Harvey Weinstein's rape trial took a dramatic turn on Tuesday as the judge threatened to revoke his bail and jail the former film producer after catching him using his cellphone as jury selection got underway.

Clearly annoyed, Justice James Burke berated the disgraced movie mogul, asking the 67-year-old: "Is this really the way you want to end up in jail for the rest of your life - by texting in violation of a court order?"

Before the case was called Weinstein was seen sitting in the first row with handlers, fussing with a pair of phones before handing them over.

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Burke said he was "texting and violating a court order" and hounded Weinstein attorney Arthur Aidala about the defendant's misbehavior during a several-minute exchange.

Lead prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Joan Ulluzzi, pushed for Burke to follow through and jail Weinstein.

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"There is a grave risk that this defendant at some point will realise that the evidence against him is imposing and overwhelming and he will try to flee," she said.

Weinstein escaped with yet another, more intense warning, with Burke saying: "I'm not looking for apologies; I'm looking for compliance."

Weinstein entered the courtroom Tuesday, hunched over as he gripped a walker and pushed it ahead of him.

Harvey Weinstein leaves the courtroom at New York City criminal court. Photo / Getty Images.
Harvey Weinstein leaves the courtroom at New York City criminal court. Photo / Getty Images.

Based solely on his courtroom appearance, Weinstein's health has deteriorated since scores of sexual assault and sexual harassment accusations were lodged against him, allegations that kick-started the #MeToo movement in late 2017.

However, photographs of him that have been snapped in public recently suggest that he's not as infirm as he appears in court. He was hospitalised for a back surgery a few weeks before his trial was set to begin.

Pre-screening of jurors was expected to begin late Tuesday morning with the vetting of the first batch of 500 jury prospects. To begin, 120 potential jurors are going to file into the 15th-floor courtroom at the 100 Centre St. courthouse for an initial round of eliminations.

More than 40 people - addressed one-by-one - said they could not be "fair and impartial" to Weinstein if selected, but they were not asked to elaborate. The group was nearly equally split by gender. At the outset, Burke told the panel that knowledge of Weinstein - a household name worldwide - is not an automatic disqualifier.

Harvey Weinstein walks towards the court for his first day hearing. Photo / Getty Images.
Harvey Weinstein walks towards the court for his first day hearing. Photo / Getty Images.

"I must tell you that having heard of Harvey Weinstein or even being familiar with allegations made against him in the press or elsewhere are not by themselves disqualifying and does not mean you are not permitted to sit as a juror in this case," he said.

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Selected jurors "will be deciding . . . based on what they hear inside the courtroom regardless of what the press or anybody else has said about the case outside the courtroom."

Burke began the session by telling the group the name of the case they were being considered for: "The People of the State of New York v. Harvey Weinstein." The announcement was met by subdued reactions from the men and women of all ages in the crowd. A few exchanged glances, but there were no audible gasps or comments.

"I noted there was not too much reaction when the defendant's name was read," Burke said as he advised the group about the process.

Burke also read a long list of names - some who are scheduled to be witnesses and others who simply may come up at the trial. Among those names were Salma Hayek, Charlize Theron and Rosie Perez. Perez is reportedly a friend of Annabella Sciorra, who is expected to be one of the prosecution's key witnesses.

Other jurors are expected to be excused for valid time conflicts, health issues or child-care obligations. Jurors who will not be paid by their employers during the lengthy proceeding are also usually excused.

The trial is expected to span two months, into early March.