Harvey Weinstein's Non-Comeback Comeback

He lost a million-dollar bet, all but liquidated his company and endured a late, vicious backlash against a film that nobody even thought would reach the Oscars. And he won. That's why he's Harvey Weinstein.

The morning after an otherwise forgettable awardscast, count on one particularly strong aftertaste in Hollywood: That of Harvey getting over. Again. There's not enough Champagne in the room to wash it down, not enough hours of sleep to shake it off. Unfamiliarity accounts for much of its potency; this is a man who was last heard threatening to shoot himself if Cate Blanchett failed to net a Supporting Actress nomination in 2007. That wasn't the old Harvey, the dick-swinging, free-spending award-season monolith whose biggest Oscar triumphs came a decade ago at Miramax. There, with Disney's money funding full-on media saturation campaigns, the studio earned 249 nominations and 60 wins.

And the Harvey who maneuvered Kate Winslet and Penélope Cruz to victory last night wasn't necessarily the old Harvey either. He went two-for-six overall, fully knowing it really was an honor for The Reader just to be nominated. Sure, he'd have liked to win big (he was the prime suspect in numerous acts of supposed sabotage against his Best Picture competition), but what the new Harvey needed more than anything was an affirmation for his reeling moguldom. At first chastened a bit by his public battles with (and 2005 split from) then-Disney boss Michael Eisner, the Weinstein Company was a running joke of dump-and-run genre trash, hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars while Miramax went on to near-perennial Oscar glory. His few awards splashes — Blanchett for I'm Not There and Felicity Huffman for Transamerica — yielded little gain on Oscar night or at the box office.

He had a few modest successes in there, though, and 2008 was, relatively speaking, the Weinsteins' banner year. When Vicky Cristina Barcelona earned $23.2 million last summer — on a maximum of 726 screens, according to Box Office Mojo — Harvey seized the opportunity to say he was back. Almost instantly, TWC began circulating Oscar buzz for Cruz.

Harvey Weinstein's Non-Comeback Comeback

Then came the layoffs. And the shelvings. And the excuses. And then — The Reader. He probably could have coexisted with co-producer Scott Rudin, with whom he quarreled over their previous collaboration The Hours, but Harvey didn't lift a finger to stop Rudin from leaving The Reader last fall over release-date issues. That was his first coup — likely unplanned, and generally pretty ugly, but it allowed Harvey to lock director Stephen Daldry in the editing room until his Oscar bait was ready. Neither Rudin nor Winslet wanted to compete against her other Big Serious Turn in Revolutionary Road, but Harvey had a studio to save.

Moreover, he had a point to prove. With films by Quentin Tarantino and Rob Marshall anticipated in 2009 — and with financing partners vanishing into thin recession air — it wouldn't be enough for Harvey to get over on Rudin once. Only real prestige would serve him going forward. Enter New Harvey, the half-man/half-animal whose misfortune all of Hollywood seemed to celebrate until he showed up with The Reader. Holocaust themes. Oscar darlings Daldry and Winslet, both career 0-fers but ready for redemption. It had cred. And Harvey was so much more charming these days! What's an Academy voter to do?

Knocking Revolutionary Road off at the Oscar nomination level could have been triumph enough. But Harvey's next opportunity was too good to be true: Not only did he have Winslet vs. Meryl Streep in Best Actress, he had Cruz vs. Amy Adams and Viola Davis in Best Supporting Actress. The competition from Doubt pitted Harvey against Rudin and Miramax. This required a vintage Harvey offensive — armies of publicists, truckloads of screeners, parties, abundant media buys, Winslet in front of any TV camera in America that was turned on. Basically, the expensive stuff that Rudin and Miramax did last year while pushing No Country For Old Men to its Oscar wins, all of which was based on the original Harvey schematic first sketched out 20 years ago.

And it worked. Of course it worked. Some will say New Harvey is just Old Harvey without the cigarettes, but as much as his legitimacy (if not his very solvency) required Academy validation in 2009, the Academy requires someone like Harvey Weinstein to bully, coax, nudge and compel in the service of their own self-importance. For better or worse, no one does it like Harvey, and whether or not Winslet's crappy accent or Cruz's canny hysteria "deserve" the recognition is as useless a debate as whether or not Harvey and the Weinstein Company are "back." In this insular world of totems and myths, no one ever really goes away. You just get used to a certain, well, taste.

And whatever Harvey put in our drink last night, expect more where that came from. Talk about thanking the Academy.