Eszterhas, Joseph A(nthony) 1944- (Joe Eszterhas)
ESZTERHAS, Joseph A(nthony) 1944-
PERSONAL: Born Josef Antony Eszterhas, November 23, 1944, in Csakanydoroszlo, Hungary; immigrated to United States, naturalized U.S. citizen; son of Istvan (a novelist) and Maria (Biro) Eszterhas; married Geraldine Javer (a police reporter), c. 1969 (divorced, c. 1993); married Naomi Baka (an artist and producer), June 30, 1994; children: (first marriage) Steven, Suzanne; (second marriage) Joseph Jeremiah, Nicholas Pompeo, John Law. Education: Ohio State University, degrees in English and journalism, 1966. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Reading.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Rosalie Swedlin, Creative Artists Agency, 1888 Century Park E., Suite 1400, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
CAREER: Plain Dealer, Cleveland, OH, reporter, c. early 1970s; Rolling Stone, San Francisco, CA, began as staff writer, became senior editor, 1971-74; screen-writer, novelist, and freelance journalist, 1974—. Executive producer of films, including Betrayed, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1988; executive
producer, with others, of films Music Box, TriStar, 1989, Nowhere to Run, Columbia, 1993, Sliver, Paramount, 1993, Jade, Paramount, 1995, and Show-girls, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1995. Has also appeared in films, including Telling Lies in America, Banner Entertainment, 1997. Spokesman for Cleveland Clinic antismoking campaign "Join Joe," beginning 2003.
AWARDS, HONORS: Named Best Feature Writer, Associated Press, 1969; Best News Story award, 1970; National Book Award nomination, 1973, for Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse.
nonfiction; under name joe eszterhas
(With Michael D. Roberts) Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, Dodd (New York, NY), 1970.
Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
Nark!: A Tale of Terror, Straight Arrow (San Francisco, CA), 1974.
screenplays; under name joe eszterhas
(With Sylvester Stallone) F.I.S.T. (also see below), United Artists, 1978.
(With Thomas Hedley) Flashdance, Paramount, 1983.
Jagged Edge, Columbia Pictures, 1985.
(With Scott Richardson) Hearts of Fire, Lorimar, 1986.
Big Shots, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1987.
Betrayed, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1988.
Checking Out, Warner Brothers, 1989.
Music Box, Tri-Star, 1990.
Basic Instinct, Tri-Star, 1992.
Sliver, Paramount, 1993.
(With Leslie Bohem and Randy Feldman; author of story, with Richard Marquand) Nowhere to Run, Columbia, 1993.
Showgirls, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1995.
Jade, Paramount, 1995.
Telling Lies in America, Banner Entertainment, 1997.
An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, Buena Vista, 1998.
F.I.S.T. (novel; based on screenplay of the same title), Dell (New York), 1978.
(With others) Pals (teleplay), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), 1987.
American Rhapsody (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Also author of unproduced screenplays Male-patterned Baldness, Sacred Cows, Foreplay, Gangland, Land of the Free, Reliable Sources, Blaze of Glory, and Evil Empire. Composer of song "I Wanna Be Mike Ovitz" for film An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. Contributor of articles to newspapers and magazines.
ADAPTATIONS: American Rhapsody was adapted as an audio book.
SIDELIGHTS: Joseph A. Eszterhas has achieved widespread fame as a top Hollywood screenwriter whose successes include such films as Flashdance and Basic Instinct. Yet before he conquered the movie world, Eszterhas had already established himself as a cutting-edge, radical journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. He wrote his first book, Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, with Michael D. Roberts in 1970. Thirteen Seconds is a widely praised investigation of the massacre of student antiwar demonstrators by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in May of 1970. The authors interviewed numerous witnesses and participants in the tragic confrontation to tell the story with "relentless honesty," remarked Newsweek reviewer Peter S. Prescott.
