Way Too Much Eszterhas Stew: Wretched Movies and Redemption

Hollywood Animal , by Joe Eszterhas. Alfred A. Knopf, 736 pages, $26.95.

Go ahead, I dare you. Pick the book up and try to avoid a sinking feeling in your chest. Over 700 pages, and not an interesting sentence to be found-but that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that Joe Eszterhas, the auteur behind Flashdance (1983), Jagged Edge (1985), Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), the archetypal greasy hack of a low decade, actually thinks he’s good.

When the twin disasters of Showgirls and Jade arrive nearly simultaneously, Mr. Eszterhas writes, “Imagine … two Oliver Stone or Alfred Hitchcock movies failing cataclysmically three weeks apart.” Imagine someone with those films on their résumé invoking the name of Hitchcock, and you have some idea of the delusional narcissism that submarines a potentially interesting story.

Hollywood Animal is a combination of the speed-rap braggadocio of Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994) and the feral belligerence of Elia Kazan’s 1988 memoirs. The motivation is a flight from being poor and homely, the justification is always making it . Nearly every moment carries a train load of gut-wrenching, teeth-clenching melodrama-the man writes the way Kirk Douglas acts.

As with all writers, childhood was painful; Mr. Eszterhas claims that his earliest memory is of a small child drowning in an outhouse in Austria. His mother was a member of the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazi Party, and had bouts of what seem to have been a depression verging on insanity-she could go as long as a month without speaking for no apparent reason, and believed that a new set of false teeth would be “receptors for the transmitting rays.”

As for dear old Dad, Mr. Eszterhas discovered late in life that his father was an anti-Semite who’d written a Hungarian Mein Kampf . It was all an eerie repetition of Music Box , a movie Mr. Eszterhas wrote in 1989, a couple of years before the Justice Department began a prosecution of his father.

In broad outline, his story is indeed compelling, but the tawdry clamor of his tabloid prose and the deadening rhythm of his chest-pounding drowns out any possible emotion.

The book’s organizing principle is interspersed vignettes of his life in the Hungarian district of Cleveland with the Hollywood years. On balance, Mr. Eszterhas shortchanges Cleveland: During the period he was growing up and working there, it was one of the most grimly interesting cities in America, a series of barricaded ethnic enclaves united only by their fear and loathing of blacks. (I was raised there, too.)

What there is of Cleveland in Hollywood Animal is surprisingly accurate, at least on the surface-Mr. Eszterhas nails the spelling of a Hungarian funeral home around Lorain and West 25th, for instance-but the larger picture completely eludes him. Race relations, newspaper politics, it doesn’t matter-if it ain’t about Joe, he’s not paying attention. Many of the Hollywood sections end with a thumbnail sketch of a good friend driven crazy or into the grave by a fatal belief in their own hype-Richard Marquand, Don Simpson, etc.

What’s really going on beneath this heaving mass of autobiographical lava? Mr. Eszterhas had his 15 minutes, that period when his taste coincided with that of the mass audience- Flashdance , Basic Instinct , etc. To his credit, he tried other things, pictures with themes extending past the sex and violence that made him rich. But movies like Betrayed (1988), Music Box and even Telling Lies in America (1997), a mildly pleasant roman à clef about his teenage years in Cleveland, just weren’t that good, nor is time likely to burnish them with the patina of legend.

Other contemporary screenwriters have had exactly the same thing happen to them. Low-end writers like Shane Black and high-end writers like Ron Bass have hit it big, but they can’t sustain the long-distance run that constitutes a career. The reservoir isn’t replenished, and the Hollywood caravan moves on. But those writers keep their anxiety attacks private; they don’t impose on our patience by seeking to extend their dubious franchise to books.

As his oeuvre indicates, Mr. Eszterhas doesn’t do subtle, so plowing through 700 pages of his prose is the literary equivalent of blunt-force trauma. The book is full of scenes that are just a little too punchy, too vivid, too conveniently illustrating a given point for them to be real. People say things that only people in Joe Eszterhas scripts say. This howler, for example, is ascribed to Sharon Stone: “I crawled the hill of broken glass and I sucked and I sucked until I sucked all the air out of my life.”

Mr. Eszterhas has no middle range; he’s either dropping the dime on people he insists are dear friends (he says Robert Evans asked for his son’s foreskin as a totem of masculinity that could cure his impotence) or he turns into sentimental pudding about his children and his second wife.

Because no book of this size and subject matter is published without the airing of dirty sheets, Mr. Eszterhas helpfully names some quasi-celebrity conquests, including the daughter of the then-governor of Ohio. And there was a one-night stand with Ms. Stone.

To give us a sample of the breadth of life in the Eszterhas household, he also includes his second wife Naomi’s diary entries so we can experience their affair and subsequent marriage from two different but equally tedious perspectives.

What Mr. Eszterhas has written is a kind of blue-collar DeMille movie, without the spectacle or storytelling panache; 700 pages of degradation, grubby betrayal, bad faith and truly wretched moviemaking followed by a coda of redemption, true love, throat cancer and a renunciation of smoking and Hollywood, all signaled by the requisite move back to Ohio-not the depressed area around Lorain or Buckeye Road, but the sweet suburbs around Chagrin Falls.

This tale of hubris followed by contrition is completed by Mr. Eszterhas’ claim that “God [is] a newfound friend”-to which one can only say: He should be more careful of the company He keeps.

Is there nothing positive to be said? Well, the extended account of Mr. Eszterhas’ imbroglio with Michael Ovitz is interesting and relatively convincing. Chip Kidd’s design is, as always, state of the art. And Knopf’s rough pages always lend an elegant touch, even when the ridiculous words on the page strenuously violate the imprimatur of class.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published in 2005 by Simon and Schuster.