Screenwriter. Nationality: American. Born: Joseph A. Eszterhas, 23 November 1944, in Csakanydoroszlo, Hungary; immigrated to United States, naturalized citizen. Family: Married 1) Geri (a police reporter; divorced); 2) Naomi Baka; children (first marriage): Steven, Susie. Career: Reporter for Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, in early 1970s; began as staff writer, became senior editor, Rolling Stone, San Francisco, California, 1971–74; screenwriter, novelist, and freelance journalist, 1974—. Agent: Rosalie Swedlin, Creative Artists Agency, 1888 Century Park E., Suite 1400, Los Angeles, CA 90067, U.S.A.
Films as Screenwriter:
Jagged Edge (Marquand)
Hearts of Fire (Marquand); Big Shots (Mandel)
Betrayed (Costa-Gavras) (+ exec pr)
Checking Out (Leland)
Music Box (Costa-Gavras) (+ exec pr)
Basic Instinct (Verhoeven)
Nowhere to Run (Harmon); Sliver (Noyce) (+ exec pr)
Showgirls (Verhoeven); Jade (Friedkin) (+ exec pr)
An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (Smithee, Hiller) (ro as Himself); One Night Stand (Figgis) [uncredited]; Original Sin; Telling Lies in America (Ferland)
Male Pattern Baldness (Thomas)
Blaze of Glory
By ESZTERHAS: books—
With Michael D. Roberts, Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, New York, 1970.
Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, New York, 1974.
Nark!: A Tale of Terror, San Francisco, 1974.
F.I.S.T. (novel; based on screenplay of the same title), New York, 1978.
By ESZTERHAS: articles—
Grant, S., and A. McGregor, "Sex Crimes. Divide and Conquer," in Time Out (London), no. 1131, 22 April 1992.
"Telling Lies in America," in Scenario (Rockville, Maryland), vol. 3, no. 4, 1997.
On ESZTERHAS: books—
Wolfe, Tom, and E. W. Johnson, editors, The New Journalism, New York, 1973.
Love, Robert, The Best of Rolling Stone: 25 Years of Journalism on the Edge, New York, 1993.
On ESZTERHAS: articles—
American Film, 3 December 1989.
Chicago Tribune, 18 April 1983; 28 August 1988; 19 January 1990.
Esquire, 9 May 1978.
Film Comment, January-February 1990.
Los Angeles Times, 15 April 1983; 4 October 1985; 2 October 1987; 26 August 1988; 30 October 1989.
Newsweek, 28 November 1970; 14 January 1974.
New York Times, 15 April 1983; 4 October 1985; 2 October 1987; 30 May 1993.
New York Times Book Review, 27 January 1974; 7 July 1974.
San Francisco Chronicle, 5 June 1994.
Sight and Sound, October 1996.
Time, 31 May 1993.
Washington Post, 26 January 1974; 10 October 1985; 26 August 1988; 19 January 1990.
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The phenomenal success in 1992 of his notorious Basic Instinct (the film earned a reported $365 million in initial release, not to mention lucrative video earnings) made Joe Eszterhas a celebrity and Hollywood's best-paid screenwriter. Eszterhas has been in the public eye ever since, which is quite unusual in his profession. With its fearful, resigned misogyny, its unflattering portrayal of lesbianism as delightfully lewd and criminal-minded, and its equation of heterosexual pleasure with deadly violence, Basic Instinct pushed the limits of what could be accommodated in an "R" rated film. The film's self-consciously sleazy transgressiveness, hyped by a skillful advertising campaign, found a deep resonance in an America finally coming to grips with the psychosexual consequences of the AIDS crisis. Distracted by its soft-core pornography (which hinted at more than it showed), audiences were untroubled by a script that lacked dramatic intensity and development, but was riddled with implausibilities. Director Paul Verhoeven's frantic pacing helped plaster over the structural problems that Eszterhas's one-dimensional characters and shaky plot presented.