Eszterhas wrote two additional books on controversial social themes while working as a reporter. Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, which was nominated for a National Book Award, examines the social context of a seemingly senseless act of violence by an alienated youth in a small Missouri town in early 1972. Charlie Simpson, a volatile, long-haired farm boy with what Eszterhas terms "revolutionary" pretensions, killed several townspeople and himself with an M-1 carbine following months of petty conflict between Simpson's band of youthful hippies and their conservative elders. According to Toby Thompson in the Washington Post, Eszterhas insightfully explores the prejudices, thoughtlessness, and penchant for violence on both sides of this small-town generation gap in a "beautifully researched, finely wrought, narratively blessed piece of American journalism." In Nark!: A Tale of Terror, his 1974 probe of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics/Drug Enforcement Administration, Eszterhas "gives solid evidence of the corruption and inhumanity" among narcotics agents, noted New York Times Book Review critic Robert Sherrill. The author argues that the government's antidrug force devotes excessive attention to small-time marijuana raids while generally leaving major hard-drug dealers alone.
Eszterhas turned to screenwriting in the mid-1970s, coauthoring the story and original screenplay for F.I.S. T., a drama about labor unions that starred Sylvester Stallone. The author later reworked his story into a novel published under the same title in 1978. F.I.S.T. traces the rise and fall of labor leader Johnny Kovak, a son of Hungarian immigrants who organizes truckers in Cleveland in the 1930s, rises to become a powerful national figure, and is ultimately undone by his connections with organized crime. Washington Post Book World critic Joseph McLellan deemed F.I.S.T. "a very good novel" with "fine atmosphere and a fair degree of complexity."
More recent films written by Eszterhas have garnered mixed reviews while doing well at the box office. Flashdance, about the coming-of-age of a young woman steelworker in Pittsburgh who dreams of becoming a dancer, was generally judged superficial in plot but rich in visual appeal. Nevertheless, it was popular among audiences and became a box-office hit. Some reviewers of Jagged Edge, a 1985 murder mystery starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges, credited Eszterhas with providing enough narrative twists to keep the audience guessing but considered the film short on characterization.
Like several other movie reviewers, Los Angeles Times critic Michael Wilmington found Big Shots, an adventure-comedy about two twelve-year-olds in the inner city, "entertaining" if somewhat "overblown." Eszterhas's story centers on a white suburban boy named Obie who joins forces with Scam, a street-smart black youth, in an attempt to recover Obie's stolen watch, a keepsake from his recently deceased father. What begins as an alliance of convenience blossoms into friendship as the boys discover shared interests and concerns despite their very different backgrounds. Eszterhas takes a darker look at American race relations in the 1988 release Betrayed, which was directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. The film concerns a Midwestern white supremacist organization recruiting members from among the region's destitute farmers. The undercover FBI agent assigned to infiltrate the group inadvertently falls in love with its handsome, virile, seemingly forthright leader while seeking to betray him. Washington Post critic Rita Kempley judged the story somewhat implausible but still found the movie well paced and suspenseful.
Many critics were disappointed with Eszterhas's farcical screenplay for the 1989 film Checking Out, which is about a young man's obsessive fear of death, and Music Box, about a woman lawyer defending her father, who is accused of being a war criminal. Of the latter, New Republic reviewer Stanley Kauffmann complained that Eszterhas's screenplay "gets muddled as it goes and gets worse as it ends." While the story is mainly about discovering the truth about the accused's past, Kauffmann felt the more important theme is whether "human beings [can] prevail upon their own minds to convince themselves that the past did not exist and only the present is true," an underlying idea Kauffmann felt Eszterhas almost completely ignores.
During the 1990s Eszterhas wrote a series of steamy, violent movies that were repeatedly panned by the critics, among them Basic Instinct, Sliver, Showgirls, and Jade. Basic Instinct, the most successful of this series and a film that earned Eszterhas an astonishing three million dollars, is about a woman named Carolyn who kills men as a kind of grisly research method for her novels. After murdering a rock music promoter, she lures a police investigator into her web of sex and deceit. Though Basic Instinct was a commercial success, reviewers did not appreciate the film. Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, complained that the solution to who is the murderer in the film does not depend on the characterizations or anything else that is revealed to the audience: "This is not a movie where the outcome depends upon the personality or behavior of the characters. It's just a wind-up machine to jerk us around." As for the gratuitous sex scenes—many of which were edited out before the movie was released—Ebert commented: "Seeing movies that walk the ratings line like this, I realize that good soft-core is more erotic than trimmed-down would-be hard-core, and that the movie would have been more of a turn-on if it hadn't tried so hard. The sex resembles a violent contact sport, with a scoring system known only to the players."
