Low men on the Hollywood totem pole, screenwriters are supposed to be neither seen nor heard from once they turn in their script and cash their checks. Except if you are Joe Eszterhas, who became famous, some would say notorious, not only for his headline-making paydays, but for his outrageous behavior as well. A self-confessed trouble-maker, Eszterhas is not only a ferociously good writer best known for his violent, sexy screenplays that made millions at the box office, but a master of self-publicity and a world-class brawler.
He famously clashed with Sylvester Stallone when the actor tried to take credit for the screenplay of F.I.S.T. (1998), and publicly took on the head of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Mike Ovitz, the then-most powerful man in Hollywood, by exposing his threats to Eszterhas’ life and career when Eszterhas tried to switch agencies.
While described alternatively as “the rogue elephant of screenwriters” by the LA Times and “the eminence greasy of Hollywood” by Slate magazine, here’s how Eszterhas sums himself up in his 2006 book, “The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood.”
“My films have grossed over $1 billion at the box office, and in 1992, Basic Instinct was the number-one movie of the year worldwide. I have been paid many millions of dollars for my scripts, more than any other screenwriter in Hollywood history: $4 million for a four-page outline of One Night Stand; $3.7 million for Showgirls; $3.7 million for an unproduced biography of John Gotti; $3 million for Basic Instinct; $2.5 million for Jade, and lesser seven-figure amounts for Betrayed, Music Box and Flashdance.”
Eszterhas zoomed in from his home in the Cleveland suburbs to talk about his career in Hollywood, his colorful life and the 30th anniversary of Basic Instinct.
What gave you the courage to stand up to the bullies in Hollywood?
I grew up in Cleveland in a tough neighborhood. Because I was a refugee, I got the shit beat out of me, sometimes. So, I learned to combine negotiating with fighting. And that’s basically my entire Hollywood career. In Michael Ovitz’s case, he behaved like a real thug. So, it was my Hungarian nature probably, my refugee background, I would just really get pissed off and hurt. And Michael Ovitz wound up on the wrong end of that particular totem pole with that incident.
Do you think in today’s culture, you would find an audience with your controversial films?
I think that our “woke” culture is one of the greatest threats to our democracy. It squashes free speech. It’s almost like the old-time inquisitions where people were turned into witches. I have always considered myself, because of my background, to be very open and inclusive in my own mind and my own art. I went to jail in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. The entire cancellation culture is an abasement of all of that in my mind. I think we’ve taken a step back to some of the things that went on in the Iron Curtain countries like Hungary. We are in that same cultural censorial period I think, and it frightens me.
Have you always written on spec?
Yes, I like writing on spec. The reason being, putting it in Hollywood terms, no one gets a chance to piss in the pie, the pie is all yours.
How did the story of Basic Instinct come about?
When I was a young reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I covered the police beat. There was one cop who was charismatic, charming, and smart, but he had been involved in three shootings. Two of those people had died and they were ruled justifiable homicides. So [as] I got to know him, I began to get that he liked the shooting, he enjoyed it. And he stuck with me. About the same time, I had a relationship with a woman who was about 10 years older than I was, and I was about 18, 19. She was a beautiful woman, but I thought she was the most manipulative. I liked her, but there was a part of her that was very dark. Those two different images came together in my head. This thing just came out almost full-blown. I wrote it in 13 days. All the way through the writing, I called it Love Hurts. As I was walking out the door on my way to my agent, a bolt of lightning said, change this to Basic Instinct. I went back into the house, put a new title on it and sent it. Three days [later], we sold it for four million bucks. So we got the headlines.
Would it have been a different movie without Sharon Stone?
She has a quality that is almost like a cuddly little girl quality. And then there is something in the shadows where you can see a kind of darkness. I thought she was brilliant. Her performance was critically underrated because it was so daring on a sexual level. But I can’t overstate how important she was to the film and how she made it work.
How did you get the Rolling Stone job?
Hunter Thompson [gonzo journalist and writer] read one of my things in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a biker gang and wrote me a note saying, “You asshole, you are the only other person who can write about cycle gangs besides me.” He showed the article to Jann Wenner [editor]. The Plain Dealer had fired me for writing an article that was critical of them. So Jann said come on out here. Well, suddenly I find myself at Rolling Stone magazine and different kinds of drugs are laid out on the table, the women are topless during the summer months. I was like, what the fuck is going on? Of course, I ended up loving it. Hunter became a good friend and he really helped me.
When you reflect back on your life, are you still the same person you were two decades ago?
I don’t think I’ve changed. I have two daughters, I have been blessed with my first wife, who I lived with for 24 years, Naomi [second wife] and I are in our 27th year. That doesn’t mean in any way that I was a saint in my relationships. I’ve always been ornery.