Nothing in Eszterhas's earlier career would have predicted that he would either be involved in such a project or be able to carry it off successfully. Brought from his native Hungary to America as a child, he persevered in mastering a new language and culture, eventually graduating from Ohio State University. As a journalist, first for Cleveland's Plain Dealer and then for Rolling Stone magazine, Eszterhas showed himself a talented, courageous, and energetic writer. He wrote a competent investigative history of the Kent State killings and then penned a novel that won a National Book Award. He established himself as a kind of proletarian intellectual. This background proved useful when he turned to screenwriting. His first project was F.I.S.T., an unusual Hollywood film in that it was devoted to the union movement in the trucking industry during the 1930s; it is thus a kind of pseudo-autobiography of Jimmy Hoffa. Unfortunately, the project became more of a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, and on these terms it was a failure. Both this film and the subsequent Flashdance, which proved an outstanding success, are in part autobiographical. They are Horatio Alger stories in which those at the margins of respectable society discover how through their own efforts they can make lives for themselves in an America that is more or less a land of opportunity.
Quite soon afterward, however, Eszterhas turned to the thriller genre, a time-honored Hollywood type which he would soon prove instrumental in transforming, furthering, if not setting, the fashion for the erotic thriller that would prove a Hollywood staple in the 1990s. Jagged Edge centers around an homme fatal, a handsome businessman who protests his innocence of the brutal, bondage killing of his rich wife. His beautiful attorney, charmed by her client, at first believes him innocent, but later discovers he is guilty after nearly becoming his next victim. Established in the 1940s by noir classics such as Dead Reckoning and Lady from Shanghai, these conventions make for effective filmmaking when fleshed out with interesting characters and plot twists. Jagged Edge is somewhat predictable, but manages to be intriguing throughout. The same cannot be said for Betrayed, which gives the thriller narrative a political twist. Here the woman in danger is an FBI agent assigned to study a white supremacist group who manages to fall in love with a charismatic man before learning that he is one of the worst perpetrators of neo-fascist violence. Eszterhas's plotting is spotty at best, and the film as a whole relies too much on melodramatic clichés to make its obvious points; the direction by the talented Costa-Gavras, who invented the political thriller in the 1960s with such films as Z, cannot save this poor script. Despite this failure, screenwriter and director teamed up a second time to make a quite similar film, which, with fewer holes in its plot and more interestingly drawn characters, proved more successful. Music Box focuses on a beautiful young attorney whose Hungarian immigrant father is suddenly accused of complicity in the murder and deportation of Budapest's Jews during the final yar of the war. She defends him successfully against the charges, but then, not entirely satisfied with his protestations of innocence, follows up a lead that reveals undeniable photographic evidence of his guilt. Though emotionally torn, she turns over her evidence to the press and legal authorities. Music Box offers a compelling story, principally because of the screenwriter's intelligent attention to historical and psychological detail. Here too Eszterhas was on home ground, drawing on his own knowledge of the postwar Hungarian immigrant community.
Basic Instinct's success, however, encouraged Eszterhas to abandon, at least temporarily, respectable filmmaking for exploitation. Three subsequent scripts—Jade, Sliver, and Showgirls (another collaboration with Verhoeven)—obviously try to repeat the box office magic of Basic Instinct by focusing on rough sex, homosexuality, autoeroticism, and deadly violence. In each case, a righteous misogyny prevails, even when Eszterhas, apparently, thinks he is offering a positive model of women's liberation. All three films proved offensive, which seemed to be their obvious intention, but none achieved the notoriety of its model and so could not find an audience, in spite of massive expenditures on television advertising.
Lately, Eszterhas appears to have reinvented himself and returned to the kind of writing that made him a success as a journalist and novelist. Telling Lies in America is an autobiographical tale, tracing the struggles of a 17 year-old Hungarian immigrant named Karchy to find his way in America. Hooking up with a sharpster named Magic, who turns him on to what he thinks is success—money, women, and power. Karchy, however, soon learns that Magic is only using him as a convenient way to mask illegal activities that are the true source of his only apparent and position. Karchy rejects the glamorous but illicit life modeled for him by Magic and determines to make his own way, now that he is through "telling lies." The story, perhaps, is a parable for the direction in which the undeniably talented Eszterhas now intends taking his career.
—R. Barton Palmer