Despite such critical reaction, Eszterhas was encouraged by the financial success of Basic Instinct to write several even more prurient movies. Sliver was adapted from a book by Ira Levin about voyeurism in America. In the film version, Carly Norris (played by Stone) moves into a new apartment building that, unbeknownst to the tenants, has been wired with video cameras in every room. Carly learns that many of her fellow tenants are very strange characters, and things get even weirder when she learns one of the residents has been thrown out of a window to his death. Carly wonders whether one of her two romantic interests could be the killer. Mixed into this basic plotline, which is only very loosely based on the Levin book, are plenty of sex scenes, which are watched by Zeke, the owner of the apartment building. Calling Sliver a "terrible movie," National Review critic John Simon complained about the dialogue, plotline, and even the acting, finally concluding that "it makes . . . scant difference which of Carly's swains is the defenestrator, since both are unappetizing enough."
Showgirls, which was called "spectacularly trashy" by Owen Gleiberman in his review for Entertainment Weekly, is about a woman named Nomi who tries to make it in Las Vegas as a showgirl and ends up working as a stripper. "The framework is tested Hollywood formula," commented John Leland in Newsweek: "girl comes to the big town with high hopes and discovers the price of success. When she finally crawls and claws her way to the big show, Nomi learns—hello!—that shaking one's naked body for tourists is a mean and exploitative business." Particularly offensive to critics and audiences alike is a "brutally ugly rape scene," as Gleiberman described it, that seems to have no other point than to shock. "To say this movie is smarmy is to understate the case," asserted Leah Rozen in People. "To say it stinks is more like it." Eszterhas received a similarly poor reception for his thriller Jade, which Entertainment Weekly contributor Ken Tucker described as resembling "a mediocre episode of NYPD Blue with some naughty bits thrown in." The basic plot of the film involves a woman who is using sex to blackmail her lovers; People writer Ralph Novak maintained that this "convoluted, sex-obsessed mystery" makes little sense.
After writing several box-office flops, Eszterhas decided to give the sex-and-violence films a rest and try something different. He proceeded to write two small-scale productions, Telling Lies in America and An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. The former is a semiautobiographical story of a young man named Karchy who comes to America from Hungary. Feeling ostracized by his fellow classmates at his Catholic high school, Karchy latches on to unscrupulous disc jockey Billy Magic and becomes his apprentice and gofer. In this capacity Karchy learns of Magic's shady business dealings, while also learning about sex and love from a girlfriend in this coming-of-age story. Critics were more receptive to Telling Lies in America than to Eszterhas's previous works. Newsweek reviewer David Ansen, for example, felt that the writer "redeems himself" with this film. Although Brian D. Johnson, writing in Maclean's, said that the film "ends . . . with a feat of moral fudging," Entertainment Weekly contributor Caren Weiner called the "overall effect . . . bracingly adult." Of the reactions to his film, Eszterhas told Dana Kennedy in Entertainment Weekly that after reading "in a couple of articles that 'Joe has redeemed himself,' . . . I started to feel like [convicted Watergate felon] Charles Colson when he discovered Jesus. People forget I [was involved with ] 16 movies and some have been critically acclaimed."
