“From the moment we met, she was contemptuous, demeaning, and volatile,” Zwick writes in Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood—an epically entertaining memoir of sex, lies, and celluloid.
At the insistence of Matthew and his bullying superagent, Mike Ovitz, Patricia Broderick was flown every weekend by private jet to the production in Savannah, Georgia, in order to give unwelcome notes on Zwick’s script (mostly that Matthew, as Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw leading a regiment of Black soldiers, wasn’t getting enough screen time), while her son, the star of a film that would ultimately win three Oscars (including Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington), “sat in opaque silence” during his mother’s tirades.
“Patsy was relentless in her criticism, and I fought her at every turn, doing my best to ignore her profanity and insults,” Zwick writes. “One of her choicer comments was to describe my writing as ‘limp as a penis.’” Highlighting what he calls “Matthew’s role in the theater of cruelty,” Zwick writes that his narrative provides “an unvarnished account of the shit he pulled.”
At one point, he writes, Broderick and his mother stormed out of a private screening and demanded to completely re-cut the nearly finished film.
“It was so traumatic for me,” Zwick tells me. “and it was so revealing of how the Hollywood power structure worked at that moment—Mike Ovitz calling Jeff Sagansky [the president of Tri-Star, which financed the movie], and this bigfooting that was happening. When I finally had that conversation with Ovitz [in which Zwick laughed off the young actor’s demand to re-edit the movie], I just felt that they’d picked on the wrong hippy.”
Patricia Broderick died in 2003. “Matthew has no comment,” the actor’s longtime publicist, Simon Halls, emailed me, adding, “While recollections may vary about what happened all those years ago, I find it bewildering and sad that a director who has enjoyed such a lovely career would stoop to such nastiness to sell a few books.”
More than three decades later, Zwick claims to have let go of his anger and forgiven the actor, who long afterward, the director writes, apologized for his behavior.
“Matthew was in a difficult moment in his life,” Zwick tells me. “Things had happened to him that were hard [the untimely death of his actor-father James, and a fatal car accident in Ireland, in which he was seriously injured]. He’d also become a star [owing to the classic 1986 John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off]. People don’t understand what it’s like when they put that kind of responsibility on the head of a 24-year-old kid. And I’m not sure that they want it. At any point in a movie star’s life, they’re surrounded by people who are whispering in their ears about what they should do and who they should be, and who they should work with—and to some degree, I understand.”
If Zwick sounds philosophical, maybe it’s because he’s now a 71-year-old cancer survivor with a four-decade-long marriage (to former actress and screenwriter Liberty Godshall) and more than 15 feature films and 200 hours of television to his credit as a writer, director, and producer—in some cases, all three. Among the movies he directed are 1994’s Legends of the Fall (starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins), 1996’s Courage Under Fire (Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan), 2003’s The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise), 2006’s Blood Diamond (Leonardo DiCaprio) and 2010’s Love and Other Drugs (Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal); as a producer he won the Best Picture Oscar for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love.
Zwick’s television credits–alongside his longtime writing and producing partner Marshall Herskovitz–-include the iconic late-’80s series about angst-filled baby boomers, Thirtysomething, which struck alarmingly close to the bone for this sixtysomething reporter.
“This is about passionate people, often reactive people, often very young people, in very intense situations, coming together in a business that has always been ungoverned,” he says about his book.
Speaking of which, Zwick’s close encounter with his Shakespeare in Love co-producer Harvey Weinstein—currently serving a 23-year prison sentence for multiple rapes—is one of the book’s dramatic flashpoints. Zwick spent several painstaking years developing the movie from scratch, persuading a reluctant Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay and signing Julia Roberts to star before she abruptly dropped out and the project fizzled (a rollicking chronicle of Hollywood insanity that was first published as a stand-alone chapter last year in Air Mail).
Zwick writes that once Weinstein acquired the rights and tried to cut him out of his producer credit—after hours of love-bombing him with fulsome praise—Zwick had his lawyer, the redoubtable Bert Fields, send Weinstein a demand letter. Here is his account of their subsequent phone conversation as Zwick’s father lay dying in a hospital room:
“You think you can sue me, you prick? You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I’m going to ruin you!”
“I’m going to make sure you never work again!”
“It’s midnight, Harvey. My father is sick. It’s not a good time.”
“Oh, you’re sensitive! I’ve hurt your feelings…”
“I’ll kill your whole family, you little fuck.”
“Nice talking to you, Harvey. See you in court.”
Weinstein ultimately avoided the lawsuit by reversing course and offering Zwick a tearful apology. “Like any bully, when you punched him in the nose, he backed away. I gotta say, until that moment I had never encountered anybody like that in my life,” says Zwick, who thinks of himself as “a nice suburban boy” from Chicago. “It revealed to me something about Hollywood, or even modern life: When somebody is unsocialized and desublimated, and aggressive and big and loud, that can get you a lot. And it did. It got him a lot–until, finally, there was just too much revealed.”
