A Tense Best-Picture Victory for the Miramax Mogul Who Stormed Oscar Beach
By Frank DiGiacomo. The New York Observer, March 28, 1999

Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax Films, rested his pale, meaty hand at the base of the burnished gold statuette on the table before him. It was 1:30 a.m., and Miramax’s Oscar party at the Beverly Hills Hotel was standing-room-only, save for the small strip of guarded V.I.P. territory where Mr. Weinstein, his wife, Eve, and a small group of well-wishers sat. It was time for the annual post-mortem. The moment when, after a neck roll or two, Mr. Weinstein defined Hollywood’s high holy night in New York terms and Queens English. But in the early hours of March 22, he smiled at this Observer reporter and said simply, “It’s good to be alive.”

Maybe it was. But Mr. Weinstein had the look more of one of Steven Spielberg’s soldiers in the picture he had defeated, Saving Private Ryan. Yes, he had made a successful landing on a foreign shore. But, oh, those mortars!

Oscar or not, he and his little family business were no longer the cute prestige item they had been; in the eyes of Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein had leaped from underdog to Hun. “Just wait and see what they do to us,” one Miramax employee said.

And they did. “Strong-arm,” the Los Angeles Times quoted a studio insider as a local conventional wisdom began building. “Disgusting” … “ugly” ….

The studios, beloved symbols of profligacy, extravagance and hype, began talking about … campaign finance reform.

Harvey Weinstein, the New Yorker, they said, had broken the rules; he had spent tens of millions; he had thrown the wrong kind of party in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, mixing movie people, press and civilians. But mostly, they were mad because, like Yankee soldiers in Atlanta, like Bill Clinton in the Congress, Miramax had come and beaten them on their home field.

So that within the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion itself, when the presenter for Best Picture, Harrison Ford—sent up, clearly, it seemed, to wrap his arms sentimentally around his buddy Steven for winning—said, “The Oscar goes to … gulp … silent beat … Shakespeare in Love,” there was another millisecond silence throughout the huge auditorium, and then the entire Miramax row plowed into the air, spewing a sound from their guts that went from subtonal to crooning chortle in simultaneous chorus.

And Harvey Weinstein, who had already roared for Roberto Benigni and who had rubbed his hands together like a Vegas prospector when Gwyneth Paltrow won as best actress, cocked his arms and headed down the row toward the stage. He stopped by Steven Spielberg in the aisle, who looked up at him not with fraternal delight (imagine if Barry Levinson had won and was standing above him, or George Lucas), but balefully.

And later, at the Miramax party at the Polo Lounge, as the black-tied riffraff mob whirlpooled in some giant sink-drain current—and Gwyneth Paltrow, her hair still flattened in blond brilliantine, her carnation pink Ralph Lauren gown still smooth, put her cheek next to Ben Affleck’s and whispered something before they vanished behind the indoor boxwoods—Harvey Weinstein sat with tense pleasure, a mat of sweat dampening the close-cut fur of his Ursus major skull, glistening the vast expanse of the colossal rear collar right below his wet ears. He had won, he had won, he had won. This wasn’t Jeffrey Katzenberg. This wasn’t even Dick Zanuck. This was Harvey Weinstein. He had liberated the Oscars, but he had a long march ahead of him.

Two days later, The Observer tracked down Mr. Weinstein on vacation at his company’s owner’s playground, Disneyland. “I think the triumph of Shakespeare in Love was that all these wonderful people got together and somehow created a movie that resonates with the people who see it,” he said. “The newspapers forget that there are 6,000 academy members. The newspapers report the town from the executive suite, and that can be a very self-serving executive suite. The academy is made up of filmmakers. People who make movies and know what it takes to make these kinds of films.” Mr. Weinstein added: “The executive suite wants to make money. Miramax wants to make movies.”

