Jaded instincts

Cinema: Controversy has often surrounded Joe Eszterhas, writer of 'Basic Instinct', but his career has gone from strength to strength. The release of 'Jade' and 'Showgirls' may change that. Quentin Curtis asks where it all went wrong
"I AM fascinated by the corruption of power," Joe Eszterhas said in 1985, promoting his first movie, F.I.S.T., a study of US labour relations. Ten years on, Eszterhas's own powerful position, as the highest-paid and highest-profile writer in Hollywood, is starting to look corrupt. Every year throws up its Joe Eszterhas controversy, as regular an event in the movie calendar as the Oscars. Rows with directors, tiffs with agents, spats with censors, filthy scripts, fat paychecks - he is rarely out of the headlines. But up to now he has always ended up looking like the good guy ("When he gets into a brawl, he turns it into a morality play," a friend once said). Now, as he shelters from two separate storms around his work, it may be different. His cloak of righteousness begins to look frayed.

The issue, as so often with Eszterhas, is sleaze. Over the last month he has socked America with a dubious double whammy: two films that, in the fashionable Hollywood phrase, "push the envelope" of what is acceptable in mainstream movies. Showgirls is the graphic story of a girl seeking to make good - if that is the right expression - in the tawdry world of Las Vegas show-dancing; while Jade (see review, The Critics) is a thriller whose plot hinges on videotaped scenes of oral and anal sex. The reaction has been swift and brutal. Critics have rushed to condemn and mock, while the public, proving that not all publicity is good publicity, has largely stayed away.

Yet the tale is not as black-and-white as the screaming headlines and critics suggest. The first point to make is that Eszterhas, who now gets paid up to $4m per script (and recently received $2.5m for a four-page outline), is, arguably, the most skilful screenwriter of his generation. His market value is based not on hype but on past achievements, such as his two best films, Betrayed (1988) and The Music Box (1989), and his influential hit thriller, Jagged Edge (1985). More than that, he is one of the few writers whose films can be viewed as a body of work, with its own recurrent themes: what looks to some like repetition or self-plagiarism, is the working-out of personal obsessions. Eszterhas is an example of the writer as auteur.

Above all, Eszterhas is an Ameri-can writer. Born in Hungary in 1944, he came to America as a child, and seems to have spent his whole life since exploring what it is to be an American. His first commercial hit, Flashdance (1983), was an upbeat riff on the American dream, the tale of a steel-worker who fulfilled her fantasy of winning a place in dance school. Showgirls is, in many ways, the dark side of Flashdance, and of American idealism. Its heroine's attempt to reinvent herself, to slough off the burden of a tortured past, is thwarted by a system that she finds even more corrupt than the life of prostitution she left behind. It is an intentionally comfortless film, a bleak panorama of venality, in the manner (if not the class) of Brian De Palma's Scarface.

The uproar is about Showgirls' nudity. But Eszterhas's whole career has been about stripping people bare. In America, the country of reinvention, everyone has a past, an earlier self that may not be as savoury as the current model. In Eszterhas's world, even the people we know best may be tainted. Jessica Lange's upstanding father in The Music Box, so proud of his Americanness, turns out to have been a Nazi war criminal. Undercover agent Debra Winger's lover in Betrayed is a fascist, too. Glenn Close falls for her client, Jeff Bridges, in Jagged Edge, also a murderer. And in Jade, the private life of the Governor of California is not so much whiter than white as bluer than blue. No one in Eszterhas's world is pure, or what they seem - except children, who scamper through his films like innocent reminders of paradise lost, or consolations for the hell we live in. Maybe he should write about adolescence, to show us how the precious plant of childhood gets cankered. Better still, he might adapt The Great Gatsby, avoiding the fey romanticism of Coppola's screenplay, and rediscovering the core of American deceit that is the book's hard heart.

These obsessions run deep. Before he took up screenwriting, Eszterhas was a journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and later Rolling Stone. His most celebrated piece, subsequently published by Tom Wolfe in his anthology The New Journalism, was Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, an account, in the true-crime style of Truman Capote, of a teenage loafer's fatal killing spree ("He was a death- dealing whirligig") in Harrisonville, Missouri, in 1972. What is remarkable about the piece is not so much its deep research and trenchant style (Eszterhas describes Harrisonville as a "small-time place haunted by homilies, platitudes and bushwah"), as the way Eszterhas exposes two different worlds, two Americas. There is the world of Charlie Simpson, that of the Sixties counterculture, inspired by reading the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau; and the world of the town's elders, all brown-shirted order and obedience to General MacArthur's words of wisdom. In a coda (a personal intervention Wolfe argues was revolutionary), Eszterhas, who, with his long hair and jewelled fingers looks like a cross between a Hell's Angel and Liberace, describes how he infiltrated both camps. He wore a blazer and hair-oil for the elders, jeans and leather jacket for Charlie Simpson's disciples. Though Eszterhas's sympathies are clearly with the outlaws, he never allows us to forget Simpson's senseless carnage.

This is Eszterhas at his best: the stubborn immigrant who uses his outsider status to explore the underbelly of American life. A friend once said that Joe "had to fight for everything he got" and, in a line resembling one of Eszterhas's own, that "he's got iron balls". Eszterhas is without doubt an unillusioned observer of American life, prepared to pick away at its traditional pieties. The problem comes when his savagery becomes cynical. In his recent films, such as Basic Instinct and Sliver, the insight that was once caustically refreshing - that everyone has an unexpected side - has become facile. If everyone is so flawed, it hardly matters which character compounds his or her viciousness with murder. Eszterhas's own writing has become as formulaic as his imitators', even though it was he who invented the formula (in Jagged Edge, which now seems classic rather than cliched).

Jade and Showgirls illustrate both Eszterhas's immense talent and its falling-off. His ability to set up themes in a few opening scenes, like a dealer rifling cards from the deck, is undiminished. But he seems to have lost the will or the patience to develop them. Jade, which continues Eszterhas's climb up the social scale in subject matter as he grows more successful, never gets off first base as a political commentary. Showgirls, a return to the topic of working-class exploitation, raises ideas about the relationship of dancing to sex, and of gambling to American life, but degenerates into an unseemly mess. Eszterhas's scripts have always lacked humour, relying on the crude cracks of his sex-obsessed male characters. In both the new films, dialogue plumbs new depths of depravity.

Eszterhas is a victim of his own success and self-promotion. Had Jade or Showgirls slipped on to the screen without the ballyhoo, they might have been modest, even major successes. As it is, they have become behemoths of hype, waiting for critics and audiences to shoot them down. Eszterhas's early hits were founded on deep research. All the adulation and money may have removed the incentive for such hard work (a project about a US president caught in a scandal involving a cow sounds less than promising). But Eszterhas should return to those virtues that made him such a compelling commentator on vice.

! 'Jade' is out now (cinema details, page 92); 'Showgirls' opens 12 Jan.