which are waiting for his departure from Disney. There were layoffs, defections-the most recent was chief operation officer Rick Sands, who went to DreamWorks-expired contracts and leaks of internal memos regarding vacation days. The company has been whittled down to Mr. Weinstein’s inner circle, a tight group of upper-echelon executives he has cultivated over the years.

A big Oscar night would do wonders to erase a year that Mr. Weinstein would love to forget, and it would have him leaving on top on an evening that Hollywood formerly resented his ownership of, as Miramax won barrels of Oscars for prestige pictures starting with The English Patient’s Best Picture in 1996.

But Mr. Weinstein cautioned the Hollywood community not to expect a massive Weinsteinian onslaught this year.

He has, he said, changed.

“Overaggressive marketing and over-pushing-and I’m not saying that I haven’t been guilty of that in the past-I’d rather not have it,” he said. “Our plan is definitely low-key for me and Marty. If it happens”-he meant winning an Academy Award-”it happens. And if it doesn’t happen, both of us are proud of the movie.”

Mr. Weinstein did, however lament that the Los Angeles premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater would not match Mr. Hughes’ for Hell’s Angels, which was attended by 500,000 Los Angeles residents and visitors: “I think in the post-9/11 era the idea of one of us going to the State Department and saying, ‘Listen, we’ve got this very fun movie about airplanes. Can we just have like 100 airplanes fly over New York City, fly over Los Angeles?’ Even us who have unlimited chutzpah can’t ask for that.”

Miramax, which up until this point has put most of its marketing mettle behind Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland-especially pushing Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Peter Pan creator-finds itself now gearing up its Aviator campaign. And Mr. Weinstein’s message has trickled down.

“We’re planning a full, strong campaign on The Aviator,” said Cynthia Schwartz, Miramax’s veteran Oscar maven. Ms. Schwartz was on her way to the airport to catch a flight to L.A. for tomorrow night’s premiere. “It’s going to focus very much on the performances-in particular on Leo’s performance.”

Still, who can forget Mr. Scorsese’s pained expression when he lost to Roman Polanski with The Pianist. It was an indelible Oscar moment, one terribly crystallized when Chicago- incidentally released by Miramax as well-a glitzy, old-fashioned musical, beat Gangs for Best Picture. Sitting in an aisle seat off the center row of the Kodak Theatre, Mr. Scorsese looked crestfallen, matched by Mr. Weinstein and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. It was supposed to be Mr. Scorsese’s night. He had finally ushered his 20-year pet project to the screen, but the nominations it received proved to be a Pyrrhic victory-by time the Oscars came around, the Gangs of New York marketing had sputtered. The Gangs campaign had focused heavily on Mr. Scorsese. This year, however, the campaign will not.

“We’re not focusing specifically on Marty as much as we’re focusing on the overall movie,” said Ms. Schwartz. “It’s not that we’re not focusing on Marty or ignoring Marty, obviously. But I think that the movie speaks for itself so beautifully that we’re focusing beyond Marty.”

With The Aviator, the waning empire that was Miramax is content to let the picture glide into Oscar night, letting Mr. Scorsese’s career speak for itself. And the studio will do the same for the film: The movie looks like a $115 million, which it reportedly cost. The Hughes saga took place in a glorified period in moviemaking, cherished by the silver-haired Academy.

And Mr. Hughes, loved or hated, is being resuscitated as the emblem of that period: Hollywood’s noble gambler, who bucked the studios. The very first indie-he gambled with money, with women, with his life.

He virtually created the big-budget action picture with Hell’s Angels, the most expensive directorial debut in history. He flew around the world in four days, which would be like Mr. Weinstein climbing into a space shuttle and going around in four hours. His romantic escapades are the stuff of legend-Hepburn, Gardner, Harlow, Terry Moore, Jean Peters, Bette Davis. Wow! The relationships with Hepburn (stunningly played by Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) are the only sentimental moments in the picture.

It is clear that Mr. Weinstein would hate to see Mr. Scorsese go out the same way Stanley Kubrick did, without the little gold man. And given Eisner-Weinstein war, this could very well be a fitting farewell to Miramax, the company that Hollywood loved to hate but, as it is with all movie renegades, can learn to love once it’s croaked. It may be the final marketing spin necessary to make them champs once again. By taking on Mr. Eisner, Mr. Weinstein is an underdog once more-a position he hasn’t been in since Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan in 1999.

“If they stay, great,” said Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “If they don’t, they’re going to get a billion dollars to start a new company. So I don’t know if this is the last hurrah.”

There is one thing that’s certain, though: Wherever Mr. Weinstein ends up, he plans on sticking to what’s worked. “I don’t want to be limited by anything,” he said, adding that he was proud of the big movies and, he said, “I’m proud of the small ones. I think you have to grow with your filmmakers, and you have to keep an eye on the bottom line. I think all of that’s important. We’ve had such success.”

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