Yes, but Miramax wants something else as well. At the Beverly Hills Hotel, Oscar night, his mother Miriam and his buddies arrayed around him, Mr. Weinstein looked out at what he had wrought and it bore the same resemblance to movie-colony aristocracy that Wolf’s Sixth Avenue Deli used to have to the “21” Club. Sure, there was Mr. Affleck and Jennifer Lopez and Helen Hunt and Hank Azaria and Michael Keaton and Quentin Tarantino and Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton and Christina Ricci and the Miramax team.

Then there was everyone else. The TV people. The civilians. The East Coasters. The press. It was a victorious colony but a colony nevertheless, and the town was upset. The Weinsteins’ Miramax bash (“democratic” and “un-Hollywood,” said the Los Angeles Times) bore the same relation to the Hollywood establishment that the Clinton inaugural had to the Washington aristocracy. And you know what happened there.

Just east of where Miramax’s celebration was taking place, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and his Condé Nast team were celebrating in a much more Hollywood-style fashion by packing hundreds of burnished, golden celebrity bodies and one Monica Lewinsky into an expanded, more interactive version of the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party at Morton’s.

Last year, the party reached a sweaty critical mass when 1,000 celebrities, journalists and V.I.P.’s tried to cram inside the restaurant, which has space for about 350. The Los Angeles Fire Department temporarily placed itself in charge of the velvet rope.

So this year, Mr. Carter and his cohorts pitched a large tented annex to the restaurant, installed a number of comfy-looking white overstuffed couches, some rattan furniture and, in the center of the room, a large curvy bar that boasted a surface of white translucent plastic lit from beneath. There was also room for the band which had been imported straight from Cuba, Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son. The organizers kept a tight rein on guests’ arrival times, which had been staggered. At least one person who drove up to the entrance checkpoint 15 minutes early for his designated arrival time was asked to drive around the block.

As usual, the soirée began with a dinner attended by a mix of old and young, Hollywood and New York, which included Madonna, Merv Griffin (who yelled “I love you, Madonna!” upon seeing the Material Girl), director Cameron Crowe and his musician wife Nancy Wilson, designer Carolina Herrera and her husband Reinaldo, producers Lawrence Gordon and Robert Evans, Tonight Show host Jay Leno, publicist Pat Kingsley, Shoshanna Lonstein and Ms. Lewinsky, who arrived rather late with her date, attorney Jonathan Marshall. Helping Mr. Carter greet the dinner guests was Condé Nast owner S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr., who was said to be in an unusually conversational mood.

Attired in a black vintage dress that advertised her décolletage and pouffy hairdo, Ms. Lewinsky appeared to have advanced a few desserts beyond zaftig. As she chatted with her table mates—actress Ellen Barkin, Creative Artists Agency agent Bryan Lourd, Polo Ralph Lauren president and chief marketing officer Hamilton South—Ms. Lewinsky apparently had another dress on her mind. When Gwyneth Paltrow arrived at the podium to claim her Best Actress honors dressed in her pink Ralph Lauren gown, Ms. Lewinsky was overheard thanking Mr. South, who had played a role in getting the dress on Ms. Paltrow’s willowy frame. When Mr. South asked Ms. Lewinsky why she was thanking him, she replied, “Now there’s a dress more famous than my dress.”

The attention paid to Ms. Lewinsky’s presence seemed to prompt other guests to try harder to be noticed. At one point in the dinner, Ms. Lonstein, herself in a bosom-accentuating frock, got a member of the wait staff to give her a tray of coffee, which she proceeded to serve, rather sloppily, to Mr. Carter’s table. Unless she is a masochist, Ms. Lonstein did not achieve the desired effect. The writer Fran Lebowitz, who was at the Vanity Fair editor’s table, was overheard to say: “I’m sorry, we asked for Monica.” The remark seemed to wound Ms. Lonstein and she returned to her table. At which point, Ms. Lebowitz was then overheard saying, “You mean to tell me Jerry Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend doesn’t have a sense of humor?”

