Joe Eszterhas, Hollywood Animal

eszterhas-hollywood-animalInitially, Hollywood Animal, the memoir of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (he of Basic Instinct and Showgirls), is a tremendous read. The day I received it in the mail, I sat down and read through 100 pages. I had to force myself to put the book down. The next day, the same thing – another 100 pages. My pace slowed after the third day when I reached a point in the book where Eszterhas delved more into his childhood via “flashbacks.”

Eszterhas certainly can tell a tale. The book sucked me in so quickly because of his rhythm and natural gusto for storytelling. Then he seemed to reach a juncture. There is not one moment I can point to where Eszterhas consciously begins considering his “legacy” (for wont of a better term) – and since biographies are always written with the benefit of hindsight, he surely considered it when he started writing (then again, maybe not) – but when he does, the pace slows. Somewhere in the tome, Eszterhas changes from being the Hollywood animal to being the reluctant Hollywood animal.

Unfortunately, in a cliche as big as Tinseltown could dream up, Eszterhas’s relationship with Hollywood is not as adversarial as he would like it to be. There’s a palpable tension between Eszterhas the scribe and Eszterhas the artiste. But there’s also the obvious portrait of Eszterhas the Hollywood whore. In a justification that he can’t even believe, Eszterhas will repeatedly claim that, of course he’s good, look at how much money he makes. Being popular and wealthy has never proven artistic worth — just ask Huey Lewis. It would be more honest if Eszterhas simply said, “I write shit that people pay to see.” Instead, Big E works hard to impress upon us that had the directors just shot his films as written, so many of them wouldn’t have turned into shit. I haven’t read an original screenplay of Showgirls, but unless they re-wrote every word, it’s still pretty shitty.

Credit Eszterhas for this immensely honest portrait of himself. He dramatizes the tension in his life in great detail – including his painful breakup with his first wife. He’s reluctant to give too many details of extra-marital affairs, though he does make a point of slagging Sharon Stone (she was “doughy”), but he gives enough that no woman would excuse him. He describes his second wife and their love affair in such glowing terms that one almost forgives him. Again, like the tension between the artist and the tradesman, Eszterhas often puts a “jeez, things are so complicated” spin on events in his life. Well, jeez, if you hadn’t slept around so much nor drunk, drugged and smoked so much, they probably wouldn’t be.

But that’s Joe, Hollywood animal to the end.

The most uncomfortable element to his story is a seemingly unforgiving attitude he takes towards his father once he discovers that he had been a writer of propaganda during WWII. Eszterhas spends many of his “flashbacks” discussing the anti-Semitism that he and his family encounter in the Hungarian neighborhoods in Cleveland (they themselves were Hungarian Catholic emmigrants). In each encounter, his father is highly vocal against such racism. The portrait of the father is clearly one of a new American who has struggled with his feelings in the old country and hoped to leave such nastiness behind. In every instance, even when it contradicted his mother, Eszterhas’s father condemns the anti-Semitism.

When Eszterhas learns his father may have had a hand in propagating such racism in Hungary under the Nazi rule, he virtually turns his back on him. This tore my heart out — a man so contrite that he does everything possible not to impart an irrational, hateful attitude to his son deserves his son’s acceptance if not forgiveness. Yet, Joe leaves us hanging even after his father’s death.

It’s Eszterhas lending a moral ambiguity to his own life that he puts in his screenplays. One gets the feeling that Joe may just have patched things up with the old man but doesn’t want to let us in.

There’s plenty more to Eszterhas’s memoir and it’s engaging throughout. He even gives us a happy ending — sort of. Though Joe gets out of Hollywood, it’s difficult to determine if Hollywood got out of him. Perhaps this memoir serves as an exorcism in that regard.