The Hollywood Beast Roars

The fresh-squeezed carrot juice arrived at the table in New York’s Four Seasons Hotel restaurant. There would be no lemon-ricotta pancakes with applewood-smoked sausage on the side, no two or three glasses of white wine that had once been a morning’s pre-interview pour. This wimpy Kucinich of a cocktail was big Joe Eszterhas’ breakfast.

His frost-n-tipped Allman Brothers mane had matured into a short and bristly Kenny Rogers; the bouncer beard was tamed to a pale goatee. Those hairy-chest Hawaiian shirts had been discarded three years ago with his worn-out existence in Malibu; today he was wearing a sensible thermal pullover more befitting a burgher of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Barely visible above his collar was a five-inch scar, a fault line in that ruddy football-coach neck. In March 2001, Joe Eszterhas was diagnosed with throat cancer. It was now or perhaps never to release Hollywood Animal (Alfred A. Knopf), a 736-page monster truck of a memoir that lumbers into bookstores this week.

His four-pack-a day devotion to Salem Ultra Lights had cost Mr. Eszterhas, 59, most of his larynx. He was lucky he wasn’t drinking his carrot juice through a tube in his stomach. The demon cells were in remission-for the time being: “My doctor, a very honest man, told me everything is absolutely fine, but with this particular kind of cancer, you could have a lump on your neck and be dead in six months.”

In the 80′s and much of the 90′s, Mr. Eszterhas was Hollywood’s best-paid screenwriter, sometimes receiving more cash for a script than the film’s director, who would usually find himself in a back-alley brawl with Mr. Eszterhas over their unshared vision. Some of these movies were hits. Some weren’t. One could count on seeing cartons of militantly smoked cigarettes, plenty of on-the-job hanky-panky and, in his late-period panty movies, ruttish lesbians and multiple grand-mal orgasms. “You like to play games, don’t you?” was a line that Mr. Eszterhas wrang out of his Olivetti manual more than once. Plots usually twisted around people who were not what they appeared to be.

By the time he packed up and left Hollywood, he’d seen an astonishing 15 films reach the screen. He’d sold several other scripts for crazy money. One went for $3 million, another for $3.7 million and yet another for $4.7 million, he tells us in the first 11 pages, before his story has even left the runway. He doodled the plot for a $4 million movie, One Night Stand , on the back of a cocktail napkin. (And then Mike Figgis came along. Mike Figgis! A man who wore a beret to the Golden Globes! Mr. Figgis spat his own words into the $4 million cocktail-napkin movie, writes Mr. Eszterhas, and ruined it for everybody.)

But it was Showgirls, 1995′s stripper satyricon, with its oceans of sticky lip gloss, Scissorhands nail extensions and bottles of Cristal bursting in air, that Mr. Eszterhas would never live down. The movie’s rapist rock star, Andrew Carver, even looked something like the film’s author. The reviews were vicious; people wondered what Joe Eszterhas was smoking.

“From the time director Paul Verhoeven and I read the script,” he patiently explained at the Four Seasons, “we were laughing our heads off at certain things. Somehow, people thought it was a very serious drama that had turned into inadvertent comedy. But there was always a lot of humor in the piece. I don’t understand how it’s not obvious that a line, like, you know, ‘How does it feel not to have anyone coming on you anymore?’ is funny. It was meant to be a funny line. It was a funny line.” He laughed easily-a roll-bellied heh-heh-heh .

In one of many paragraphs in the book spent wresting his reputation from this tar baby, he suggests that too many tokes of Maui wowie had informed the creative process. As for his alleged misogyny, he claims Gloria Steinem approached him after Showgirls to write a film on the young Marilyn Monroe.

How insufferable was I? he asks several times in the course of the book’s introduction. The answer is all too apparent, but he clearly prides himself on the carbo-loaded particulars: the Concorde tickets, the “A-list pussy” that rubbed up against his leg, the 2,000 fan letters a week, the T-shirt he wore to meetings that read, “My inner child is a mean little fuck.” Mr. Eszterhas’ movies grossed more than $1 billion, so he comes by his bragging rights honestly. Still, one can’t help but wonder if it was merely an accident of geography that neighbor Bob Dylan’s mastiffs often chose to relieve themselves in front of his Point Dume house.