Monica-curiosity only heightened as the after-dinner guests began to arrive. By then, Ms. Lewinsky and Mr. Marshall had moved into the tented area, where the former White House intern encountered a succession of celebrities and V.I.P.’s. Model-magazine editor Helena Christensen and a group of her exotic friends circled at one point. As they did, producer Steve Tisch mused about Ms. Lewinsky: “Imagine her acceptance speech.” Later, Ms. Christensen would seemed reluctant to divulge the details of her discussion with the woman the New York Post’s Page Six has dubbed “the portly pepperpot.” “I thought she had beautiful hair so I told her that,” Ms. Christensen said. A few minutes later, Ms. Lewinsky sat down with Scream queen Neve Campbell. After that followed encounters with Marlee Matlin, MTV Networks chief Tom Freston, Uma Thurman and The Practice’s Camryn Manheim. Upon seeing the singer K.D. Lang walk into the room with her girlfriend, Ms. Lewinsky gasped, “Oh my God,” and nearly tripped over a wicker divan to get to the singer.

By 11 p.m., it was clear that Ms. Lewinsky, a child of Beverly Hills after all, had been welcomed by the celebrity crowd that, some of the media had predicted, might shun her because of Hollywood’s strong support for Bill Clinton. Despite her obvious self-consciousness, Ms. Lewinsky, who wrote in her memoir about the teen trauma that occurred when she wasn’t invited to Tori Spelling’s birthday party, seemed to be reveling in her new status.

Ms. Lewinsky certainly was not without friends at the party. At one point in the evening, she walked over to say hello to the actor Tony Curtis, who was wearing a medal pinned to his tuxedo. Mr. Curtis explained that Ms. Lewinsky had attended the John Thomas Dye School with his son and used to come over to the house. “Little did we know!” said Mr. Curtis, whose gray pompadour gave Ms. Lewinsky’s ’do a run for the money in the volume department. When asked what advice a show-biz veteran such as himself would give to Ms. Lewinsky, Mr. Curtis, the man who had played Sidney Falco, the dark prince of press agents in Sweet Smell of Success, said simply: “God bless her and follow the yellow brick road.”

Speaking of Judy Garland, Ms. Lewinsky seems to have some definite potential as a gay icon, given some of people who were courting her during the night. For a good portion of the party, she received the protective services of singer-songwriter Bruce Roberts, member in good standing of the so-called Velvet Mafia, who several times squired Ms. Lewinsky to Morton’s ladies room and then waited outside for her to emerge.

It was Mr. Roberts who was sitting with Ms. Lewinsky when The Observer edged past the semicircle of gawkers to toss her a softball question. What had been the most memorable comment that someone had said to her tonight, we asked. Ms. Lewinsky had fixed us with her doe eyes from the minute we had introduced ourselves, but she didn’t seem to hear our question or our affiliation. “I’ve had too much to drink and my shoes are too hot,” she told The Observer. Then, Ms. Lewinsky’s expression fell a bit as she noticed our notebook. “Ohhh, he’s from the press,” she said to Mr. Roberts, who went into protection mode. “I think it’s best that we don’t comment,” he said.

But then Ms. Lewinsky rebounded quickly with a comment that she—or perhaps the author of the infamous “talking points” memo?—had obviously worked up for the evening (and would deliver to at least one other journalist that night). “This is Hollywood’s night,” she replied. “This is not my night.”

Actually, at Morton’s this was Hollywood’s night as interpreted by Mr. Carter and company, and Vanity Fair’s editor seems to be getting more comfortable with his role as the social arbiter of Hollywood’s elite. In past years, Mr. Carter had pretty much kept to his role as official greeter (occasionally letting his freak flag fly with a Cuban cigar), but the minute Mr. Alvarez and his band started rousing the crowd with his Cubano beat, Mr. Carter was on the dance floor. First, he danced with Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman to “Guantanamera” (Apparently, the duo had really cut the rug a few days before at New Line Cinema executive Mike De Luca’s party at Atlantic), then Mr. Carter took Madonna for an extended twirl, the performer’s ripped abdominal muscles showing through the slits in her tunic top. “I danced with Madonna till her brother cut in!” Mr. Carter, who was wearing a necktie with his tux, said as he departed the dance floor. What was it like? we asked. “Flattering,” he replied. Also scampering about the dance floor were former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers and her beau, New York Times reporter Todd Purdum. Ms. Lonstein was shaking her booty solo. From the sidelines, billionaire Ronald Perelman held the hand of actress Donna Dixon, i.e., Mrs. Dan Aykroyd, and looked like he was dying to cut in somewhere.

When Mr. Alvarez and his band weren’t playing their son music (at one point the entire band sought out Mr. Curtis—who apparently still resonates in a country that has been largely sealed off from American culture—for pictures), a D.J. kept the rooms filled with a continuous sensual disco throb, which, at times, made the party look like some kind of surreal Merce Cunningham production. At one point, photographer Mario Testino danced some fancy Latin disco footwork around Ms. Paltrow as he snapped her picture with a handheld camera and issued a stream of compliments from his lips. That put Ms. Paltrow in the mood, and she began to shake her shoulders as she sashayed across the room to where her grandparents and her father, director Bruce Paltrow, were all swaying to the beat. But some partygoers said that was nothing compared to the torrid couples dance number that actors Vince Vaughn and Paul Rudd executed on the dance floor.

At times, the music made it difficult to hold a conversation, such as when The Observer asked Jim Carrey, who had been denied an Oscar nomination for his work in The Truman Show, if any of the tears he had cried during his presenting stint were real. “Not this time!” the black-clad Mr. Carrey said with one of his wicked smiles, adding something about a “simulation” that we couldn’t quite hear. After we asked him for a third time to repeat what he had said, Mr. Carrey replied: “I’m a damn good actor. That’s what I said.”

The party’s high celebrity quotient sometimes made things a bit confusing, such as when Reinaldo Herrera approached Uma Thurman and told her that her Oscar acceptance speech had been quite touching. Ms. Thurman explained to Mr. Herrera that Gwyneth Paltrow had in fact made the teary speech. Mr. Herrera got it right the second time, telling Ms. Paltrow, “You made us all cry.”

It was also interesting to see how celebrities deal with restroom overcrowding. While The Observer was in the men’s room powdering our head, the stall door popped open and Goldie Hawn emerged to find Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone on deck and Andy Garcia seeking relief. “Never been better,” Ms. Hawn said to Mr. Ciccone as she smoothed her gown and headed outside. Mr. Ciccone turned to writer Kevin Sessums, who was also in the loo, and said, “I told you it doesn’t get better than this.”

Luckily, on our way back into the tent, we ran into Ms. Lebowitz. With Ms. Hawn in the bathroom and Ms. Lewinsky back in the tent (at one point reclining languidly on the couch while photographer Herb Ritts snapped her with his handheld camera) and Rod Stewart communing with Lionel Ritchie, we asked Ms. Lebowitz if these were sure signs that Armageddon was around the corner. “No such luck,” said Ms. Lebowitz.

Back at the tent bar, The Observer watched Mr. Carter put a cigarette in his mouth with the filter end sticking out. When we pointed this out, Mr. Carter said that he knew this. The Vanity Fair editor talked about how he was jazzed that jazz legend Artie Shaw and Sweet Smell author Ernest Lehman had come to his party. Mr. Carter was completely uninterested in talking about another subject: the one that had the tabloids pitting the Vanity Fair party against the dinner that Tina Brown threw the previous night in honor of her new Miramax-conceived, Hearst-financed magazine, Talk Just as we put the question to him, actor Rupert Everett approached Mr. Carter and said of the Vanity Fair party, “It’s been a major success.” Several feet away, an effusive male waiter had embraced Ms. Lewinsky in a loving bear hug.

Mr. Carter, having now lit the proper end of the cigarette, said, “This evening has been made by Rupert Everett.”