Eszterhas perhaps released some of his pent-up frustrations with Hollywood in his satirical work An Alan Smithee Film. The title is a joke about a film-industry practice in which directors who are ashamed of their work put the fake name "Alan Smithee" on the credited director instead of their own names. In the film, when a director whose real name happens to be Alan Smithee wants to distance himself from an action-adventure film he has made, he runs into a quandary. Not knowing what else to do, he destroys the original print of his movie only days before it is to be released and ends up being sent to a mental hospital. An Alan Smithee Film is presented in a documentary-like fashion with various players in the scenario—including actors such as Sylvester Stallone playing themselves—trying to figure out what went wrong. The answer, Eszterhas implies, through several satirical scenes that poke fun at the writer's own disasters, has to do with the corrupt and inefficient way Hollywood operates. While appreciating the effort Eszterhas makes with this movie, some reviewers felt, as Deborah Young explained in Variety, that there are too many in-jokes that will be above most audience-members' heads. Young concluded that the movie is "a caustic but under-funny 'expose' of the venality of the motion picture business."
After completing An Alan Smithee Film, Eszterhas retreated completely from Hollywood. Moving back with his family to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, he began working on his first book in over twenty-five years, American Rhapsody. Still in the mood to spoof the lifestyles of the glitterati, Eszterhas produced a lengthy satire about former President Bill Clinton and Hollywood. Much of the book is supposedly based on fact, with those portions of the book's passages published in regular text; these factual sections are intermixed with fiction indicated by bold text. Most notably fiction is the book's final chapter, which is narrated by Clinton's penis, named Willard. In addition to being a satire, though, American Rhapsody is also a eulogy to the hopes of the Baby Boomer generation, of which Eszterhas is a part, as that generation is represented by Clinton. Eszterhas, reported Rex Roberts in Insight on the News, "confesses, in his author's note, that he feels a kinship with Clinton," and writing American Rhapsody became "an odyssey of self-discovery. 'I was lost in a mirrored sea of my own creation, in snorkeling pursuit of myself and Clinton, swimming through his past in search of my own soul.'"
American Rhapsody received mixed reactions from critics, many of whom found the book funny but flawed. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, for example, described the work as "outrageously funny, particularly to readers with a healthy inner snickering teen," but "also flagrantly self-righteous, a finger-wagging indictment of how the hopes of the 1960s . . . went astray." Newsweek critic David Gates said that although much of the book is supposedly based on facts, the author presents no real evidence that anything in it is actually true: "Eszterhas apparently did no reporting (and certainly no footnoting): like everybody else, he seems to have gotten his facts and gossip from TV, books, magazines and the Web." Bruce Fretts, writing in Entertainment Weekly, went even further, indicting American Rhapsody as "a work of horrifying tastelessness, yet one so fascinatingly appalling that you simply cannot turn away." In particular, Fretts criticized Eszterhas's efforts to "conflate Tricky Dick [Nixon] with Slick Willie [Clinton]," a device that reaches "complete absurdity." On the other hand, Library Journal reviewer Karl Helicher felt that "the author's probing analysis and extensive reading results in a novel that rings more true than many of the 'nonfiction' accounts of the President and First Lady Hillary."
The independent-minded Eszterhas's lucrative career has spanned both successes and failures, the writer having garnered praise for his books—especially his early works—his blockbuster movie hits and staggering critical failures. In his sixties he also began a battle with nicotine addiction after being diagnosed with throat cancer. "How to reconcile the millionaire screenwriter and the rebellious, experimental journalist?" queried Jack Lule in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Rather than a radical departure from his early work, his film career drives home the point that literary journalism, for Eszterhas, was an expressive vehicle, a channel for his narrative and dramatic talents." Lule concluded that it was natural for Eszterhas to move from journalism to screenwriting, because "his work simply could not be confined to the conventional news story. The traditional journalistic report is derived from language determinedly dispassionate and apolitical. . . . Language orders experience, Eszterhas knew, and he resisted having his experience ordered in traditional ways. His work can be understood as a challenge to the benefit and possibility of objective, unbiased, apolitical reporting. Instead, he celebrated passion, commitment, and engagement."
Eszterhas's work "makes the confrontation between traditional and literary journalism difficult to ignore," asserted Lule. "His precise rendering of scenes, his experimentation with point of view, and his dramatization of differences with other reporters—all these challenged conventions of journalism and showed once again the power of a story well told by its teller."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945-1995, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Love, Robert, The Best of Rolling Stone: Twenty-fiveYears of Journalism on the Edge, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.