The scorekeeping continues. “For two and a half years, I’ve had gallons of carrot juice, and my doctor says he’s never seen the kind of tissue regeneration that he sees in my case,” he croaked. The waiter went to fetch a pot of hot water, antifreeze for Mr. Eszterhas’ still-stunned pipes. This morning, there were things on his mind that would no longer go without saying. The operation had left him sounding more don’t-screw-with-me than ever.

The way Mr. Eszterhas writes about Hollywood’s own tricky peristalsis, it makes you wonder how anything halfway decent ever falls out the back end. Mr. Eszterhas’ stories may date from a pre-Ashton-and-Demi era, but like classic-DVD rentals, they still hold up.

There are the actors insisting their characters have a redemptive arc. The female leads forced to pass every studio’s “But would you want to fuck her?” test. The grip who dared to suggest to Mr. Eszterhas a fix for the last scene of Betrayed and got socked in the stomach. A quick cameo features a dentist who is a studio head’s only trusted pair of eyes-that is, until the dentist drops dead of a heart attack and the studio head’s lucky green light goes on the blink forever. Mr. Eszterhas said it’s a true story and reached for some Hollywood lore: “People were always saying Michael Eisner’s wife had a gynecologist who would read the comedies, and his own doctor would read the dramas.”

“I’m a writer. I use people for what I write,” Catherine Tramell snarls in the nympho-brainiac thriller Basic Instinct . “Let the world beware.” In Mr. Eszterhas’ book, Norman Jewison leaves an unsealed envelope in the young Eszterhas’ bedroom so he can get a load of all the zeroes on the director’s bank statement. Sylvester Stallone tries to heist the credit for writing F.I.S.T. , then objects to being killed off in the script. Glenn Close bans the wild-boar producer of Jagged Edge from witnessing her carefully lighted sex scene. Michael Douglas bloodies Paul Verhoeven’s nose on the set of Basic Instinct (or so Mr. Eszterhas’ spies report). The late director Richard Marquand has a one-night stand at the Westwood Marquis and wakes up alone, in handcuffs.

Robert Evans is the book’s dotty old uncle in a bolo tie, shoving a huge dildo out the car window on his way to rehab. He weeps when a check he’s written to Mike Ovitz is returned to sender, ripped into tiny pieces. He uses a naked actress-slash-model-slash-courier to deliver his thank-you notes. Mr. Evans complains about Charles Michener, the Princeton-grad ghostwriter of his autobiography: “He uses the word ‘vagina’ all the time,” moans the priapic producer. “I’ve never used that word in my life. Now I’ve got to go back and change all of Michener’s vaginas to my cunts .”

Somewhat perversely, there’s no index in the back to track the numerous dramatis personae, but if there were, Sharon Stone’s entry would read something like this:

Stone, Sharon, 9

Frankenstein-monster creation of, 23, 303, 337, 401

one-night stand with, 27-28, 337-339, 364, 447

in Basic Instinct ‘s pubic-hair scene, 35-36, 553-554

scratching and clawing for parts and, 302

Michael Douglas and one-upmanship of, 299

Bob Evans’ hatred of, 340-341

Ayn Rand and organic healing and, 402

past-life regression views on, 399, 402

married-men seduction of, 9, 27-28, 337-339, 397-403,

407-409, 411-414, 417-499, 422-423, 444, 447, 478-479,

510, 514- 515, 519-520, 528

Mr. Eszterhas cheated on his first wife with Ms. Stone, among others, including the daughter of Ohio governor (now Senator) George Voinovich. But his attentions are mostly glue-gunned to Ms. Stone, portrayed as the most manipulative Cleopatra since Liz Taylor, a queen of the vile. It was on the set of Sliver that Ms. Stone took up with Bill Macdonald, one of Mr. Eszterhas’ married producer friends who worked with Bob Evans. Then Mr. Eszterhas left his wife of 24 years for Mr. Macdonald’s pretty young wife, Naomi. The tabloids damn near combusted.