Ms. Brown also denied that the Talk party was any attempt to compete with the Vanity Fair Oscar bash and her former employer Condé Nast. Rather, she said, it was just an informal party that had “grown like Topsy.” (Mr. Weinstein, who was sitting next to Ms. Brown at the time, added that Mr. Newhouse and Mr. Carter had been invited to the Talk event.) Still, the last time Ms. Brown had waded into the Oscar party category was six years ago, the first year that Mr. Carter threw his bash. And Ms. Brown had to know that, regardless of her intentions, her party would be perceived as competition to Vanity Fair, and that it represented quite a bit of risk given how entrenched Mr. Carter’s soirée had become in the business.

Still, by the end of the night, the buzz was that Ms. Brown had succeeded modestly in establishing a beachhead in Los Angeles as a social force for the Walt Disney Company and Miramax. There were moments, of course, when the fit seemed a little forced. At Miramax’s annual pre-Oscar cocktail party, which preceded the Talk party, the Miramax people put together a little skit that featured Ms. Paltrow playing Ms. Brown and Matt Damon and Geoffrey Rush playing, respectively, Mr. Weinstein and his brother Bob (although Mr. Damon as Bob seemed to be doing a Woody Allen impersonation). Even though Tom Stoppard had drafted the skit, there were some cringe-inducing moments such as when Mr. Damon-as-Bob Weinstein said that Ms. Brown was basically into “English faggots.” Later, at the Talk party, Mr. Rush said that while he will never do “Stanley Kowalski” on the stage, he felt that, with his impression of Harvey Weinstein, “I was attempting Kowalski tonight.”

Although Ms. Brown laughed at the skit, she seemed to be hiding herself behind her husband, Harry Evans, as it played out. (Later, at her party, Ms. Brown said that, while she was at a dude ranch near Tucson, Ariz., she had gotten a cryptic call from the Miramax people mentioning something “about playing Queen Elizabeth.” She ignored the call, but there’s always next year.) There was also a stilted, queasy moment at that same event, when Talk publisher Ron Galotti got up and introduced an executive from the jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, who announced he was giving a watch to all of Miramax’s Oscar nominees.

Where the Vanity Fair party was a retina-burning visual feast of power and celebrity, Ms. Brown’s party generally was a comfortable affair that tended toward a more cerebral celebrity, although the crowd did include Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, and Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber. There was the comedian-writer Steve Martin who told the author-screenwriter Bruce (I’m Losing You) Wagner that the Oscar weekend was “Christmas for celebrities.” Mr. Wagner put his own spin on the remark, adding to The Observer that it was a “holocaust for noncelebrities.” At one table, writer-actress Carrie Fisher and actress Lynn Redgrave discussed their failed marriages. At another, comedian Garry Shandling, actor-director Warren Beatty and Governor Gray Davis of California contemplated the political future of Bill Bradley and the Democratic Party. When he wasn’t getting all intellectual, Mr. Shandling seemed to be networking with a lot of young, attractive female talent in the room. Also in the room were hotelier Andre Balazs and his wife, Ford Models president Katie Ford, and actors Willem Dafoe, Sophia Loren and Renée Zellweger. There was also no shortage of past and present Disney talent in the room. Disney chief executive Michael Eisner pulled Harry Evans into one of the photos, wherein Mr. Evans flashed a thumbs-up sign for the photographer. ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses, with a new, straight hairdo that makes her look like a svelte Jennifer Lopez, was networking with Saving Private Ryan’s Vin Diesel. Staying clear of Mr. Eisner was Dreamworks SKG partner Jeffrey Katzenberg. At one point, Mr. Katzenberg snuck up behind Mr. Weinstein and, wrapping his arm around him, began using Mr. Weinstein like a wide maypole and then planted a big wet one on Mr. Weinstein’s cheek. When The Observer mentioned that the two executives should take their Jack Benny–Fred Allen feud to Broadway, Mr. Weinstein cracked that Mr. Katzenberg would “steal all my lines and then he’d want top billing,” he said. Mr. Katzenberg just smiled.

