by Joe Eszterhas
The tricky bit is selling the happy ending.
After taking everything he wanted from Liberal Hollywood, Joe Eszterhas now lives in the happy heartland of Ohio. A recent story in The New York Observer quotes him as saying, “I would love to do something that really captures Midwesterners. They are the flyover people. They are the real Americans. They are the reason George W. Bush is President. And they are the reason he will be overwhelmingly re-elected.” To which you want to say no, Joe, his brother being Governor of Florida and his cronies being in the Supreme Court are the reason George W. Bush is President. Maybe you should have been paying as much attention to that in 2000 as Bill Clinton’s penis and Farrah Fawcett’s toilet habits.
Both of those were featured in Eszterhas’ previous bestseller, American Rhapsody, a book I liked about politics, sex, celebrity and shit. Three out of four of which can be said to have been Eszterhas’ bread and butter in Hollywood. But now, he would tell you, he has cleaned-up, gotten the toxins both of the body and of the soul out of his system, and is living pure and simple in Cleveland.
He has had his cake and yours, and now wishes to eat it too. You’d be perfectly within your rights to resent him for it, and one or two other things. But Eszterhas makes himself impossible to deny with his greatest strength: Good writing. Here is the secret known only to those who have read American Rhapsody or some of the writings from his pre-Hollywood life as a journalist for Rolling Stone and other publications: The man is a much better writer than most of his screenplays show him to be.
Eszterhas says in the first chapter that Drew Barrymore was turned down for the lead in Showgirls, his most famous failure. He speculates that had Barrymore been cast, things might have been quite different. Eszterhas holds a stubborn place in his heart for that script, which he wrote in the year he divorced his first wife and married her onetime close friend. After whom he named the central character. And maybe he’s right; it is hard to argue that any English-speaking actress could do a worse job than Elizabeth Berkley, whom Eszterhas dismisses as “a blow-up fuck doll.” And I’m certainly inclined to sympathize with a writer’s frustration at seeing a character he created miscast. But it is harder to imagine even John Barrymore making much of Eszterhas’ dialogue, forever exemplified for me by this exchange:
Berkley, to rock star: I like your songs.
Rock star, to Berkley: I like your ass, call me.
As a screenwriter, Eszterhas specialized in plots that were, at best (Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct), too clever for their own good and, at worst (Showgirls), incoherent, often sprinkled with frankly exploitative nudity. As Maureen Orth pointed out in a 1996 Vanity Fair profile, over and over and over again he returned to his theme of women who “lose sexual control, compromise themselves professionally, and illogically fall for ‘evil’ men.” Even Basic Instinct, which Eszterhas proudly views as a twist on that dynamic (a man loses sexual control, compromises himself professionally…) makes room to include such a woman in Jeanne Tripplehorn’s doomed therapist.
Eszterhas offers no direct insight into this particular obsession. But analytically-minded readers may note with interest the passages about the dificulty in growing up with a mother who was an untreated paranoid schizophrenic. Eszterhas’s earliest view of women was formed by one who was alternately loving and unreasonable, reassuring and terrifying. You don’t have to be Freud…
I’ve spoken to Eszterhas’ failings as I see them in screenwriting. But in prose, ah, but in prose, Eszterhas writes as he seems to have lived most of his life, with all of himself, all force and fury, in bursts of purifying flame that leave very little around them unaffected, sometimes unhappy, sometimes not, but never unaffected.
Having declared early on that if writers always put themselves into their stories, in Basic Instinct he was the ice pick, Eszterhas spends much of the 700-plus pages that follow showing that Hollywood was his Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone’s character): Sexually uninhibited, thrilling, steamy, manipulative and murderous.
But you don’t feel terribly sorry for Michael Douglas’ character in that film, presumably killed not long after the end credits start to roll. Just so, it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for Eszterhas by the end of the book, even as you enjoyed it, which I did. If he was a weapon in Hollywood’s hand, he certainly wasn’t a victim.