He and Naomi now have four little boys. But Mr. Eszterhas likes her to come along on his business trips; she stopped by the table on her way out of the hotel, good cheer illuminating her wide-open face, her hay-colored hair flipped up at the ends. “Naomi and I had an operating principal when we began the book,” Mr. Eszterhas said, “which was: If it’s true and it happened, let’s not hide it. Let’s be very up-front about it, even if it doesn’t make us look very good.” Lengthy outtakes from her own well-tended diary chronicle the collapse of her marriage and the domino crumble of his (that is, when she’s not practically videotaping the outrageous antics over at Bob Evans’ pad).

“It’s a very interesting point of view-a woman’s voice right in the middle of my book,” said Mr. Eszterhas, very genuinely. “I love the fact that this love story will live forever and our grandchildren will read it, you know?”

Perhaps it’s for the benefit of Naomi-the woman he calls his “one true love”-that he decides to reheat a Sharon Stone tale from American Rhapsody , his part-memoir, part-fictionalized 2000 book about Hollywood and Bill Clinton. As viewed again in the mirrored ceiling of his memory, the single night he spent romancing Ms. Stone was now traumatic. There was Thai grass, there was way too much Cristal, and there was much roistering around an ornate dollhouse she kept on the floor of her living room. “It’s a Southern Gothic image,” Mr. Eszterhas told me, not wanting to say any more-as if there was much more to say. In Hollywood Animal , he suddenly drops that Ms. Stone’s body was doughy, like she’d eaten one too many peanut-butter sandwiches.

At the end of the evening, when he shambled back to his hotel suite- where George Voinovich’s daughter awaited him! -he now says he felt “underpaid” (though he charitably allows that most screenwriters would have felt overwhelmed). Also new to this book is the bonus detail that Ms. Stone then telephoned, sweaty and scared: She thought she’d heard the burglar alarm and went sprinting down the street with a butcher’s knife.

“One of the things that I love about writing books is that I really did get tired of fighting. It’s not a healthy way to live,” said Mr. Eszterhas. But Hollywood Animal shows that he still has some of the Hun in him.

Mr. Eszterhas liked to approach the studios with an original, already finished screenplay, called a spec. “I love writing specs because there’s less of a chance, frankly, that everybody will piss in it,” he said. “A spec is almost as close as you can get to a fait accompli. If they like it, they will be in a hurry to make it, and if they are in a hurry to make it, there’s less of a chance that 10 development people and the director and the stars are all going to have ideas on how to redo it.”

Other screenwriters were far more accommodating, he felt. Namely Bill Goldman and Ron Bass, who “rewrote Barry Morrow’s Rain Man and earned a secondhand ricocheting Oscar,” Mr. Eszterhas says in his book. These other screenwriters are like hookers, Mr. Eszterhas writes over and over again. Except Charlie Kaufman. Still: “I wouldn’t go out of my way to look at his stuff,” Mr. Eszterhas muttered at the Four Seasons. He also drew a distinction between those who butter-churned original scripts and those who merely banged out adaptations: “It’s very much ‘Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River ‘ to me, you know?” he said. “I resent those critics who make it a film by Clint Eastwood and never mention Lehane and talk about how good Clint’s writing was. It’s not true. It’s wrong.”

Mr. Eszterhas spends a lot of time in the book unloading a tractor trailer of sometimes-interesting excuses and mea culpas : He even apologizes for using so many limos (the cabbies, he said, were always troubling him to read their scripts).

He fidgeted with his blunt silver knife, pitching and rolling it in those roast-beef fists like a size-XXL joint. The days were gone when he carried a big buck blade like the one he jabbed into the table at meetings when he was a reporter at Rolling Stone . “Smokers need to do something with their hands,” he explained.

Today, he said, producers were now merely servants for the studio, and in many cases for the stars, too.

“There are fewer real original characters. People like [ Jagged Edge 's producer] Marty Ransohoff would go storming into a studio head’s office and say, ‘You stupid motherfucker, you are not doing this!’” he said. “They’ve all been replaced by these mealy-mouthed, namby-pamby, scared-shitless executives.”

Oh, for the days of Mike Ovitz! Read all about Mr. Eszterhas’ 1989 exit from CAA, when he decided to dump Mr. Ovitz-who, it must be noted, didn’t take it very well. “My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out,” he told Mr. Eszterhas, who managed to sneak these battle plans to the press and eat lunch in that town again. In 2002, Mike Ovitz told Vanity Fair that he blamed the “gay mafia” for kneecapping his own career. Mr. Eszterhas said he wasn’t surprised by the choice of words.

“If you leave, you’re going to make my agents look like faggots,” Mr. Eszterhas claimed Mr. Ovitz told him in their infamous 1989 exchange.

When the droid of a super-agent came meeching around afterward, Mr. Eszterhas instructed his then-wife to hang up on him. He’d already written Mr. Ovitz an “I am not an asset; I am a human being” letter. Mr. Ovitz wrote back, identifying himself as a “sensitive” soft-candy-center guy who only wished Joe the best.

Of course, he didn’t really .

Late one night, Mr. Eszterhas writes, the phone rang. It was a mutual friend. “Michael is crazy with this stuff,” said the voice. “Watch your driving, check the brakes of your car, see if you’re being followed.” Producer Don Simpson advised him to check into different hotels under an assumed name when the writer was business-tripping through Los Angeles. Make sure your booze is opened where you can see it, Don said. Mr. Eszterhas writes of death threats and, in the driveway, a San Francisco–appropriate horse’s head: A bandanna printed with skulls and bones came wrapped around his Chronicle . The moment he mentioned to someone in CAA’s orbit that he was on the verge of talking to 60 Minutes , he claims in the book, those death threats dried up.

“In terms of karma, Mike Ovitz treated a lot of people very badly,” Mr. Eszterhas observed darkly.

Mr. Eszterhas seemed untroubled by the state of his own karma. American Rhapsody , a ranty groin-kick directed at Bill Clinton, was a best-seller for seven weeks in 2000. Rush Limbaugh read several pages on the air. Mr. Eszterhas mentioned that Vernon Jordan, impudently labeled the “Ace of Spades,” left a message on his machine just to say “thank you.” Mr. Eszterhas was at the Democratic Convention when Bill Richardson, the onetime ambassador to the U.N. and President Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, strolled up to him outside the green room.

“You’re a good man,” Mr. Richardson said.

“I was like, ‘Jesus, what’s he thinking?’” Mr. Eszterhas remembered, shaking his head in disbelief. “And then he said, ‘No, I really mean it.’ So clearly there were some people around Clinton who liked the book.”

Mr. Eszterhas was sure the Clintons would divorce when Bill left office.

“I hope that, on a human level, they’re not living a hypocrisy,” he said. “They are, however, both political animals. But I hope there’s a real partnership there, and that it’s not all an act.” He’s convinced Hillary Clinton will run in 2008. “It’ll be a sensational race- great theater! ” he growled.

But would he- could he -vote for her? His last book pegged her as an earnest crypto-lesbian (and not even a horny one) who liked to scream and throw things. “It would depend on who she’s running against,” he said. The cup of hot water scraped its saucer uncomfortably. “No. Eh. But. There are a great many things I like about Hillary and a great many things that frighten me. She was an absolute orthodox, dogmatic true believer in her younger years, in her doctrinaire liberal politics. True believers of the left or the right put me off.”

Relocated to Ohio, Mr. Eszterhas has quite the unique perspective on things. “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,” he said.

Mr. Eszterhas’ last production was 1997′s Burn Hollywood Burn , a home-movie-ish satire that incinerated at the box office. And surely these books of his weren’t pumping his West Coast Q-rating. Mr. Eszterhas had considered this. “My old agent Guy McElwaine was right when he said the town runs on greed,” he said. “Everyone knows that one day I might sit down and write another spec script that’s gonna be a $200 million hit movie. This is Hollywood; people know they may need each other again.” People like Paramount head Sherry Lansing, who cherrypicked 1995′s Jade for her out-of-work director husband, William Friedkin, and then drove the project into a ditch-or so Mr. Eszterhas writes.

“Besides, I worked for nearly 30 years in Hollywood,” said Mr. Eszterhas. “I know an awful lot about an awful lot of people. Those people won’t consider this book a tell-all.” He’s still having dinner with Ms. Lansing and Mr. Friedkin.

But amid Hollywood Animal ‘s stomping and snorting, it’s easy to be distracted from the other half of the book, housing a deeply felt immigrant tale.

“It’s a kind of love story about my father,” said Mr. Eszterhas, who had just been born in Hungary when his parents found themselves trying to survive on pine-needle soup in Europe’s refugee camps. His parents were Catholic; his father had been a writer and Hungarian nationalist, and had changed his name from Kreisz to the more Hungarian-sounding Eszterhas. His mother, the daughter of a tavernkeeper, was painfully shy. “The notion that she would have to hear people arguing or making love in the camps must have been the most brutal kind of violation,” said Mr. Eszterhas.

After the family docked in Cleveland, his mother had a breakdown when he was 13, apparently suffering from schizophrenia. “One of the most painful things for me was that she would be yelling and very aggressive and hostile. And then she would be very cold and not aggressive and hostile. And then, suddenly, she’d be a friendly and warm and loving mother,” he said. His parents kept to themselves even as he rejected violin lessons, eagerly embracing America and Chuck Berry and “bazball.” But he was never not an outsider, this kid who was bullied at his parochial schools. A nun threatened him with a Coca-Cola bottle and he knocked her to the ground.

Later in life came the unexpected plot twist. In 1990, a year after the release of Music Box , a moving film about a Hungarian immigrant accused of war crimes, his own 83-year-old father, who edited a tiny Hungarian newspaper in the States, was suddenly under investigation by the Department of Justice for wartime activity in Hungary’s Ministry of Propaganda. Mr. Eszterhas discovered that his father had actually fled the old country for fear that he would be prosecuted as a war criminal. A book his father had written long ago, the one his father had always said he wished he had a copy of- that was the one in which he’d called Jews “parasites” on the body politic. His rosary-twisting mother had literally been a card-carrying member of the country’s foremost anti-Semitic political party, the Arrow Cross.

This kind of great theater Mr. Eszterhas could have done without.

For the rest of his father’s life, Mr. Eszterhas could hardly bear to be around him. His dad hung on for a time, his only companions the nurses his son paid for.

“I’ve never really been to Hungary,” Mr. Eszterhas said. “I was so charged up to be an American. But I think I want to go now.” Maybe the thing he’s proudest of in the book, he said, is that here, his father will always be alive. “I had to come to the point where I was at the most vulnerable that I’d ever been in my own life to forgive him.”

On his doctor’s advice, Mr. Eszterhas said he’d also quit drinking. “I was a really terrible, bad, totally functioning alcoholic,” he said. He is quick to point out that he never staggered. Still, he said he was “one of those people who were maybe born in need of two drinks, and that became worse with the pressures of a divorce and with movies and with living there .”

After the operation, Mr. Eszterhas found himself unable to write for a year and a half. Writing was just too yoked to “sipping” and smoking. “Both of these things were so central to my conception of myself, I thought I might be powerless without them,” he said. “I was terrified. I’m still terrified.” He now walks several miles a day to tire himself out, ease the cravings. “Naomi and I used to have these wonderful lengthy dinners. We’d watch the news, and we’d have two or three bottles of wine. All that changed. Dinner became 20 minutes. We changed our lives inside out, you know?”

Mr. Eszterhas now feels clear-eyed. Lucid. “There’s a kind of peace I never had before,” he said. His editor at Knopf, Peter Gethers, confirmed this newfound calm. “For one thing, he can’t yell any more. Even when he gets angry and threatens to kill me when I try to cut several hundred pages, it’s not the same.”

Mr. Eszterhas has also rediscovered God. That heavy silver ring on his knuckle has the flash of a rhinestone cross. The credits were now rolling, but not before Joe Eszterhas had found his own redemptive arc.