Producer Irwin Winkler has more than earned the right to be contentedly sipping martinis on a desert isle far from the Hollywood milieu that made him the nexus among legendary titans such as Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro and Ryan Coogler. But at 92 years of age, Winkler is busier than ever as he shepherds Barry Levinson’s 2024 release “Alto Knights”—starring De Niro as warring gangsters Vito Genovese and Frank Costello (“You’re gonna see the great American actor doing something that is beyond anything you’ve ever imagined,” Winkler said)—as well as readies a fourth “Creed” installment.
Winkler currently has high awards hopes for “Creed III,” which scored very big as a spring release, and is doing pretty much what he did at the start of his career: promoting upstart talents in new, enterprising roles, this time with actor Michael B. Jordan, who made his feature directorial debut with the film. “It’s an interesting circumstance as I was the one that told Sly I wanted him to direct “Rocky II,” recalled Winkler. “And it was almost the same circumstances here. I was with Michael and, I think, Ryan Coogler, and we were talking about the character and the future of where we were going. It was an instinct on my part, but I felt Michael knew (Adonis Creed) better than anyone else. Just like Sly knew Rocky better than anybody else. I felt that Michael had that same instinct towards his character.”
One thing Winkler certainly knows his way around is Oscar season, having produced five Best Picture nominees (including one boffo winner), all considered modern classics by both critics and audiences. Winkler recalled the ups and downs of his Best Picture contenders at the Academy Awards.
The global sensation that launched the career of Sylvester Stallone was actually not the first time Winkler took the trip to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “The first one is actually 1969’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ which got nine
nominations but didn’t get nominated for Best Picture!” he said. But his first Best Picture nominee went the full, marching-up-the-steps-to-victory mile, with wins for Best Picture (Winkler and Robert Chartoff), Best Director (John G. Avildsen) and Best Film Editing (Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad). Not to mention becoming a Library of Congress selection, spawning nine sequels and/or spinoffs, a Broadway musical and the reputation of being one of the benchmark sports pictures of all-time, with a legacy that has continued to this very year.
“When you’re sitting here, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Winkler said. “It doesn’t matter that you get the Golden Globe or you got a critics’ award or this or that. It’s either you get it, or you don’t.” And they got it, amid a stunning murderers’ row of contenders (which included “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Network” and “Taxi Driver”). “We were kind of stunned to be in that company of great, great movies,” an obviously still-proud Winkler said.
RAGING BULL (1980)
Four years after the release of “Taxi Driver,” director Martin Scorsese released his bold, beautiful, black-and-white boxer elegy (the emotional inverse of Winkler’s last-produced film about a pugilist), netting Scorsese his first-ever nomination for directing. The result was one of the most acclaimed films of all-time, tops in prestige polls (including Sight & Sound) for decades to follow.
“I had no expectations going into it,” Winkler said. “But after we completed it, thought it was a great, groundbreaking movie. I thought Marty was at his absolute greatest.” Time has only been kind to this classic, and despite a bevy of Oscar nominations (including wins for star De Niro and legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker), a debut film by a great-looking actor (Robert Redford) delving into directing stole some of the “Raging” thunder.
“We were nervous about it. We didn’t think we’d be beaten by “Ordinary People,” Winkler said, noting that a similar theme would emerge a decade later. But it took some Rocky Balboa gumption to get the film off the ground to begin with. “The truth of the matter is that United Artists wanted “Rocky II” desperately and for good reason. And we held firm that we would make “Rocky II” but they also had to make “Raging Bull.”
THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
Philip Kaufman’s seismic film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s space-race novel is one of Winkler’s most cherished accomplishments. It also led to an Oscar ceremony that still stings for Winkler; the acclaimed film’s stumble at the box office (a $21.1 million domestic gross that didn’t even cover its $27 million budget) derailed much of its Oscar momentum. The film still won four of its eight Oscar nominations (including one for composer Bill Conti, also responsible for the rousing “Rocky” score), but “we lost to a kind of a nice Debra Winger dying-of-cancer-movie,” Winkler said. That film was James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment,” another feature debut that scooped up most of the big awards, leaving Winkler a bit dejected.
“I was ready to shoot myself,” he said. “I was at the ceremony with my three boys, and we were so disappointed we wouldn’t go to the afterparty and instead we went to Fatburger.”
It’s amazing to think of Martin Scorsese’s ultimate Mafia underworld drama as any kind of also-ran, given its deification in popular culture, but despite a win for Best Supporting Actor Joe Pesci, the film followed in the footsteps of “Raging Bull” by losing Best Picture to another handsome leading man’s directorial debut: Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves.”
And despite the sterling endurance of “GoodFellas,” this was decidedly not a film beloved by audiences in the testing phase. “That’s the understatement of the day!” Winkler said. “The last recruited screening we had was, I think, Thousand Oaks or someplace in the Valley, and we had 39 walkouts in the first half hour. I don’t remember that ceremony as well. I do remember Joe’s win. But the movie’s still selling through iTunes and the portals that sell films. And it did tremendous business in home video after its release.”
THE IRISHMAN (2019)
Reteaming with his lifelong collaborators Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci (with screen royalty Al Pacino also in the mix this time), Winkler and company pivoted to Netflix to produce this story of a crumbling East Coast crime syndicate. The budget ran to nine digits, largely because of the film’s extended use of de-aging technology for its principal cast.
“It was a movie that was costly, and Paramount, who owned the rights, didn’t want to make it at that price,” said Winkler, who was not an official Oscar nominee because of Academy rules limiting the number of nominated producers. “We felt that we needed a certain budget to make the film properly. And Netflix came through and they were really, really good partners, and had a really good promotion for the film.
“Unfortunately, the theaters wouldn’t take it in. And four years ago, it was quite different, whereas now a movie like ‘Maestro’ can have a longer theatrical window.” Sadly, it is the only Best Picture nominee of Winkler’s not to win
something on Oscar night, going 0-for-10 at the Dolby Theatre in February 2020. “I was surprised,” he said. “Frankly, I thought we had a good chance to win it.”
This story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap