Review

Enthralled by shadows

JOE ESTERHAUS IS the Hollywood screenwriter who wrote Basic Instinct and became the highest-paid scriptwriter in history. He is also the man who, a few years later, wrote two famous turkeys, Jade and (rather more notoriously) Showgirls, which had such bad word of mouth that it not only rapidly nosedived from its number-two position, it lives in the collective memory as an object of nearly universal execration.

Well, because of the publication of this glittering and scurrilous memoir – which every kind of reader will find difficult to put down – I have had another look at most of the films Eszterhas wrote and Showgirls is not as bad as you may think.

Like Basic Instinct, it is directed by Paul Verhoeven but unlike the ice-pick flick that turned Sharon Stone into one of the more arresting femmes fatales since Dietrich, Showgirls is made in Verhoeven's highly bejewelled alienation style. As Eszterhas says to his second wife, Naomi, in some wonderment when they see the Las Vegas epic: "He's turned Naomi" – the lap dancer was named after the new love for whom Eszterhas left his wife of 25 years -"into a fuck-me doll!" That succulent zombie look that Verhoeven likes to give his Americans, as if they were all inflatable rubber figures, is all the go in the story of the Las Vegas sex dancer who spits the dummy. The story is otherwise – if you can pardon the depthless human dimension of the leading lady – magnificently conceived and with enough visual and dramatic interest to make it an arresting failure rather than the turkey of legend.

And the Eszterhas oeuvre, those very striking and craftsmanly scripts (full of intelligence and blood and drama) cry out for a filmic unity that is denied them because Joe Eszterhas was not, like I.A.L. Diamond or Emeric Pressburger, the collaborator of a single director.

Even the lightest and most throwaway of his scripts, Checking Out, starring Jeff Daniels, or An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn – Eszterhas's satire of the film industry, which he edited himself and which has Jackie Chan, Ryan O'Neal and the producer Harvey Weinstein in key roles – crackle with the residual dignity of their conception even at their most lame.

And the best of the films are impressive. Jade, directed by William Friedkin, is, according to Eszterhas, fatally flawed by the way the director jerked round the original script but it's a dark and varnished recapitulation ofnoir with Linda Fiorentino as one of Eszterhas's sexed-up female avengers. Basic Instinct is a monument to the glamour of evil and Sharon Stone's stunning performance – the magnetism of everything she does and everything Verhoeven does to her – comes, essentially, from Eszterhas's wiry and brilliant script with its spinning ambiguities and its ability to suggest the seductions of iniquity at their most wet and lubricious. Seen again on DVD, the film is closer to Hitchcock (it bears the comparison it's asking for) than you remember.

Jagged Edge, the thriller starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges and directed by Richard Marquand, who madeReturn of the Jedi, has something of the same trickiness and enshrouding ambiguity so that even at the end some audiences go for the wrong murderer.

And the two political thrillers that Costa-Gavras made from Eszterhas scripts are masterly. Betrayed has Debra Winger as an FBI agent falling in love, or near to it, with Tom Berenger's neo-Nazi American patriot, while Music Box has Jessica Lange as a lawyer whose Hungarian father is accused of war crimes. Both films are subtle and serious delineations of the human face of what might be political atrocity or misapprehension. It's odd, given Eszterhas's reputation as a kind of gorilla of insensitivity, that these films are so supple, so mature, so alive to the gap between the human side of the perpetrator and things done in the name of politics.

The reputation of Eszterhas depends partly on the sophistication and accessibility of these films. However, it's in Telling Lies in America, the small independent film in which Eszterhas told the story of a Hungarian childhood in his native Cleveland and depicted a posh Catholic school like his own, that we come closest to the autobiographical in his work, and therefore to one aspect of the powerful and deeply engaging writer ofHollywood Animal. This is a memoir that is structured around the juxtaposition between the author's immediate past, in which he shouted and screamed and cajoled in order to get the millions of dollars he thought he deserved, and the childhood of a reffo boy with dead-poor parents, one a lady who went mad and "heard" waves of electricity, and the other an anti-communist intellectual forced to edit a magazine for a group of Franciscan monks in order to make a living for his family.

Telling Lies in America is a beautiful film, a kind of cinematic Bildungsroman, in which Brad Renfro plays the teenage hunkie boy at the Catholic college who cheats his way onto the Radio Hall of Fame and becomes an apprentice to a conman (Kevin Bacon), a DJ who gets given paper bags full of money for his promotional services. Renfro is wonderful as the gormless kid, practising his "th" sounds in front of the mirror, and Bacon gives one of the finest performances of his career as the dodgy music man.

It's an extraordinarily authentic film in its quiet way, with Callista Flock-hart as the older girl the boy yearns for (and whom he tries, with disastrous effects, to drug and with whom he eventually sleeps) and the great Maximilian Schell in the part of the hero's Hungarian father. Not the least interesting aspect of Telling Lies in America, the film Harvey Weinstein refused to distribute, against his wife's advice, so that it went straight to video, is that it's an American film, with four stars, that is patently as close as anything could be to autobiographical fiction.

 

HOLLYWOOD ANIMAL (HUTCHISON, 2004) is a very artfuly constructed book, at once two-tier and two-"time" – Hollywood just yesterday, Cleveland in the '50s and early '60s – that is disguised as a kind of celebrity rant and is at once a celebration and a critique of the mauling animal, the 200kilogram gorilla that took on the Hollywood system as a writer and, for a time at least, won.

It is, among other things, a portrait of the artist as a ravening beast, though it is also the other kind of book, the sort that says "and say my glory" – or my sorrow – "was that I had such friends". It's the story of a man who has at last, after suffering lung cancer and a more or less fabulous fall from the Hollywood summit, deserted the circus animals. But it's also a fantastic cavalcade of sawdust, shit and silver all the way.

The gallery is extraordinary. Take the producer, Robert Evans, one-time husband of Ali McGraw and roué of extraordinary proportions. He's the one who, when he reads Eszterhas's Basic Instinct script, doesn't just send a note in the normal way saying it's the best script he's read in ages. No, he sends it in the person of a girl wearing nothing but a mink. And from what part of her person does she produce the note? You guessed it. Eszterhas, no prude despite the reformation with which the book ends, says that he liked the smell.

Hollywood Animal is like that. It's very rank, very glitzy and for much of its length it seems growlingly, rather gloriously, uncontrite. We are told that Sharon Stone, who stalks the book like – what else? – a succubus, refuses to have anything to do with Evans because he once kept a friend of hers on a chain, with a dog collar, though the producer denies that he was ever that Tiberian.

In fact, Hollywood Animal is a deeply moving book, even though for most of its length Eszterhas seems at least half the time, the Hollywood half, exhilarated by the Babylon he depicts and in which he strutted his stuff.

His reason for thinking that he became a Hollywood animal is based on, more than anything else, his treatment of Guy McElwaine, the agent who had dealt with Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra and who pushes through Eszterhas's deals as a superstar more-than-million-dollar screenwriter. McElwaine tells him that nothing is as black as the black heart of an agent. When Joe turns up to see him the first time, McElwaine is late and Eszterhas has to talk to (and drink beer with) Hunter S. Thompson of all people, whom he knows from his – Eszterhas's – days as a Rolling Stone reporter. McElwaine is late, then later, and when he finally does turn up, he pours himself a drink and doesn't give one to Eszterhas, who becomes enraged.

He becomes, however, this black-hearted agent, the fastest of friends with Eszterhas. He tells Eszterhas not to leave Gerri, the mother of his teenage children, and he sticks around so she has someone to talk to when his advice is ignored.

McElwaine has a period as the head of a studio, during which time Eszterhas is looked after by Michael Ovitz, and the linchpin (as well as the centrepiece) of this blood-and-gore view of Hollywood as a horror land is the scene in which Ovitz refuses to accept it when Eszterhas tells him that he is going back to McElwaine when he returns to agenting. Ovitz says that he will come after him, that he will sue his arse, that his life and his family's will not be worth living, that he is not going anywhere.

Eszterhas reels, he is staggered, he knows he won't be able to afford the mortgage he's just put on a new house but, after a period of shakiness, he persists in his original decision. He rings McElwaine who says nothing, he simply weeps in gratitude on the phone. Then our author goes after Ovitz as a means of self-preservation. He writes back to him, expatiating on and recapitulating the level of threat and the ruthlessness of the violence displayed; and, of course, he then copies the letter to a lot of people who pass it on to a lot more. It tumbles out of Robert Redford's fax machine and Jane Fonda's and, very casually, Eszterhas confirms its contents when the press contact him.

Ovitz has a fit. He rings and Eszterhas gets his wife to hang up on him several times. The Great Agent writes back saying no, oh dear, no, Joe, that's not his recollection of the conversation at all. This is one of thoseRashomon moments where perspectives and recollections differ fundamentally and irreconcilably. How could he possibly be thought to have behaved so brutally?

ESZTERHAUS HAS GOT him because he is such a blood-and-guts powerhouse of a mouth at the typewriter and also, more particularly, because our Joe is such a ruthless master of publicity and self-assertion. That's written all over this very powerful and utterly compelling book which, for much of its length, seems to sparkle with gladiatorial extroversion and it's certainly spectacularly vivid at this level. But it is also something else besides. It's a portrait of a man who clearly was – and presumably at some level still is – a great hurricane of a life force, with his Hell's Angel demeanour and his "Right back at ya" toughness and bullishness.

It will deliver everything anyone could ever want of the pure squalor of glamour: Sharon Stone saying she won't be needing these anymore (of her scented underpants on the set of Basic Instinct the day of that shot); Marty Ransohoff, the extraordinary old producer who falls out with Glenn Close on the set of Betrayed and says he's going to watch her nude scene and he's going to have his eyes on her big fat, white arse and he's going to be fucking it with his eyes. And the reader actually gets implicated in this amoral – immoral? – ball game and is half-frustrated when this unspeakable set of revenges is not enacted.

Hollywood Animal is a tremendously entertaining book. The most formidable of all the feuders with Eszterhas is in fact Verhoeven. He says he wants to change everything in Basic Instinct and then doesn't change a word. He tells the gay and lesbian lobby who object to the film that he will not change a word of the script, despite Eszterhas's willingness to compromise, he will not bow to this idiot censorship, but then shoots a script that follows the excisions and has no references to "dykes".

He says more than once, "Who wins? Joe wins", but he seems a cooler and more quizzical figure with less broad gesticulation and more strings to his bow. Though it's hard to tell, because Joe Eszterhas in this bright and buoyant story of a life is at pains to minimise the distance between the man who suffers and shouts and the man who narrates and he has more than one story to tell and more than one level to tell it at.

To start with, there is the story of his Hungarian family in Cleveland. His father, István Esterház, was a writer in Hungary until he escaped the communists in the last days of World War II and Eszterhas executes a portrait of him of extraordinary warmth and subtlety. No, the Zsidos, the Jews, were not bad people; they could be good or bad like anyone else. As for what was done to them – the horror of Hungarians killing them by the banks of the Danube, he would hope, if he had been faced with it, that he would have resisted it, but how strong is any man?

The world of that time was a terrible place. Communism had been tried before the war and people had been hung from lamp-posts. Communism was something Eszterház senior abhorred and spoke against at public meetings.

Eszterhas's portrait of his father is a loving one and it captures all the warmth and refinement and residual absurdity of a cultivated European living in poverty in postwar America.

His wife, Joe's mother, is a living reproach. She suffers breakdowns, accusing her husband of the darkest crimes of the earth – they remain nameless – and her stumbling adolescent son of lust, depravity and horror. In fact, his worst adolescent behaviour comes when he blindly hits a boy who has been jeering at him across the head with a baseball bat. He could easily have killed him; his victim might well have been brain-damaged. Mercifully, he is unscathed and the parents say they will not prosecute if the Eszterhas family gives them $5000.

It's an impossibly high sum but the adolescent Joe is rescued by a Hungarian priest, Father John Mundweil, who says he will give him the money if he promises to lead a good life and to accept that his parents are the best thing young Eszterhas has going for him. He adds that he knows they are good people and he adds that, as a priest and confessor, he always knows more about people than he would choose to know.

In the latter part of Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas is confronted with things about his father that appal him. But then the latter part of the book is characterised by surprises as the narrator leaves his wife for Naomi, a woman in her 30s whose husband – her very recent husband – has just been having an adulterous and very public affair with the ice-pick woman herself, Sharon Stone. Great chunks of the latter part of Hollywood Animal take the form of extracts from Naomi's diary as she delineates her sympathy for both the Eszterhases and her gradual drift towards falling in love with Joe.

It's a form of objet trouvé which I think works even though some people may think it shines too fierce a spotlight on love and infatuation in a narrative that, for all its colour and sordor, is notably cool about the self and, especially, others. In the end though it doesn't matter, because this weird notation of a life, this complex makeshift mansion of a memoir, is more than the sum of its parts. In its last movement it encompasses dire illness and medical intervention – the author's throat cancer – and then, right at the end, a return to the faith of his fathers. We end, God help us, with Catholicism, with the Hungarian national anthem, with the tears that fall for the just and the unjust. It's a strange catharsis and an earned one. It shows that this weird captivation of a book has a deeper and subtler structure than its visible dramatic boldness would suggest. It is a superb book by a man who was always half in love with the grandeur within him – call it celebrity if you like – and who seems to achieve something better and deeper than being enthralled by his shadow lunging or his shadow falling.

To call Hollywood Animal a cinematic piece of writing would be too hackneyed a compliment. But it is a superb and captivating book about the film industry that also shows the nearly absolute command of tempo and surprise of one of its grander servants. If you want to understand the splendours and miseries of celebrity (and the very traditional lights that outshine it) get hold of this book – and cancel your appointments.

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