Wolfe, Tom, and E. W. Johnson, editors, The NewJournalism, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 20, 1992, Roger Ebert, review of Basic Instinct.
Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1983; August 28, 1988; January 19, 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, October 6, 1995, Owen Gleiberman, review of Showgirls, p. 40; October 27, 1995, Ken Tucker, review of Jade, p. 71; November 10, 1995, Anne Thompson, "The Thrill Is Gone: Can This Career Be Saved?," p. 7; November 7, 1997, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Telling Lies in America, p. 60; November 21, 1997, Dana Kennedy, "Telling Truths in America," p. 94; May 1, 1998, Caren Weiner, review of Telling Lies in America, p. 74; July 28, 2000, Bruce Fretts, "Oral Fixation: Forget Showgirls, Joe Eszterhas's Expose of the Lewinsky Affair—among Other Scandals—Is Even Sleazier," p. 174; July 28, 2000, "Joltin' Joe: Why Tackle Clintongate Now? Eszterhas Tells All," p. 27.
Esquire, May 9, 1978, pp. 78-82.
Insight on the News, September 11, 2000, Rex Roberts, review of American Rhapsody, p. 26.
Library Journal, August, 2000, Karl Helicher, review of American Rhapsody, p. 131; January 1, 2001, Joseph L. Carlson, review of American Rhapsody (audio book), p. 188.
Los Angeles Magazine, August, 1996, Andy Meisler, "Say It's a 'Go,' Joe," p. 46.
Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1983; October 4, 1985; October 2, 1987; August 26, 1988; October 30, 1989.
Maclean's, November 3, 1997, Brian D. Johnson, review of Telling Lies in America, p. 78.
National Review, June 21, 1993, John Simon, review of Sliver, p. 76; November 6, 1995, John Simon, review of Showgirls, p. 67; August 14, 2000, Lucianne Goldberg, "Blue Rhapsody."
New Republic, February 5, 1990, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Music Box, p. 26; October 23, 1995, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Showgirls, p. 29.
Newsweek, November 28, 1970; January 14, 1974; September 25, 1995, John Leland, review of Show-girls, p. 88; October 20, 1997, David Ansen, review of Telling Lies in America, p. 68; July 24, 2000, David Gates, "Mondo Bizarro," p. 54.
New York Times, April 15, 1983; October 4, 1985; October 2, 1987; May 30, 1993, sec. 2, p. 9.
New York Times Book Review, January 27, 1974; July 7, 1974.
People, October 9, 1995, Leah Rozen, review of Show-girls, p. 26; October 30, 1995, Ralph Novak, review of Jade, p. 19; July 31, 2000, Dan Jewel, review of American Rhapsody, p. 41; August 26, 2002, "Smoking Gun: A Screenwriter Asks Hollywood to Kick a Nasty Habit," p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, June 26, 2000, Bridget Kinsella, "Hollywood's Hold on Politics," p. 22; July 17, 2000, review of American Rhapsody, p. 187; July 31, 2000, Daisy Maryles, "Bad Rap on Rhapsody," p. 21; September 4, 2000, review of American Rhapsody (audio book), p. 44.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 5, 1994, pp. 6, 21.
Time, May 31, 1993, pp. 64-65; September 25, 1995, Belinda Luscombe, "Go, Says Joe," p. 78; July 1, 1996, Belinda Luscombe, "Seen and Heard," p. 67.
Variety, October 6, 1997, Deborah Young, review of An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, p. 54; June 5, 2000, Jonathan Bing, "Scribe Eszterhas Plays Rhapsody in Green," p. 6; July 17, 2000, Charles Lyons, "Eszterhas Invitation Rescinded by Coalition," p. 4; April 2, 2001, Peter Bart, "Burly Bard Back to Heartland," p. 4.
Washington Post Book World, January 26, 1974; October 10, 1985; August 26, 1988; January 19, 1990.*