How we British love to sneer at Hollywood. It's all so excessive, shallow and shrill, we complain, while flocking to films like Night at the Museum. If the consensus is that America slipped from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilisation, movies did at least undergo a fuller transition. You could argue that in the early 1970s, after a period darkened by Charles Manson, Kent State and Watergate, movies reflected a national fall from grace. For a while there was little difference between Hollywood and the very best of Europe.
It didn't last, of course. The Eighties retrofitted itself with cheap thrills and dumb-as-a-stick concept movies, which is where Joe Eszterhas comes in. The first screenwriter in years that audiences could put a face to, he wrote Flashdance and Basic Instinct, and now he has written a "How To" book.
Joe's CV (you feel you can call him Joe) is short, comprising 17 films, but that's about average for a high-profile Hollywood screenwriter. (Billy Wilder is the exception to the rule, with 75 under his belt.) The problem with Joe is that only three of his screenplays, the pair he wrote for the Greek director Costa-Gavras and the thriller Jagged Edge, have any merit. The rest are attention-deficit penny-dreadfuls entirely disconnected from reality. Flashdance, you may recall, was about a welder/ exotic dancer trying for ballet school, Basic Instinct concerns a psycho lesbian novelist ice pick murderess, and so on.
You can't blame the man for trying to beat Hollywood at its own game (although you can blame him for Hearts of Fire, a cheesy musical drama starring Bob Dylan and Rupert Everett). Joe is Hungarian, and followed a respectable line of Eastern European creative émigrés to LA. His first film would appear, from its synopsis, to bring European concerns to the US, as it involved corruption in the Teamsters union in the 1930s. Unfortunately, F.I.S.T starred Sylvester Stallone and unspooled like Rocky: The Early Years. And in Joe's early years, before he became the Ego That Walks Like A Man, there was promise. But the rot quickly set in.
He wrote a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, bad even for the benchmark set by the Muscles From Brussels. He alienated the director Paul Verhoeven during Showgirls, regularly cited as the worst film of all time. He wrote the abysmal Basic Instinct 2. He was last seen making a film about a Hungarian water polo match. Should this affect his right to tell us how to achieve such success?
Probably, because what Joe has done here is produce a bullet-pointed Reader's Digest-style volume so desperate, egotistical and venal that I found myself willing him to implode before page 50. Chapters are subdivided into anecdotes that peter out without making any point, or act as containers for the kind of dialogue he believes to be witty.
Here's one Shavian example: "In an effort to convince me to change the ending of my script, a studio head listed for me all the television series that he had worked on, or supervised. I said, 'I know you've done all those things. That's exactly the problem.' " Hardly a remark worth recording, you'd think, but there are hundreds of similar examples, along with scraps of stories and out-of-context quotes that fail to enlighten, amuse or do anything other than reinforce long-dead cliches. Living well is the best revenge, restaurant doormen can get you good coke, working with stars will get you laid.
A roll-call of genuinely talented writers and directors is regularly cited, but only in the hope that their names will have talismanic properties, in order to reflect well on someone who clearly believes that the measure of a man's success is the cars he drives and the women he beds. Meanwhile, there's advice, tons of it, revelatory stuff like "Get a good chair", "Don't be afraid to ask God to help you" and "If you've written the first page, the rest is easy". As an advice manual on screenwriting, this book should carry a health warning.
Worse still are the text sidebars on "Success Perks" - real achievement is a dinner table at Spago (a once-fashionable restaurant, if anyone cares), "Reelspeak", which is an excuse to badmouth any writer or director with more credibility, ie almost everybody else, "How To Deal With Writer's Block" - rent a Lamborghini, apparently - and more bizarrely, "Take It From Zsa Zsa", pearls of wisdom from wizened Hungarian serial-bride Zsa Zsa Gabor, of which this is a gem: "Everyone thinks the one kind of man you find most in Hollywood is the ugly, vulgar producer who smokes big fat cigars... nowadays some of the producers are young bearded men who smoke pot." At this point, I turned to the front of the book to see if it might first have been published in 1966. Where has this woman been for the past quarter-century? (To be fair, she was born in 1917, along with many of Joe's ideas.) Where has Joe been, if he believes that you must never have a movie star for a friend because "star" spelled backwards is "rats"?
Life at the top is not all Californian champagne and breast implants, though, as Joe has axes to grind. He hates Paul Verhoeven (quoted here with a comedy foreign accent) for attempting to deal with The Walking Ego. He hates Edward Norton and Dustin Hoffman because they rewrite their scripts, and "Dusty" is pretentious. He hates Oliver Stone for his arrogance (at least we can agree on that one). But he really hates failed-screenwriter-turned-script-shill Robert McKee, whom he blames for "cinema-lit psychobabble", despite the fact that he can't stop quoting him.
The twist in the tale is that I ended up rather liking our Joe. He's invented himself, he's lived the life, he's not afraid to confirm every entertainment chestnut in the book. I just wouldn't take his advice, if I were you.Reuse content