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Joe Eszterhas
Screenwriter Joe EszterhasRyan Kenny

Joe Eszterhas on terrorising Hollywood

The larger-than-life screenwriter tells us what drives him 
to keep battling the system

TextLeigh SingerPhotographyRyan Kenny

Taken from the January issue of Dazed & Confused:

As the writer of Flashdance, Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct, Joe Eszterhas was Hollywood’s most famous – or, to his many detractors, notorious – screenwriter. His movies made over $1 billion. In his 80s and 90s heyday he kept outdoing his own record fees for original projects ($3 million for Basic Instinct; $4 million for a four-page outline of One Night Stand). He became arguably the first example of screenwriter-as-celebrity: he actually had groupies. Even his flops – most damagingly 1995’s one-two sucker punch of Showgirls and Jade – seemed bigger and badder than anyone else’s. 

Such fiascos fuelled critics’ ire; appalled by his slick tales of lust, deception and death, they accused him of peddling misogynistic trash. Industry figures were cowed by his hard-drinking, chain-smoking, confrontational and volcanic persona; more than one commentator branded him “the devil”. Even his hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he began his career, asked: “Eszterhas – Ordinary Joe or Satan’s Agent?”

Revered or reviled, Eszterhas revelled in it all. “I’ve always been a troublemaker,” he gleefully tells an adulatory crowd at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, where he’s guest of honour. “As long as we do the best we can, that’s enough, right? It’s what (his screenwriting hero, Paddy) Chayefsky had on his tombstone: ‘I tried.’” 

When I meet him two days prior, Eszterhas, now 68, still looks like his legend: the samegrizzly-bear-gone-biker look, thick backswept mane, silver thicket of a goatee. An open shirt reveals a heavy, ornate crucifix hung on chain links that could moor boats to a dock. The voice, so strident in the past and on the page, chafes like tyres on soft gravel, no doubt due to the serious throat cancer he survived a decade back, when 80 per cent of his larynx was replaced. 

“I actually couldn’t speak for a while, and I used this little Etch A Sketch to communicate,” he rasps sheepishly. Previously a militant smoker, he began a very public campaign against the glamorisation of smoking in movies – primarily in his own films. At the festival, when 500 wannabe screenwriters watch Sharon Stone inhale seductively in Basic Instinct, Eszterhas pipes up that he “deeply regrets” the scene. “I could’ve come up with something more challenging,” he says. “This is an easy way to do it.” 

This is Eszterhas all over. He doesn’t just quit smoking; he excoriates his own creations. He doesn’t just relinquish the temptations of Hollywood; he returns to his Ohio roots, becomes a devout Catholic and evangelises his renewed faith (in the memoir Crossbearer). 

He’s always lived life to extremes and by his own rules, like many of his onscreen protagonists. Born in a small Hungarian village in 1944, Eszterhas was raised in a refugee camp in Austria. Dirt-poor and subsisting on pine-needle soup, his family made it to America, eventually settling in a poor immigrant neighbourhood in Cleveland. His pursuit of the American dream began by cutting his teeth as a local reporter whose explosive exposés – including one on Vietnam’s My Lai massacre – attracted the attention of the world’s most infamous “gonzo” journalist, Hunter S Thompson, who personally got him a job at Rolling Stone.

“I was a refugee kid. I was scared shitless a lot of the time but I never allowed rejection to stop me. I kept writing, and in that sense aggression helped me through those things”

Eszterhas acknowledges how his formative experiences of “some pretty dark places” shaped his take-no-prisoners outlook. “My mum was schizophrenic, the neighbourhood I grew up in was aggressive and violent,” he recalls. “I was a refugee kid. I was scared shitless a lot of the time but I had that drive –  I never allowed rejection to stop me. I kept writing, and in that sense, yes, aggression helped me through those things.”

Little wonder, then, that when his successful journalism career led to Hollywood assignments, the idea of kowtowing to studios was as acceptable as chugging bowls of pine-needle soup. With his first-ever produced screenplay, union drama F.I.S.T, Eszterhas challenged star Sylvester Stallone to a brawl when the actor tried to take writing credit. He went on to regularly harangue or even abuse any director (Paul Verhoeven, William Friedkin), star (Michael Douglas) or executive foolish enough to mess with his scripts. Not to mention publicly humiliating ruthless über-agent Michael Ovitz over a career-threatening dispute.

No one went to the mat for screenwriters more than Eszterhas. Yet two decades on, they’re still Hollywood’s convenient whipping boys, regularly rewritten or replaced. If he bust down the door, why did so few follow him through? 

“Ultimately, this is up to the screenwriters,” he shrugs. “If they don’t have the gumption to say to some director or executive, ‘No, I disagree, it’s a bad idea,’ or if they make the changes that they know in their hearts are bad and will mutate their own child, they’re going to become lesser writers in terms of their heart, their soul and looking at themselves in the mirror.” 

It does, however, raise the question of why Eszterhas stayed solely writing scripts, never turning to plays or novels, nor moving into directing like great screenwriters Robert Towne and Charlie Kaufman. 

