Vanity Fair – April 1996
Between the Devil and Ms. Stone, Joe Eszterhas has discovered the secret of fame. Hollywood’s highest-paid and most publicized screenwriter has not been deterred by three recent flops, or by the hoots he received for loudly defending one of them — his brutal Las Vegas lap-dancing, iced-nippled camp epic, Showgirls — as having “a deeply religious message.” The town’s most consistent provocateur has not been shamed into silence by his miscalculation of what the public wants to see, or by recent attacks on Hollywood’s debased values launched by the Republican right which seem aimed directly at him. Rather, he dismisses barbs fired at sensationalism in the media by Senator Bob Dole and others as “cheap grandstanding,” the very tactic he himself is often accused of. Eszterhas does not even seem daunted by the elaborate marital pentagon which had Hollywood slack-jawed in 1993, when he discarded his wife of 24 years and his devoted-family-man image to take up with the wife of one of his best friends, producer Bill Macdonald, who had abandoned his bride of five months to become engaged to Sharon Stone, the star of Eszterhas’s 1992 hit Basic Instinct, after Stone’s psychic told her that she and Macdonald had been lovers in a former life.
Ever since, gilt-wrapped smut has become the Eszterhas trademark — scripts with showy, scenery-chewing parts for stars in which the action hurtles forward regardless of how illogical the plot may be. “He writes with a cattle prod,” says New York Times film critic Janet Maslin. “Every once in a while you get a little jolt. That’s not the same as writing good dialogue.” Eszterhas, who displays a keen sense for marketing his own image, who is a master manipulator of the clubby Hollywood system, and who often intimidates those around him with his Big Daddy Joe Biker looks, can also thank Sharon Stone for catapulting him into the stratosphere. The performance she gave of the ice-pick-wielding killer he had created in Basic Instinct — pure evil and pure sex, indulging in a bit of bisexuality and flashing frontal nudity — was so riveting that it set a pattern for films to come in which women were offered up as corrupt beings whose sex kills.
The lower Eszterhas ‘s writing gets, however, the higher he rises. He has truly figured out the game. He’s Hollywood’s version of P.C. — a proven commodity. It doesn’t seem to matter that none of his 13 produced screenplays has been nominated for a Golden Globe or an Academy Award. His rewrite of Flashdance (1983) helped it gross $200 million worldwide. Jagged Edge (1985) took in $54 million, and Basic Instinct $352 million. He likes to boast that altogether his films have grossed nearly $1 billion. As a result, Hollywood can’t resist betting on Eszterhas time after time, playing what-if with million-dollar chips. What if Eszterhas can come up with another Basic Instinct? Even if Showgirls and his latest, Jade, a sordid film noir manqué, have so far lost millions of dollars, so what? Look at Sliver, a dull, voyeuristic turkey Eszterhas adapted from an Ira Levin novel. It managed to make Sharon Stone undressed look boring. But although the movie bombed in this country, it took in more than $100 million in the ever expanding and less demanding foreign market.
And there’s still more to come. In October 1994, Eszterhas sold a five-page outline for a story called One-Night Stand to Ted Turner’s New Line Cinema for $2.5 million guaranteed upon delivery of the finished script, and another $L5 million if the film is made. The completed work has the hero getting oral sex from someone he’s just met while he’s on the phone with his doting wife and kids, then raping the stranger into ecstatic submission when she tries to leave, and then dumping his family for her a few days later. When I suggested to Eszterhas that it sounds like another barely believable hooker lead role, his wife, Naomi, objected, saying, “It’s a love story. It’s about him falling in love with me, and I certainly wasn’t hooking!” The line for the poster could be taken from the heroine’s mouth: “Love never makes the sex any better.” Other sample dialogue: He says, “I thought you couldn’t come anymore.” She replies, “There’s a lot of wetness in Niagara Falls.” Mike Figgis, the red-hot director of Leaving Las Vegas, is signed to direct.
“There are a lot of twisted dudes pulling the trigger in this town, and they respond to the kind of material that depicts ‘tie me up, beat me, hurt me, let’s have sex with ski masks on.’ Eszterhas writes to their every fantasy,” says a Hollywood reporter. “He is a wonderful icon for all of that sexual perversion.”
Eszterhas, who came to America as a Hungarian refugee at age six, and later became a star writer for Rolling Stone, is now 51 and makes no apologies. He recently spent a long afternoon talking to me in his big Spanish-style stucco house several miles up the Pacific Coast Highway from the Malibu Colony. For years he isolated himself in Marin County with his first wife, Geri, and their two teenage children. After an ugly divorce, Marin is no longer friendly territory, so now he writes in guest quarters above his garage, from which he overlooks the stretch of coastline where Baywatch is filmed. He can also see into the nursery, where wife number two, Naomi, 37, and their two babies, Joseph, 2, and Nicholas, six months, play.
“Listen, I like pushing the envelope — it’s certainly true,” said Eszterhas, sitting in a big overstuffed leather chair. On one wrist he was sporting two gold bracelets — one with a heart charm hanging from it — and on the other a gold Rolex. “Part of it is a response to a feeling I have that most of the movies out there are pap, and it’s the same old formula stuff. There’s nothing in them, they’re not provocative, they’re not disturbing, they don’t really move you. I’ve always loved the notion of doing movies that provoke people, either move them in their hearts or disturb them, but when they leave the theater it sticks with them.”
Lately, though, more often than not Eszterhas has enraged moviegoers, particularly women. “He lost me when he wrote Showgirls. He ought to be out there doing community service and saying his Hail Marys for doing that. He took out an ad saying Showgirls should be marketed to women. Joe is P.T. Barnum,” says producer Dawn Steel, who, when she was an executive at Paramount, worked with Eszterhas on Flashdance, and says she always thought he really liked women. “Showgirls was written with a penis, directed with a penis, acted with a penis. Where were the brains? There weren’t any – there was a penis! Showgirls represented to me a new low for Hollywood.” Steel adds, “Joe has chosen commerce.”
“This is someone who had some discernible mental capabilities and has thrown them out the window in pursuit of these dollars,” says screenwriter Carol Caldwell, who, like Eszterhas, used to write for Rolling Stone. “He’s smart enough to figure out what they want to see between men and women now – women preying on men . . . . I think studio men at the top out here are very simple minds. They see women as major threats, en masse or as individuals.” Former Rolling Stone editor Marianne Partridge says, “His recent work is shocking, horrible, depressing. How far can you fall? It’s especially painful because he was a wonderful writer.”
My whole notion with Catherine Tramell [the Sharon Stone character in Basic Instinct] is that this is a piece about a woman who is so smart, so manipulative, so good at manipulation – she’s a sociopath, you know, but she gets away with all of it . . . pulls off the perfect crime,” said Eszterhas. “If we’re saying that you’re not supposed to write a woman who’s a sociopath, then I guess I’m guilty of that. I think that’s a silly thing to say.”
I suggested that the character in his latest films seemed loveless, soulless, and mechanistic, and that he was presenting a bleak, dark view that was not giving young women any positive reinforcement. Moreover, I asked, how did his work improve the environment his own kids are growing up in? “I don’t think I’m in the positive-reinforcement business,” he answered. “That’s public relations. I’m not in that business.” By the same token, the lubricious lap dancer Nomi in Showgirls, who decides to leave Las Vegas at the height of making t – after sleeping with the boss, pushing her rival down a flight of stairs, pulling her switchblade on anyone who looks at her cross-eyed, and brutally beating up a rock star who has gratuitously raped her best friend – is in Eszterhas’s mind “a young woman who refuses to be corrupted.” He insists that the film is “about a young woman who used to hook to survive, who refuses to be a whore, to be part of the club, and tolerate even the rape of her best friend.”
“But how could you say that seeing Showgirls was a religious experience?”
“Well, I certainly said it with a certain sense of impish glee aimed at the religious right,” Eszterhas answered. “He was provoking the radical right,” interjected Naomi, who sat in on the interview and often rushed to her husband’s defense. “If you put it in simply biblical terms,” Eszterhas explained deadpan, “it is minimally about a young woman who repents at the end of the movie, and that, in my mind can be a religious experience.”
Jack Valenti, the film industry’s chief lobbyist, who debated Eszterhas on the Today show, told me that “only someone with serious psychiatric problems would make such a statement.” Valenti also said that only 2 of the 10 top-grossing films of 1995 were rated R.
“Joe really cares about ideas. You can’t always see that in the finished product. It becomes dumbed down in the futile search by some execs to make a successful movie,” says producer and Vanity Fair contributing editor Howard Blum, the author of Gangland, a book about Mafia don John Gotti that Eszterhas got paid $2.7 million to adapt for the screen but then opted out of, pocketing even more, after a dispute over rewriting. “Joe is determined to understand and beat the system,” asserts his friend Peter Bart, editorial director of Variety. “In doing this he became a victim of the system. His shrill defense [of Showgirls] became self-parody.”
Showgirls, which cost $40 million, represented Hollywood’s hope to broaden the dreaded NC-l7 rating into a wider market. Instead, the movie, combined with Eszterhas’s penchant for publicity, became Jack Valenti’s “worst nightmare,” in the words of one former studio executive – “’an unbuttoned, Hawaiian-shirted, wild-maned, overpaid guy who wrote an obvious piece of exploitation that he said young girls should get fake ID’s to go see.” The release of Showgirls came not only on the heels of political attacks on the film business, but also at the time when Hollywood was trying to dissuade Congress from including the V-chip in the new communications bill, and it sent the industry “into a collective cringe,” says producer Sean Daniel. Nonetheless, Daniel, like many in Hollywood, sees Eszterhas as a shrewd operator. “He has an uncanny barometer that is a perfect match for the needs of the industry, which has to daily scramble for material that is considered a sure thing.”
Others point out that Eszterhas is getting paid amounts far higher than those paid to writers who bring in mass audiences. None of his films has delivered the way such mass-market-entertainment films as Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump—which made $913 million and $677 million worldwide, respectively-have. Also, he is now such a target of the critics that he has become a marketing problem for studios. Eszterhas has to be able to deliver the high grosses without the backing of critics. Lately, a number of prominent directors have shied away from certain projects, according to one producer who has been involved with Eszterhas, “because Eszterhas is attached.”
Since he is far more prolific than most screenwriters, Eszterhas says it is only fair to look at the whole body of his work. Seven years ago, for example, he wrote a strong and interesting woman’s part for Jessica Lange — a lawyer who defends her immigrant father when he is accused of World War II war crimes — in Music Box, directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras but a commercial failure. In the scary thriller Jagged Edge, Glenn Close also plays a lawyer, and Debra Winger plays an F.B.I. agent in Betrayed, but they both lose sexual control, compromise themselves professionally, and illogically fall for “evil” men. Ethics has always been a murky area with Eszterhas. In Magic Man, an unproduced screenplay which appears to be autobiographical, he wrote about a geeky Hungarian boy befriended by a disc jockey who takes payola. The disc jockey tells the kid what a good liar he is, and the kid ultimately lies in court about whether he knew he was accepting payola for his boss. As in so many Eszterhas scripts, the protagonist gets away with it. Eszterhas argued to me that payola is a victimless crime, and that loyalty and the friendship between the two guys are more important. Similarly, in One-Night Stand the autobiographical hero accepts the label “a master of marital deceit.”
“Men cheat,” said Eszterhas. “I think an awful lot of men cheat and become masters of marital deceit. One of the things I learned in the course of my divorce — and I think it is in One-Night Stand — is that society says to a man that cheating is fine. Have all this stuff on the side. But for God’s sake don’t act on it, because if you do, you’re going to endanger your whole existence — financially, psychologically, emotionally. So keep this hypocrisy going. The guy doesn’t buy into that.”
In Blaze of Glory, a script he recently sold to Universal for $2 million, which purports to be the story of the late soul singer Otis Redding and his white manager in the South during the 60s, a southern district attorney, after delivering a heartfelt speech about the rule of law and blind justice, accepts a bribe to let Redding out of jail. It is a deeply cynical scene. Did it happen? “I would not make that claim on any prosecutor,” Eszterhas said.
Eszterhas often blames others for shortcomings in his recent works. Of Showgirls, for example, he said, “There was no strong producer on the picture, and that partly had been hubris, that we [he and director Paul Verhoeven, who also directed Basic Instinct] could bottle magic and do it again, pushing the envelope even further.” Eszterhas told me. “Showgirls is a very difficult movie to watch in many places, but the character of Nomi in the script is more sympathetic . . . . you feel like there’s love. In my opinion, that somehow got lost when it went up on the screen, and you didn’t care. I agree with you: you didn’t care. But in the script you care.” That sounds like an eerie repeat of the controversy surrounding the filming of Basic Instinct, when Eszterhas sided for a time with gay protesters in San Francisco against Verhoeven and producer Alan Marshall, who was also a producer of Showgirls, before embracing the finished film.
Eszterhas told me that he didn’t like Sliver either, that he had done the adaptation “as a favor to Bob Evans,” and that it was “seriously rewritten” after he left the project. “Joe has a very big problem — he doesn’t believe in rewriting,” says Evans, who also co-produced Jade. “If the Bible can be rewritten, somebody’s script can.”
Jade, the story of a psychologist who moonlights as a kinky, high-class call girl, was directed by William Friedkin, the husband of Sherry Lansing, who bought Eszterhas’s script. As chairman and C.E.O. of Paramount, Lansing, who made Indecent Proposal and Fatal Attraction, is often cited as one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, and she usually sides with the boys when it comes to how women are portrayed on the screen. Lansing says that she doesn’t “judge Joe,” ignoring the fact that she pays millions for his work. She believes that he likes women — strong, tough women who “control” men.
Lansing has recently made two more multimillion-dollar deals with Eszterhas, one an unprecedented “blind deal” based, Eszterhas said, on how much she liked Jade. After they agree on the genre (satire, mystery, etc.), he will provide her with three ideas in that category. She will choose one and pay him $2 million for the completed script against $4 million if the film is made. “You should judge people by their best work,” says Lansing. “I think that talent does not go away. People who have talent often take risks and are not afraid to make mistakes. People with great talent often fail greatly.”
Interestingly, the title character in Jade, played by Linda Fiorentino, says twice, “The people who commit [unspeakable] acts are in many ways no different from you and me. But they are no longer able to control their urges. They disassociate themselves from their own actions, often experiencing an hysterical blindness. They are blind to the darkness within themselves.”
I asked Eszterhas if he might not have written those words to describe himself. He replied, “I think I am very aware of the darkness inside myself. I think people have light and darkness inside themselves, and we are a mixture of those things. And certainly in terms of my life, and also within the whole sweep of my creative life, that darkness has not been magnified.” I later asked him why he returns over and over to the themes of deception and betrayal. He said, “I think we all have secret lives, and there are parts of ourselves we never share.”
Joe Eszterhas is a terminal outsider. The story of his birth in Hungary in November 1944 — on a bed of straw, his mother unattended, as the Russians advanced — and of his parents’ subsequent escape to refugee camps in Austria is grim. As we talked about his family, Eszterhas’s eyes frequently filled with tears. An only child, Joe lived in a succession of barracks until he was six, and some of his earliest memories are of refugees who were so desperate they committed suicide by lying down on railroad tracks, and of a little girl who fell into the hole in the camp’s outhouse and drowned in excrement.
Before the war his mother had been a secretary. “My mother was a very gentle, very refined, very Catholic, very religious woman, who was always very shy.” She died at 50 of cancer, when Eszterhas was 22. His father was a novelist. The family came to America on a troop carrier, and their first stop was in White Plains, New York, where they had to sleep in a garage infested with rats. When Istvan Eszterhas was offered an editing job at the Catholic-Hungarian Sunday newspaper in Cleveland, he took it, and remained there for nearly 30 years.
Joe Eszterhas’s first memory of Cleveland is of bare lightbulbs in the small apartment above the newspaper, in a rough, gritty neighborhood of Hungarians, Germans, Puerto Ricans, and Irish. Joe was enrolled in a bilingual school taught by Hungarian nuns. He was a “fragile, skinny kid,” and the other boys made fun of him, calling him a “green-horn” and a “D.P.” (displaced person).
When he was 13, Joe’s narrow world came crashing down. “My mother literally, from one day to the next, stopped talking to me or to my father. She would start saying that the rays were after her, and then one day she cemented the windows shut. . . . My father didn’t know how to deal with this, and I remember him yelling at her, and in the middle of the argument he either collapsed or fell down. I remember it as one of the most terrifying moments of my life.” His father consulted a Hungarian doctor friend, who said his wife was mentally ill, but there was no Hungarian-speaking psychiatrist to whom she could go for treatment. So the family simply endured, and Joe never knew what he was going to find when he came home from school. “I think the poverty, as it affected me, really hurt her. It really wounded her. She loved me,” Eszterhas said, his voice cracking. “We would get our clothes at the Volunteers of America or the Salvation Army . . . . And I remember once my mother said to my father, ‘How can you stand to have your son be in this kind of coat?’ And I kept saying, ‘The coat is fine,’ and my dad would say, ‘It’s fine,’ and my mom would say, ‘How can you stand it? This is your son!’”
Joe, who says he was humiliated by seeing his immigrant father being taken advantage of again and again, kept his own feelings hidden, but his anger was clearly building. One day at a baseball game, he picked up a bat, aimed it at the back of the head of an older kid who had beat up on him, and knocked him unconscious. The boy suffered a concussion, and Joe made a trip to juvenile hall. The experience was chastening enough to make him finally heed his father’s advice on how to get ahead: read, read, read. “I decided that I was going to give it a chance and I fell in love with reading, and I fell in love with the possibility I could write someday.” Reading and listening to rock on the radio became his primary escapes, for in high school Joe was completely on his own — a mediocre student with a chip on his shoulder, someone the cool kids made fun of. In his own mind he remained a displaced person until he began to find the power of words.
Once he got away from his family and entered Ohio University in Athens, Eszterhas’s ability to write beautifully allowed the ugly duckling to morph into the six-foot-two Rampaging Hungarian. Ripe for self-invention, he used his knowledge of rock music and the New Journalism to become a crusading journalist himself, tackling off-campus issues of social concern. “Joe in Athens was as big a deal then as he is now. They had never seen anything like him,” says his friend Dick Belsky, an author and also news editor of the tabloid Star Magazine. By his sophomore year Eszterhas was not only writing for the school newspaper but also working as a rock disc jockey – “Joe Anthony” — on the radio. Syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, a freshman when Eszterhas was a senior, says, “Joe brought Ohio University into the 60s.” Brash and confrontational, Eszterhas was already displaying the characteristics of charm, arrogance, and brinkmanship that put him squarely in the center of the action but just as often also landed him in hot water. He quit the thing he most loved, the campus newspaper, during his junior year over a dispute with the editor. Although he was on disciplinary probation in his senior year and didn’t have good enough grades to be considered for the job of editor, he organized a petition drive to allow him to compete for it. He won, and was named the outstanding college journalist in the country by the William Randolph Hearst Memorial Foundation.
“I liked him personally, but he didn’t bother to do his work as a student at all.” says Russell Baird, one of his professors. “We thought in the journalism department that he had a problem of knowing facts from fiction — he would let words go for their sounds and feelings and not be concerned whether what he’d just said was true.” Eszterhas didn’t graduate, because at the time he won the best-journalist award he was getting failing grades. Rather than flunk its star, Eszterhas said, the university allowed him “to fade away.”
At the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a few years out of college, Eszterhas was again a standout. “He had immense intellect, more than anyone there,” says his friend and fellow reporter at the time Ned Whelan. Eszterhas interviewed Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and would find stories, often dark stories, where no one else did. “He senses drama — he’s willing to look for it,” says Plain Dealer photo-assignment editor Dick Conway, who covered many stories with Eszterhas.
In 1968, Eszterhas married a fellow reporter, Geri Javor, a quiet young woman who covered crime and religion and who was also Hungarian. The wedding was pure Eszterhas, who hinted to his friends that there might be danger at the ceremony. Dick Belsky remembers being assigned to be a lookout. “There was concern another woman Joe had dated would show up and interrupt things.” Dick Conway says, “I always thought Joe and Geri were opposites. Geri was very proper and religious, and Joe was kind of out there.”
Conway was with Eszterhas the day he unearthed the mother of a young man who was holding his ex-girlfriend hostage. Eszterhas picked the mother up at the airport, got an exclusive interview with her, and drove her to the scene of the crime. As soon as the man heard his mother outside calling his name, he shot his ex-girlfriend, though not fatally, and killed himself. That incident was the impetus for the script Eszterhas is working on now for Paramount, Reliable Sources, about how far reporters should go to get a good story.
“I think the motivating force with Joe is money and controversy,” says Mike Roberts, another Plain Dealer reporter friend. “Writers are basically fairly reticent people. For them to become the subject of controversy is uncomfortable. Joe needs to be involved in situations where he is challenged.” In 1970, Eszterhas had the luck to cover the shootings at nearby Kent State for the paper, and soon he also had a book contract for himself and Mike Roberts. Within a few months they published Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State. “He has as much business sense as of writing,” says Roberts. “He was very poor and always frightened of being poor. He was always in debt. He liked expensive pipe tobacco and booze.”
Eszterhas’s last year at The Plain Dealer was aflame with controversy. He, Conway, and the paper’s owners were sued for invasion of privacy by Margaret Mae Cantrell, the widow of a man who had died in the collapse of a bridge on the Ohio River in 1967, and her family. Eszterhas had covered the original story and then returned six months later with Dick Conway to do a longer, Sunday-magazine article. Eszterhas interviewed the four children of the family — the oldest was 12 — and clearly implied in the story that the mother was present. She was not. Instead, Eszterhas used details about the woman gleaned from his covering of her husband’s funeral. She objected to the way the family had been portrayed, as poor and needy. The case, Cantrell, et al. v. Forest City Publishing Co., et al., went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s award of $60,000 in damages. Today, Eszterhas still refuses to admit any wrongdoing. “I’m not certain I did imply she was there.” When I assured him that he had, Eszterhas said, “I remember that I felt that I hadn’t done any injustice to the family or the mother, because I had met her. And it may be in hindsight, 30 years down the line, that I should have been more clear about the circumstances. But I still don’t feel that I did any harm to those people.”
By the time the Supreme Court decision had been handed down, Eszterhas had left The Plain Dealer. He was fired for disloyalty, because he had written a witty critique of himself and the paper for the now defunct Evergreen Review. It was about having the first pictures of the My Lai massacre fall into his lap. A Vietnam vet who remembered Eszterhas from college happened to contact him and say he had pictures of the massacre, just when the U.S. military was trying to cover it up. Within days, Eszterhas was in New York with the photographer, sitting down with top editors from Life and The New York Times and trying to sell the pictures for $100,000. In the end the two kids from Cleveland were out-smarted when foreign news agencies pirated the pictures. They had to settle for $20,000, but Joe got a byline in Life.
Eszterhas did not go quietly from The Plain Dealer. Instead, he cast himself as the victim and hired the most prominent civil-rights lawyer in town to bring a Newspaper Guild action against the paper. The issue, says his attorney, Gerald Messerman, was whether a newspaper by its very nature had to tolerate more criticism than any other private employer would from an insubordinate employee Eszterhas lost, but the public arbitration, which involved whether or not Eszterhas was an accurate reporter — as the paper ironically was claiming he was in the invasion-of-privacy suit — wreaked havoc in the newsroom. “It tore the paper apart,” says Mike Roberts. “Prior to that The Plain Dealer was a nice place to be — we were attempting to do a lot of good things — but the charges took the spirit out of it.”
Today, Eszterhas’s old Cleveland friends, who follow his life closely, seem puzzled by his recent films. “Those of us who have been his friends could care less about Hollywood,” says Roberts. “I think he could have been one of the best journalists in the country. I’m not critical of him taking this turn. We wish we had the money. But someday he’s got to lay down some good work.”
Colleagues at Rolling Stone, where Eszterhas landed in the early 70s and wrote for four years, see him more skeptically. “I watch him now from afar in fascination. He puts on a hell of a show,” says Paul Scanlon, former managing editor and Eszterhas’s best friend there. “Joe’s a hell of a self-publicist. The key word is ‘calculate.’”
At Rolling Stone, Eszterhas, who had to play second fiddle to Hunter S. Thompson, let his hair and beard grow, wore a fringed buckskin jacket, and sported a buck knife, which he’d play with at meetings. He also wrote a string of remarkable stories. He turned one about a mass killer in the Midwest into a book, Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1975.
“He was one of the most talented of all the writers,” says Jann Wenner, the magazine’s founder and the godfather of one of Eszterhas’s children. “He’d just go at it and return 25,000-word stories. I’d say, ‘Joe, I just asked for five.’” But there was no way Eszterhas would allow anything to be cut. The little kid who was once bullied had learned to throw his weight around. “He was scary. He frightened people,” says former Rolling Stone writer and editor David Felton. “He went berserk: ‘You don’t realize you’re fucking with words.’ If you read his journalism, it’s a lot like his movies, very macho stuff without the psychedelia of Hunter’s stuff.”
Eszterhas would play hardball with Wenner, threatening to quit and go to Esquire. According to Felton, it was Eszterhas who got Wenner to put the writers’ names all the cover of the magazine for the first time. “It was fascinating, their relationship,” says writer Christine Doudna, who used to be Eszterhas’s assistant. “How able Joe really was to manipulate Jann, Jann being such a manipulator himself. They both made good use of each other.”
“Joe always had an attraction to and an appreciation of America’s underbelly,” says another former Rolling Stone editor, John A. Walsh. “He always understood the seamy side — that there was commerce there. Joe had an instinctive feel for what would appeal to a mass audience. He covered U.F.O.’s in Mississippi, Evel Knievel. He could pick a paragraph off a wire and say, ‘Here’s a great magazine piece.’”
Eszterhas’s wife was invisible at Rolling Stone, where sexist sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll ruled, and he quickly got a reputation. “That knife was used for other things than stabbing a desk,” jokes Felton. Eszterhas admitted, “For a while I certainly lost my bearings, because I went through a difficult thing with cocaine. The sexual revolution hit me full-scale. We had problems in the marriage, and the first time they really surfaced was in those early Rolling Stone years.” Women at the magazine remember Eszterhas as wanting to be adored. “His hostility toward women was always kind of there,” says Doudna. “He expressed it in more guarded ways, like in teasing. He was just a bully, even when he was trying to put the make on you. It often seemed the object was humiliation.”
One day in 1975, Eszterhas got a phone call. “Have you ever thought of doing movies?” asked Kitty Hawks, who was then an agent. She had seen a Rolling Stone article that Eszterhas had written, about an Idaho police chief who had flipped out, and thought it would make a terrific film. That never happened, but about the same time Marcia Nasatir, a vice president at United Artists, also called and asked Eszterhas if he had any interest in doing screenplays. Jann Wenner was in the process of moving Rolling Stone from California to New York, and Eszterhas didn’t want to live there. “I didn’t know whether I could write screenplays or not, but I thought, Why don’t we try it?”
The first screenplay, F.I.S.T., a union story about a labor leader, took two years to write, Eszterhas approached it journalistically, doing prodigious research first, which he says he still does, including experiencing lap dancing for Showgirls. “Based on that research, I did an outline that was like 50 or 60 pages, that was neither an outline nor a treatment nor a fact nor a fiction. It was this completely bastard document luckily, the director Norman Jewison wanted to be involved, “Norman says to me ‘I don’t know what the hell this is . . . . but it’s an interesting beginning.’”
Jewison and Eszterhas worked through various drafts for a year. Eszterhas finally turned in nearly 400 pages. “It weighs like War and Peace, kid,” Jewison told him, “but it doesn’t read like it.” One monologue went on for six pages. “Norman said, ‘This is six minutes of screen time-they are going to throw tomatoes at the screen. You can’t do a speech for six minutes.’ I had the naivete to say to him, ‘But if the words are good, they’ll listen.’”
Eszterhas said of Jewison, “He taught me many things, but among them is one: You can have a commercial movie that’s accessible, and it doesn’t have to be empty” Even more important, said Eszterhas, he learned that “you can fight the studios and go to war with them, or you can weave your way around them, but there are ways of winning against them.” Such as? “If you make your argument lucid and really logical, then it’s possible they’ll back off, because for the most part they are very intelligent people.”
In true Eszterhas fashion, he also made a deal to write a novelization of F.I.S.T., and the pressure was tremendous. “He thought he was having a heart attack,” says Paul Scanlon. “He was having a panic attack.” Nevertheless, in an incredible stroke of luck for a beginner, Sylvester Stallone agreed to star in the film, just as he was coming off the tremendous success of Rocky, but Stallone had the temerity to demand a co-writer credit Eszterhas not only refused but also offered to go 10 rounds with Stallone. Feelings were so raw over the 1978 film, which turned out to be a flop, that at the premiere, according to Eszterhas, his first wife punched Stallone in the stomach.
Nevertheless, Eszterhas had found his calling “What happened to me when I started writing fiction is that you get this almost junkie-like rush from making things up, sitting down and playing God and making things lip from scratch.” Over the course of the next 15 years, Eszterhas, who says he “explodes” when he writes, turned out a variety of screenplays and became known as the master of auctioning “spec” scripts. He writes them without studio interference and then puts them up on the block, creating a stir and often getting more than $1 million each for films that have been duds, such as Big Shots, or have yet to be made, such as Original Sin and Sacred Cows.
Eszterhas is willing to collaborate with directors, he told me, but “because of the prevalence of the auteur theory, they are used to saying, ‘Change it. I’m the director and you’re the writer.’ That’s not collaboration, and I don’t work that way. I’ll fold out of the project if that happens. . . . I’m not going to fuck my own child up. Most screenwriters in my experience don’t have any passion. They don’t have a whole lot of strength and belief in what they do. Their attitude is ‘Tell me how you want me to change it,’ because they are so desperate to get the credit and also, in parentheses, to get the money.” He cited the example of Academy Award winner Ron Bass (Rain Man), who was quoted as saying that “he views his function as serving the director’s needs. Well, in my mind that’s a stenographer. It’s not a writer. I don’t do that. And, unfortunately, I think screenwriters are sometimes their own worst enemies, because they do not force the issue to the wall in terms of really fighting for their material.”
Eszterhas is clearly the opposite. He will walk out of a dinner party if he can’t be seated next to his wife. He and Jon Peters fought so hard in 1994 over Foreplay, a screenplay of Eszterhas’s that Peters was contemplating buying, that Peters broke his hand pounding it on Eszterhas’s coffee table. Then Eszterhas has stomped off without letting Peters out of his gated rental in Malibu. Peters had to scale the wall. “Everything is a test for people’s loyalties,” says someone who worked with Eszterhas a long time. “He ups the stakes.” The Source continues, “I always thought there were two Joes — the Joe I got, the guy’s guy, the family man, who laughed and talked on the telephone. But what I also knew was that every time he canceled dinner with me he was going to hang out with guys who were into prostitutes, drugs, and hard living.”
Ben Myron, Eszterhas’s best friend, who produced One False Move and Checking Out, doesn’t agree. “Joe comes across as this complex person, and people have difficulty understanding him. To me, Joe is the most easily understood guy in the world very, very uncomplicated. Getting along with Joe is very simple. If you’re straight with him and honest, he’s on your side. If you cross him, it’s over.”
“Do people ever challenge him?” I ask Myron.
“No,” Myron admits. “Because he’s not the kind of person you want to challenge.”
Michael Ovitz, of course, did. In 1989, when Ovitz was chairman of Creative Artists Agency and Hollywood trembled at his power, Eszterhas went to see him to tell him what Ovitz already knew — that Eszterhas was going to leave CAA out of loyalty to his close friend Guy McElwaine. McElwaine was leaving Columbia, where he had been an executive, to return to agenting at CAA’s arch-rival, International Creative Management. What actually occurred during that meeting is known only to Ovitz and Eszterhas, whose recollections are entirely different. The meeting is now referred to by Eszterhas as “The Incident at Rashomon.” Whatever happened, Eszterhas put his version down in an incendiary “Dear Mike” letter — which got leaked from coast to Coast — in which he accused Ovitz of threatening him with just about everything short of cannibalizing his children.
True or not, the letter and the brouhaha it caused became Hollywood legend, paving the way for Joe Eszterhas — who followed up within a few months with the Basic Instinct script, which sold for $3 million — to become the World’s Most Famous Screenwriter. At the time, Eszterhas stated that every time he went down Wilshire Boulevard in a limo he would be sure to remember to give the finger to the CAA building. In a startling reversal last summer, however, Eszterhas secretly signaled, first through Howard Blum, that after six years with his friend Guy he wanted to return to CAA. The question Eszterhas said he asked was “Is there animosity there?” According to Eszterhas, the answer came back: Absolutely not.
Naturally, this news was greeted at CAA with the sort of pomp and circumstance that might attend, say, the idea that Madonna wanted to be represented by the Vatican. The popular CAA agent Bob “Bookie” Bookman was set to become Eszterhas’s representative, but first the ambivalent Ovitz had to give his blessing. Thoughtfully, Eszterhas had already written the script for their reunion. There would be an exchange of letters between the two men. Eszterhas handed Bookman three sheets: Ovitz’s letter to him, his reply, and a press release, even though CAA policy is not to announce new clients to the press. The burning question was: Would Ovitz really go along with it? Those in the know said that Ovitz and Eszterhas were both looking for an apology.
A squadron of minions worked and reworked the language of the letters as if this were the Treaty of Versailles. “Dear Mike: I was so happy to hear from Bob Bookman that there was no animosity on your part or on the part of CAA concerning events that took place six years ago.”
“Dear Joe: Welcome back. I was happy to hear we could put the past behind us. We too look forward to working with you in the same spirit of friendship and mutual respect.”
At last. The deed was done, or so everyone thought. Then Eszterhas, in typical fashion, upped the ante one more time. He demanded that the letter from Ovitz include a new line: “You know how much I’ve always admired your talent.”
Ovitz threw up his hands and flatly refused. So there definitely appeared to be some lingering animosity. Sentence or no sentence, no deal. Eszterhas sees it slightly differently. “I didn’t like Ovitz’s letter,” he explained. “I didn’t think it was warm enough or strong enough, and I suggested that he add a sentence, and at that point Bob said that Michael had had a surge of animosity and didn’t want to do that sentence. And I said, ‘If he has had a surge of animosity, let’s forget the whole fucking thing.’”
But Eszterhas hasn’t quire forgotten. Now that Ovitz is number two at Disney and in a position to buy his scripts and green-light his movies, Eszterhas is rather blatantly sucking up. Under the satiric guise of wishing Ovitz would come back to CAA because it’s no fun not having him to kick around anymore, Eszterhas recently wrote a wet-kiss valentine to Ovitz in Los Angeles magazine, which is owned by Disney.
Eszterhas left ICM because he was scared-anxious about having sold at least four big-money scripts that were sitting on the shelf and not getting made. Then, last April, the Otis Redding script, Blaze of Glory, was offered at auction, and Eszterhas sat back waiting for the phone to ring. Not a single offer came in. That did it. Eszterhas said he fell ICM wasn’t working hard enough to get his work on the screen. CAA was ready to tell him that he ought to be willing to cut his price in half. He hasn’t had to. Eszterhas is now at William Morris with Arnold Rifkin, who has been diligent and successful in getting him new deals. In fact, Eszterhas’s latest deal is with Cinergi Pictures for a script called Trapped, a murder mystery. If it is made with an A-list director and actor, Eszterhas will take home $5 million. Rifkin says he met a different Joe, “His vulnerability was enormous. 1 was smitten by that side of the man.”
For his part, McElwaine is philosophical about their parting. “I have enough faith in myself as a person that I did the best I could. Six years is a pretty good run with somebody.” He and Eszterhas have been through too much together for backbiting. McElwaine was even in Hawaii with the Eszterhas family when Eszterhas’s marriage collapsed. He also remained close while Joe stayed in Maui with Naomi and wrote Showgirls. “It’s very easy to get out of touch with your own work. Showgirls represents a lot of things to Joe, not so much personally as the time frame in his head — what was going on when he wrote it. The girl’s name is Nomi, for God’s sake.”
It started out that one foot would bump another. The Eszterhases’ houseguest, Naomi Baka Macdonald, grieving, platinum blonde, and abandoned, would be sitting with the family on the beach, and her little toe in the sand might touch Joe’s little toe. They both pretended that it was nothing. It was the spring of 1993, only weeks after Naomi’s husband, Bill, one of Joe’s best friends, had gone off with the siren. Joe and Geri Eszterhas had taken the “train-wrecked” Naomi into their home in California for six weeks and then had invited her to join them for two weeks in Maui. The Eszterhases were the devoted parents of two teenagers, Suzanne, 16, and Steven, 18, and were known for living in Marin County and rejecting Hollywood glitter.
Just as in Joe’s scripts, however, not all was as it seemed. “There were gigantic holes in the relationship,” he says. “I felt a terrific emotional sterility in my heart.” In other words, Eszterhas was cheating. “In the three years before the marriage broke up, I had a series of relationships and one affair. A serious affair” (with the daughter of a midwestern governor, he has said). As he tells the story, Eszterhas frequently indicates that his marriage was already severely impaired, and that he and his wife were talking separation. Naomi, a native of Mansfield, Ohio, who had worked in marketing and written speeches for American Express executives, wasn’t just another little home wrecker. Today, the happy couple is more than eager to share the story of their love.
“I was in pain, and the only time I didn’t feel that pain was when I was with him,” Naomi declares. We are sitting in the Eszterhases’ large, open living room, with its huge stone fireplace, framed posters of Eszterhas’s heroes Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones on the walls, and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that look out to the Pacific. On the heavy wooden coffee table sits a mound of red and green cookies in star and moon shapes which Naomi has baked and frosted herself. By all accounts, Joe’s first wife, Geri, was the dedicated, stay-at-home spouse and anchor for her husband. So is Naomi today: she clips the clippings, runs interference for him, keeps track of his career. “I call them Romeo and Juliet,” says Robert Evans. A lawyer advised me, “I wouldn’t cross him in her view.”
“We could be watching the news, but I felt the pain would ease when I was with him,” Naomi continues. “He’s like an old warrior. He’s seen a lot more things than I have in life, and he knows people very well. And he’s very gentle and very wise.” As for Geri, who Naomi alleges was confiding her marital problems to her in Hawaii, Naomi says, “She got lost in her children.” (Geri Eszterhas says that her first marriage was private, and that she intends to keep her views on it private.)
Naomi says it did occur to her at the time: “How can you be in this position? You have accused someone of coming in and breaking up your marriage, and you’re in a situation where you are going to go in and break up a marriage?” Even so, she says, “I could feel he wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with him.”
“And your wife didn’t suspect anything, Joe?” I ask.
“She didn’t see a lot of things that she should have seen and could have seen,” answers Naomi, who says her friend Geri would encourage her to sit in the front seat of the car with Joe. “He likes talking to you,” she says Geri would say. According to Naomi, Geri even encouraged her to buy a short black silk robe, saying. “Joseph would love it on you.”
Then those toes started touching. “It escalates,” says Naomi. “A foot would bump,” says Joe. “Yeah, it was like that,” agrees Naomi. “Like when you’re in high school and you think your foot is touching, and your heart kind of races a little bit — that’s when I knew. I never had those feelings before about any man until him. Babies ran by us, and he said, ‘Do you ever want children?’ And I said, ‘I’ve always wanted children. I’d love to have children someday.’ And he said, ‘I’d love to have more children.’ I’m thinking, Is he saying that to me?”
In the Four Seasons bar, Joe, thoroughly besotted, got to the point. Geri and the kids had left them alone again, and Joe defined happiness: sitting on a barstool next to Naomi. He said, “I love you. I want to marry you. I want to have children with you. I can’t live without you.” “You know what else he said?” asks Naomi. “He said, ‘A thousand barstools. I’d love to sit with you all around. I’d love to see Paris with you.’ He said, ‘You know, you’re a treasure’ — you’re a treasure — and Bill Macdonald never said that!”
Joe: “She has a terrific life force. I felt like a man who had been out in the desert for a long time, and I finally found water.”
Naomi: “I thought, Do I love him because he’s come and rescued me from this? Am I with him because I don’t want to go back to that? Because of course when I told my family and friends, they said, ‘Are you out of your mind? How do you know what you want? In February you’re grieving and in April you’re in love?’ But I had never been in love. He was like pure oxygen.”
Joe: “We did a lot of crying.”
The pent-up sexual energy burst out a few days later. Guy McElwaine had come over to visit. After dinner Geri, Joe, Guy, and Naomi went out to a club. The tension was so thick that Naomi had a drink, which is unusual for her. “And I was wearing this red dress. . . . Joe has his back to us, watching the band, and I’m getting madder.” So Naomi asked Joe to dance.
Joe: “She joins me, and the minute we start to dance [the band] goes into the most passionate, slow, throbbing love song. I wish I could remember the name of the song, but I can’t.”
Naomi: “I can’t either, but the name of the group was the Missionaries.”
Joe: “I start to dance with her, and it just blew up. I mean, the way I held her, the way I touched her — it just blew up”
Naomi: “It was like we were touching feet, and then . . .”
Then Guy McElwaine went over and broke them up, asking, “Why are you doing this?” Geri also went up and asked, “Do you want me to go back to the hotel?” No, Joe wanted to finish the dance. Then all four drove to the hotel in silence.
Joe went off with Guy, leaving Naomi to confront Geri alone in the hotel suite. “I thought, We’re all responsible for our actions, and I’m going to deal with this,” Naomi recalls. “I went in, and she said, ‘I thought you were my friend.’ I told her there was a very strong relationship between us that isn’t physical, although it’s very chemical. She said, ‘Are you telling me that you’re in love with my husband?’”
Joe and Naomi left that morning for another hotel across the island, after Joe had spoken with Geri for three hours. The divorce was very bitter. “Geri viewed it in sort of very primal, almost superstitious ways,” says Eszterhas. “She feels to this day that Naomi is a demon and that I’ve fallen in love with Catherine Tramell.”
The children were in shock, and for more than a year Joe’s relations with them were rocky. “I had spent my whole life building a psychological fortress around my family. I never thought I’d be the one to blow it up,” says Eszterhas. “I think the best way to describe it is that it was like being in this horrendous head-on train crash.” Eszterhas’s son asked him not to file for divorce for at least six months. During the last half of 1993, Eszterhas spent most of his time in Hawaii, flying into San Francisco for visits with his children. Showgirls was the only script he managed to write during that time, a time when he felt under intense financial pressure. Since then, his critics note, his attitude toward women seems to harden with every script.
Going through the divorce was like going through a war. When Robert Shapiro took over the case for Eszterhas — just before he got involved in O. J. Simpson’s case — Eszterhas’s temporary support payments were $45,000 a month, and there was no question but that after 24 years of marriage in California, in these circumstances, Geri Eszterhas would get half the community property and support for life. (The settlement was later adjusted by attorney Patricia Glaser.) During the summer of 1993, Naomi became pregnant with Joey, who was born in March 1994. Joe and Naomi were married in Maui four months later. At one point. Joe says, he thought he had reached a financial settlement with Geri, but she turned around and sued him for a share of the screenplay profits he might earn based on ideas he had had during the marriage. She lost the case, but only after a grueling two-week trial in Marin County Superior Court. Today, Eszterhas, who loves to mention that he was an assistant Little League coach, claims that his devotion as a father, the fact that “I was always there as a dad,” has allowed him to work out a reasonable relationship with his children. “Otherwise it was so ugly on a human level, so twisted and devastating, there would have been no way of pulling it together,” he says.
In 1994, Eszterhas rented Bette Midler’s former house in the Malibu Colony. In one frenzied year he churned out reams of both sexually explicit and violent material: Jade, One-Night Stand, Foreplay, and Gangland. Jade turned out to be a failure, and Foreplay and the bloody Gangland have been passed on to others for rewrites. Today, Joe and Naomi, as well as his agent, Arnold Rifkin, and producer, Ben Myron, are emphasizing that his latest script, Blaze of Glory, is a civil-rights piece. At this stage, however, that aspect of the story certainly plays bass guitar to the lead of more of the same old sex plus music.
But with a new wife, two new babies, upper-Malibu isolation, blond streaks in his hair, and the chastening experience of winding up with a public image that could easily rank somewhere south of that of Al Goldstein of Screw magazine, wouldn’t it seem that Joe Eszterhas might just want to fold the flap on that tattered old Zeitgeist envelope? Not on your life. “If you think the critical response to Showgirls and Jade is going to stop me at some point in the future in terms of addressing another sexually oriented piece that pushes the envelope, forget it,” he declares. “If I feel like doing it, I’m going to do it.” And the world’s most famous screenwriter nearly always gets his way.