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The Emperor Miramaximus

>"Are you on a land line?" says one.

"Has he threatened you? Offered you a book?" says another.

"I love talking with Harvey," says one reporter. "He knows movies. But at the same time, there's always this concern that he really does throw babies in the pond."

Another reporter insists that Miramax put a tail on the whole time they worked on a story about Miramax.

"He is a diabolical personality combined with a relentless drive and an understanding of mass appeal," says a director of small movies. "With that combination, the danger becomes enormous and limitless."

Not all of it is table talk on steroids. Throughout the story process, Weinstein seems to have near-perfect visibility into my notebook, ticking off a list of people I've talked to and what we talked about and then taking pleasure as my eyes widen. Sources, some of whom whisper heinous things about Weinstein, turn around and drop a dime to Miramax, seeking a measure of inoculation. When a leak has occurred, the company has been known to go through e-mail, and the offender is warned.

As the keeper of star-making machinery, Weinstein has re-engineered the media process so that he lives beyond its downsides. His other assets—a book-publishing company and a working knowledge of the frailties of most reporters—mean that when Weinstein acts like a numbskull at Cannes, he gets a pass.

A. J. Benza, who held Weinstein harmless when he was a gossip at the Daily News, has a book on Talk-Miramax that will become a movie. Liz Smith calls him the Irving Thalberg of our age, and Weinstein reciprocates by giving her a steady taste of star quotage. Rush and Molloy can't blurb one of his actors without mentioning how "critically acclaimed" his last project was.

"He owns you guys, all of you," bitches one West Coast film executive. "All media is controlled out of New York, and he is the king. He has the kind of Teflon none of us can understand."

Having had my own torturous negotiations with Weinstein, I've gained an understanding of his ability to maintain custody of his image.

"There is one story that needs to be told about this guy, and you are not going to tell it," hisses a New York film executive. "You're going to write another story about this amazing indie genius, and if you think I am going to participate in the lionization of that fat fuck for even a second, you are out of your mind."

Weinstein buries me in star power and testimonials, making sure that I know he's possessed of a broad streak of altruism. As I'm walking through the Village one day, my cell phone rings. It's Paul Newman, calling to tell me that when he mentioned to Weinstein that the kids at his Hole in the Wall Gang camp needed a gymnasium, Weinstein agreed to pay for it without asking how much it would cost.

When Nicole Kidman calls and says that Weinstein paid attention to her "back when I was just Tom Cruise's girlfriend," it's going into the story, as is her observation that "I like that he gets down in the trenches. He thinks nothing of flying to London for dinner and trying to talk you into a role."

His loyalty prompts reciprocation. When Talk magazine launched, pal Gwyneth Paltrow ended up posing in S&M garb that didn't fit either her career arc or any of her personal needs. Paltrow says that "there were certain favors that he asked me to do that I felt were not exploitive but not necessarily as great for me as they were for him. I brought this to his attention, and he said, 'I will never do that again.' And he's been true to his word.

"I think that for every bad story you hear about Harvey, there are three great ones," says Paltrow. "People are complicated, and nobody's all good or all bad. And I think Harvey is a prime example of somebody who has a temper and is also incredibly loving . . . He's a human being, and all of his acts can be just sort of magnified. He's larger-than-life in every way, so his good qualities are maybe more pronounced—as are some of his bad qualities."

'Any suggestion that we've lost our edge will be erased by the first five minutes of Gangs of New York," says Harvey Weinstein. "Make that the first fifteen minutes," says Scorsese, "although I'm not done editing it yet."

Gangs is Weinstein's spendy—it was budgeted at $90 million and has $11 million in overages—signal to the rest of the industry that he has the wherewithal to muscle his way back to the vanguard of American film. And Miramax sources point out that $70 million worth of international-distribution rights have already been sold.

The movie was scheduled to be out in time for Oscar consideration, but after the events of 9/11 it's now being aimed at Cannes, which takes place in mid-May. The movie jumps up and down on all of Weinstein's buttons: It's a statue-ready project (Helloooo, Best Cinematography) made by a legendary director on an Italian location depicting Weinstein's hometown, a place where immigrants used brute force to set their own place at the table.

"America," the trailer intones, "was born in the streets."

The romance of that line isn't lost on the grandson of an immigrant ("from the border of Poland and Russia") fishmonger on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that was defined in the throwdowns depicted in Gangs.

"The only way that you could get this film made was through Harvey Weinstein's energy and contributions," says Scorsese in August.

While Weinstein and Scorsese may be hugging and mugging for the cameras, a source who worked on the set recalls a meeting between the two where a phone went flying through a window and out onto the piazza. Weinstein was not the guilty party. Asked about the meeting, Scorsese smiles wanly and begins talking about his relationships with phones.

"I really, really don't like phones. I don't like phones ringing. I get very irritable about cell phones and mobile phones," he says. "You could have had airborne phone over Taxi Driver, over New York, New York. Certainly Raging Bull."

When shooting was already under way, Scorsese decided he needed to build a church so he could shoot the Five Points neighborhood in the round. Weinstein balked for a time but eventually relented.

Although he categorically rejects analogies to the moguls of old—save the aesthete Irving Thalberg—Weinstein feels a need to reach back into industry history to put his outlay in perspective: "I built them the entire fucking place. I mean, I built two miles worth of sets, like in the days of MGM."

The movie is bloody and long, and, according to someone involved with the making of the film, Weinstein is pressuring Scorsese to come in with a shorter film. As a measure of his seriousness, Weinstein has ordered the sound and film crews to cease working on the movie. Gangs is far and away the biggest bet Miramax has ever made. "Amélie won't pay the interest on the money we're spending right now," said someone connected to the movie.

On the day this story went to press, Weinstein and Scorsese went tactical and called together to say that the reports were untrue. "I worship Marty, it's like going to film school . . . the final cut of the film belongs to him," Weinstein says.

"The person that I am fighting with over the length of the film is me, not Harvey," says Scorsese. "This is the most painful part of making a movie, cutting it down."

Given that it's Scorsese and Weinstein wrasslin' at the edge of the cliff, it's like trying to figure out whether Rodan or Godzilla will bite the dust when the credits roll. But many in the movie industry have a prurient issue in the process. Weinstein "has done so well for so long," says Variety editor Peter Bart, "that people would inevitably be delighted to see him eat it."

'You are talking about a case of arrested adolescence," says director James Ivory, who felt compelled to buy Merchant-Ivory's The Golden Bowl back from Miramax when Weinstein demanded changes based on a screening in Clifton, New Jersey. "He is a bully who feels that if he screams and yells and punishes you enough, he is going get his way," says Ivory. "And he has the adolescent appetites to go with it.

"He's both a genius and an asshole, and unfortunately those things seem to go together."

When I bring it up, Weinstein knows it's coming and emits a big sigh.

"They are great filmmakers," he says, sipping a Diet Coke in an empty dining room at the Rihga Royal. "But there's nobody outside the cocoon. The numbers are frightening, how badly the film did. They need another person—and it ain't me, because they don't trust me—that they listen to."

Merchant, who had a drama with Weinstein over Mr. & Mrs. Bridge ten years before, amazed himself when he linked arms with Miramax anew, only to have it turn out even worse. "The enthusiasm that he showed early on convinced us he would leave us alone. But he ended up wanting to dismember the film," he says. "I think he is a bully, he is uncouth, and he has no finesse whatsoever."

"He is a pushcart peddler who is more than happy to put his thumb on the scale when the old woman is buying meat," says producer Saul Zaentz. "He has no qualms about it." Zaentz produced The English Patient, which won Best Picture for Miramax and did almost $80 million in business. But he's still waiting for the big payout; so far, he's seen $5 million.

"When I talked with him about it, he says, 'I am a filmmaker; I'm not an accountant,' " Zaentz recalls.

A grindingly magnanimous Weinstein understands completely: "He knows the math is right, because it's the Disney corporation, but if I were Saul, I'd be just as pissed off. I think that in a year or two, I might just do something about it."