And so, like all Oscar parties, the Miramax party at the Polo Lounge built, backed up like a huge clogged sink and then, finally, began to drain. Graydon Carter showed up from his party, his tie tugged down, his hair curling at the sides like a graying Dutch boy’s, and mounted a stair toward a higher tier where Mr. Weinstein stood. Mr. Carter took his hand lightly, deferentially.

“I came to show my respect,” he said. Mr. Weinstein, who had earlier triggered the diplomatic exchange by showing up at the Vanity Fair party, nodded from above.

Below him, the party was starting to turn from a DeMille-ian mob to a late-night, raw-voiced John Cassavetes portrait. Individuals were distinguishable once more, and Sire Records chief Seymour Stein sat dozing on a chair next to his ex-wife, real-estate broker Linda Stein. (“Seymour Stein is sleeping,” said Ms. Stein.) The salmon ground tiles were visible underfoot and the heat lamps could no longer protect the partygoers from the late-night chill. Mr. Weinstein began moving toward a suite somewhere on the hotel grounds, where an after-party began taking shape. Unbeckoned, a small flow of partygoers, grabbing their Oscars at chest level or hanging them at waist level, began streaming in the same direction, toward a door that opened like a speakeasy’s and where, inside a dark room, the awards show was playing once more on the big square TV screens.

On a terrace outside the room, Drew Barrymore looked at the morning sky as Christina Ricci, light and dark angels of the night, stroked her arm. Quentin Tarantino, his arms retracting and hyperextending wildly, told Chris Rock that Martin Scorsese looked “like a cat when Pepe LePew comes around” when Elia Kazan tried to hug him on stage during the Oscars ceremony, and 18-year-old Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman stared agog. Mr. Tarantino proceeded to lecture Mr. Schwartzman on comedy and their appearances on David Letterman’s show. Edward Norton, Claire Forlani, Jon Lovitz and Billy Zane circled the terrace, and in the innards of the living room, Kevin Costner bobbed a young woman on his knee.

Ian McKellen presided at a Gods and Monsters table, and almost everywhere, everywhere, Oscars, the real things, stood around as watchful doorstops, lamp companions, cocktail guards. Tom Stoppard walked into the dining room and thrust his into the hand of the unsuspecting Observer reporter, requisitioning him as an Oscar baby sitter, as he filled his plate from the breakfast steam tables.

Ever so slowly, morning took over the sky, but the Miramax crew kept working. They had won, but there was no 4:30 a.m. naptime. Just outside the front door to the suite, three Miramax women stood in a half-circle making predawn calls on their cell phones. A door opened and Mr. Weinstein emerged, followed by Mrs. Weinstein. He looked around at the three of them with a slight worried impatience, took one more hurdle into his dark living room, then wafted out into the Beverly Hills night.

On the front steps of the Beverly Hills Hotel, plum-suited costume designer Sandy Powell stood posing with her Oscar for flashbulbs, a graceful smile squeezed onto her face. Then slowly, following his statuesque wife, Harvey Weinstein wafted down the steps against the peach walls of the hotel entrance, a 46-year-old man who had almost everything a movie executive could ask for, including the scorn of his enemies in an adversarial town, heading toward the driveway where an endless licorice limousine awaited him, its back door opening like the entrance to a subway tube to a time warp to the future. Following his wife, Mr. Weinstein’s massive frame clambered in, and the door of the limousine closed with a decisive clunk, pulling purposefully, smoothly into the chill, wet shadows of the California night.


articles from Vanity Fair by Frank DiGiacomo

The Game Has Changed
March 2008

John Mellencamp: One from the Heartland
February 2007

The Esquire Decade
January 2007

The Gossip Behind the Gossip
December 2004

articles from The New York Observer by Frank DiGiacomo

Puff Daddy’s Black and White Ball ’98
December 3, 2006

The Bling of Comedy
February 8, 2004

Baldwin Aroused
November 30, 2003

Triumph Sniffs a Hit
October 19, 2003

Jack Carter Smothers Brothers at Rip-Roaring Friars Roast
October 12, 2003

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