Unlike Weinstein, another problematic Hollywood figure—Woody Allen—played a pivotal role in Zwick’s early career, hiring him fresh out of Harvard to be his assistant on the Paris production of Allen’s 1975 comedy Love and Death.
“I’d hover as close to the camera as the scowling French crew would allow, pestering him with the kind of clueless, impertinent questions only an entitled twenty-one-year-old would dare ask,” Zwick writes. “That he always responded patiently and with generosity is a kindness for which I will always be grateful.”
Five decades after his filmmaking apprenticeship, I ask Zwick if he believes Allen’s blanket denials that he never in 1992 or at any other time sexually molested Dylan Farrow, the then-7-year-old adopted daughter he shared with former girlfriend Mia Farrow. (An investigation of Mia Farrow’s disturbing claims yielded zero criminal charges.)
“I do not consider myself a scholar of the facts there. I haven’t read voluminously about it,” Zwick answers. “But I don’t think it’s been proven to me enough that he’s the monster he’s been made out to be. On the other hand, I would have to acknowledge it all begins with some significant lack of judgment having to do with what has become the real relationship with Soon-Yi [Allen’s Korean-born wife of 26 years with whom he began having sex when he was 56 and she was 21; saved from the streets of Seoul, she grew up as the adopted daughter of Farrow and her then-husband André Previn]. But, nonetheless, already there was that shadow cast over all of it. And I think that didn’t help.”
Zwick’s memoir, not surprisingly, is rife with gimlet-eyed observations concerning the various egomaniacs, narcissists, and occasional psychopaths—a few of them world-famous—who have populated his professional life. Nor does he spare himself. In an especially memorable anecdote, he describes being bodily ejected from Woody Allen’s black-tie New Year’s Eve party by Tom Brokaw and (possibly, he can’t be sure) Bill Bradley after he drunkenly grabbed and screamed profanities at his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend who, as he’d discovered from reading her personal journal, had been sleeping with other men.
Yet his book is also full of admiration for such actors as Washington (whom he has directed in three movies), Morgan Freeman (Glory), Daniel Craig (Defiance) and Liev Shreiber (Defiance and Pawn Sacrifice), DiCaprio, Hathaway, Gyllenhaal, and especially Tom Cruise (whom he directed in one of the Jack Reacher movies as well as The Last Samurai).
Cruise’s evangelical devotion to the cult of Scientology “was never a factor with me,” Zwick says. “Directors all talk to each other–there’s honor among thieves–and we talk about actors and studio heads and other directors. And I remember Cameron Crowe telling me that if you were to suggest to Tom to try a scene standing on his head, his first response is ‘yeah, I’ll try that,’ and if he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell you, and he’ll have ideas about the script and his character and the other characters, but never in a way that is anything but respectful. He is joyous about movies and joyous about his privilege. You’d be surprised at the number of people who aren’t.”
Zwick, a former longtime board member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, seems nonplussed by the recent flap over director Greta Gerwig’s lack of an Oscar nomination for Barbie.
“Let me do a quiz now, ok? Who won for best director last year? Who won for best director the year before?” he asks me.
“I have no idea.”
“Exactly. That’s my point. I’ve been on both sides of it. I was on the board of the Academy for many years. It is an organization dedicated to its own self-aggrandizement, as we all are. We take a period of time in December and January—which other people call the holidays and we presume to call it ‘award season’—and it’s meant to get people to go to movies. Now, if you create a controversy, does it make more people go to see movies or less people go to see movies? I find it a little bit absurd that we even presume to judge one piece of art against another piece of art and decide that one is a winner… It’s just not why we should be making movies.”
Zwick, who has several movie and television projects he hopes get produced, acknowledges his great good luck in having made Hollywood movies during the time before the dominance of streaming, TikTok, video games and other attention-sucking distractions, when audiences actually had to leave home to see his creations in theaters. He isn’t surprised that the annual Oscars telecast—once a touchstone of popular culture—has suffered from ever-declining viewership (a fate that might also befall this year’s March 11 show).
Notwithstanding the box-office successes of such outliers as Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Top Gun: Maverick, “I think there has been a fractionalizing of the audience in so many ways,” Zwick says. “There is much more niche viewing, and to try to find some picture that would be the consensus winner that would draw big numbers seems increasingly difficult—and that’s not even counting the numbers of people who are watching YouTube and doom-scrolling MSNBC.”
He adds: “The centrality of movies in the culture is diminished. They are no longer the central cultural artifact, when movies drove the music business to some degree, and drove a lot of things in the culture. They just don’t anymore. The game business—which is several times larger—puts the movie business to shame. It’s a reflection of where movies are in the cultural imagination.”
And yet, as Zwick’s book surely proves, movies can still provide some very entertaining stories.