Great Movie Books: Joe Eszterhas: Hollywood Animal
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Sometimes great literature emerges from celluloid...
In 2004 Joe Eszterhas, notorious screenwriter and Hollywood animal, wrote a memoir about his life as the world's most successful screenwriter. Beginning with his relatively poor upbringing in Hungary post-Second World War, Eszterhas took his love of novels and films, plus a supreme talent for writing - he was nominated for a National Book Award for Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse - and created a body of work that has been revered, reviled and talked about endlessly both amongst his peers and in the national press.
Whatever the verdict - and he has the rare achievement of having won two Razzies for worst script - Eszterhas pioneered the art of making money from his commercial screenplays. Paid three million dollars for Basic Instinct, the Hungarian-born writer gradually shifted toward the 'Hollywood animal' mentality that he had tried to avoid for so many years. This memoir, which is as much about his formative childhood years as his time in Hollywood, charts not only the 'jobs for the boys' culture and emotional impact of the LA film industry, but contrasts it eloquently with his family's fear and loathing of the Hungarian Communists, and their precarious position in the bowels of their adopted home country.
"We want him to succeed just as much as we want the arrogant directors and greedy producers to fail"
What is evident about this memoir is that it is written by an extremely talented screenwriter. Each scene from Eszterhas' life seems perfectly crafted, punchy, and easy to visualise. We want him to succeed just as much as we want the arrogant directors and greedy producers to fail. He is a flawed hero in the true sense of the fictional stories for which he is best known, and there is a clear path to redemption after what is a sizeable amount of excess.
Hollywood Animal, then, is a gripping tragicomedy detailing the journey between Eszterhas' successful scripts (Flashdance, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct) and his not-so-successful ones (F.I.S.T., Showgirls, Jade) which tot up to impressive box-office takings of over a billion dollars. And though whilst there are some truly rock 'n roll moments - his early dealings with Sylvester Stallone, researching for Showgirls in Las Vegas and meeting his agent Guy McElwaine (with an appearance from Hunter S. Thompson) amongst many others - the strength of this book is its attention to detail and its portrayal of a world that most of us have heard about in the press but have never had chance to glimpse.
There are also some truly touching moments, particularly in relation to Eszterhas' mother as she struggles with a form of insanity, and the tragic demise of his friend Jim Morgan after they sold their co-written script City Hall for five hundred thousand dollars - a record for a non-commissioned script at the time.
"it is to Eszterhas' credit that he writes with such an open and honest abandon, sparing no feelings in the process, including his own"
With the recounting of such difficult stories, it is to Eszterhas' credit that he writes with such an open and honest abandon, sparing no feelings in the process, including his own. Despite this, there are instances where gaps conveniently appear to be missing. For instance, in his dealings with Super-agent Michael Ovitz of CAA who is portrayed largely as a villain - perhaps deservedly so - after threatening to end Eszterhas' career after the latter expressed his desire to return to his old agent, friend and mentor McElwaine.
However, Ovitz, whilst clearly a controversial figure, is not given enough book time for the good things he did for his one-time client which does give a suggestion that perhaps we are being cleverly manipulated by a master storyteller with a few scores to settle. The feeling is only momentary, however, and I have to say that whilst I tend to avoid potentially sensationalist, 'bragging' memoirs, this was something entirely different and one has little difficulty turning the pages.
Hollywood Animal is a must-read for all those interested in the consequences of a career in the film industry from either a business or pleasure perspective. However, its real strength lies elsewhere in the comparisons between the Communist and Hollywood systems - both rivals by ideology - and the rags-to-riches warning hidden beneath each letter of every chapter. At its heart this is a story of loneliness and redemption as an only-child from Csákánydoroszló, Hungary finds strength in his family and purpose in his screenplays. At its soul this is the story of a young refugee taking on the best that Hollywood can throw at him, and living to tell the story…
…Not even Eszterhas the scriptwriter could come up with something this unlikely and make it work.
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