“I think that’s probably a question of talent,” he admits. “I’ve written big non-fiction books but as much as I love novels, I never felt I had the talent to be a novelist.” He grins. “You have to be your own cinematographer, your own costume designer, right? The same with directing – all the air in their life gets sucked out except for the movie. Screenwriting, let’s be honest here, is relatively much easier.”

Honesty is paramount to Eszterhas. His incendiary autobiography Hollywood Animal is a ferociously candid account of integrity and infidelity, both professional and personal. Just one example: for promoting Showgirls’ supposedly “deeply religious message” and advocating teenagers to sneak into screenings with fake IDs, he deems himself “a colossal asshole”. 

“Most other Hollywood autobiographies I’d read were bullshit,” he says dismissively. “John Huston was a great character, but he wrote this book that’s empty in terms of what made him tick. Once you make the decision to tell the truth, then selective truth becomes very difficult.”

“At the peak of it, the Basic Instinct and Showgirls period, the excess was just crazy. When I met Naomi, she started settling me down and that process has gone on through the years”

That said, when it’s a runaway bestseller... “We were coming out of church recently when my wife told me one of the priests mentioned something that made her realise he’d read the book. And she was like, ‘Oh my God...’” Eszterhas laughs but it’s clear that colourful Hollywood anecdotes aren’t the embarrassment; rather it’s the unsparing detail of the very real hell his bulldozing behaviour wrought on family, friends and himself. 

“At the peak of it, the Basic Instinct and Showgirls period, the excess was just crazy,” he says quietly. “When I met Naomi, she started settling me down and that process has gone on through the years.” 

With Naomi, he moved back from Malibu to Cleveland and began turning his life around. Does he think he could’ve changed his ways if he had remained in the belly of the beast? 

“There are good guys (in Hollywood),” he insists, “And I know that because I’ve worked with some. But there’s something value-warping there.” Does he miss any of it? Eszterhas takes a few seconds to respond, eyes gazing off as if residual flickers of those excesses still feel mighty good. Finally he gives a throaty chuckle. “Thanks to Naomi, no.” 

While Eszterhas clearly aided and abetted some of his bad press, those dismissing him as a cheap vulgarian are guilty of the same superficiality they ascribe to him. To accusations of misogyny he growls that “they picked the wrong target,” citing his independent, strong-willed female leads, from Flashdance to – yes, he’ll still argue – the “wildly, flagrantly, hilariously over-the-top” Showgirls. That film isn’t his favourite, however, despite its resurrection as a camp classic. “It doesn’t hold up at all,” he shrugs.

As for “sexploitation”, he’s no innocent. But to highlight one obvious case, Basic Instinct’s graphic sex and violence and Sharon Stone’s infamous full-frontal flash came from director Paul Verhoeven, not his script. It’s a twisted legacy. “When you have the world-famous pussy shot of all time, it takes away from a very tight and interesting psychological modern film noir,” Eszterhas sighs. 

Beyond the dark eroticism of his best-known work probes a more complex question: how well do people really know each other? It’s expressed through sex and ice picks in his racy erotic thrillers; and through searing familial treachery in intelligent dramas like 1988’s Betrayed and 1989’s Music Box, both directed by Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras.

The latter remains painful, given a “mind-boggling” life-imitating-art situation that only revealed itself later. Eszterhas penned the story of a Hungarian-American accused of being a war criminal and his daughter’s struggle to uncover the truth. It was only later, aged 45, that Eszterhas discovered his own father’s war crimes and involvement with an antisemitic Hungarian fascist party. He then cut off all contact with his father. 

Ironically, one tenet Eszterhas advises neophyte screenwriters is to “remember family secrets” to mine for their work. Could he have written Music Box if he’d known about his own father’s past? “Not while my dad was alive,” he grimaces. “Ever since I’ve played this whole detective game in my head: what did I see, what did I hear?” The pair never truly reconciled, and his father is now dead. To this day, Eszterhas still can’t watch Music Box. “There are lines that are pulverising on a personal level.” 

Churchgoing, family-oriented, near-teetotal (“I can drink a little wine, just not hard liquor”), with his last produced script a 2006 Hungarian-language underdog drama called Children of Glory: this Joe Eszterhas seems a very different beast from the old Hollywood animal. Yet Mel Gibson may beg to differ. Last year, after commissioning Eszterhas to write The Maccabees, an epic biblical drama the writer calls “some of my best work”, Gibson unleashed his trademark “Mad Mel” antisemitic rage on Eszterhas and family. He promptly castigated Gibson in public, Ovitz style, releasing a recording of Gibson’s rant and even an e-book, Heaven and Mel. “The man is filled with so much hatred, he truly does need help,” he declares. 

It left Eszterhas with his integrity intact, but also a beloved project in limbo. Still, the quality of the script and his uncompromising attitude to someone who crossed him sound reassuringly familiar. “I feel sometimes like I’m an aging baseball pitcher,” he decides. “They have great days but then they get shelled for eight runs in one inning. But it’s okay, that happens. You can’t win ‘em all.”