The unholy union of Jesus-loving lunatics Mel Gibson and Joe Eszterhas was weirdly inevitable. Both of them have antagonized so many people and burned so many bridges that they’ve rendered themselves all but unemployable, even though both of them were once among the most powerful, well-compensated figures in their respective fields. Possibly they had no one to turn to but each other.
Eszterhas was one of the highest-paid (and most vulgar) screenwriters in film history, but he became a devout Catholic and moved his family back to Ohio after a battle with throat cancer in 2001 caused him to reexamine his life and recommit himself to faith and family. And when he set out to collaborate with Gibson on what they quixotically deemed a “Jewish Braveheart,” Eszterhas hadn’t had an English-language script produced since 1997’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. Gibson, meanwhile, went through a series of public setbacks, and was eventually reduced to financing a vehicle for himself (eventually known as Get The Gringo), then watching it skip American theaters en route to a video-on-demand burial. Gibson was so cold in Hollywood that his agents dropped him, and he was bounced from a cameo in The Hangover 2. Even three minutes of Gibson in a jokey context was more than some sensitive souls were willing to tolerate.
Their union was inevitable because they’re simpatico figures: widely reviled, controversial, bizarrely unself-conscious pariahs notorious for their arrogance and bad behavior. But they saw in their Jewish Braveheart an opportunity for spiritual and professional redemption. For Eszterhas, telling the tale of legendary Jewish warriors the Maccabees (whose heroism inspired the Jewish holiday Hanukkah) was a chance to atone for the sins of his father, a Hungarian immigrant suspected of composing anti-Semitic propaganda for the Hungarian government in the 1930s and 1940s. For Gibson, it was an opportunity to prove he wasn’t the vicious hatemonger and anti-Semite the world—and, let’s be honest, his own actions—made him out to be.
Yes, one of the most notoriously hot-headed, rage-filled bigots in show business set out to collaborate with the screenwriter of Showgirls and Basic Instinct on a project Eszterhas was certain would fill every Jew in the world with pride and represent his lasting cultural and spiritual legacy. What could go wrong?
Early in Heaven And Mel, Eszterhas maps out his credentials as a non-Jew, but a great humanitarian and ally of the Jewish people, boasting:
I got involved in Civil Rights as a journalist and, in Hollywood, I wrote films about civil rights (‘Big Shots’) and the vicious ugliness of anti-Semitism (‘Betrayed’ and ‘Music Box’). I travelled to Dachau and Methuen with my children from my first marriage. I spent time in Israel: in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Masada, Eilat, and at Yad Vashem, where I studied the Holocaust in Hungary and central Europe. I loved Israel and felt a natural and spontaneous kinship with Jewish people and Jewish culture.
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at Eszterhas’ career. Another, less self-serving way might be, “I got involved in show business as a sleazy opportunist out to make a fast buck. I wrote films about the pervasive threat posed by exhibitionist lesbian serial killers with bitchin’ bodies (Basic Instinct), doing it up the butt (Jade), sexy lady dancers who are also welders (Flashdance), and borderline-feral strippers (Showgirls). I loved making insane amounts of money off the sleaziest conceivable projects until my noxious hubris and unbearable personality rendered me an outcast in a town I once all but owned.”
Eszterhas further cements his credentials as a peerless defender of the Jewish people by mentioning that Elie Wiesel praised his film Music Box, while Eszterhas’ father said the film made him prouder of his son than anything he’d written before. But that praise became bitterly ironic when Eszterhas discovered his father’s dark past. The great humanitarian and artist was predictably devastated. How could he, a man praised by no less a giant than Elie Wiesel, be the son of an anti-Semitic propagandist?
In a further fit of self-congratulation, Eszterhas lovingly frames his feelings through one of his own scripts. “And I did to him what Jessica Lange did to her father in The Music Box: I didn’t allow him to see our four young boys.” Incidentally, I sincerely hope there is a draft of Heaven And Mel where Eszterhas goes on, “I also said to him what Robert Davi told Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls: ‘It must be weird not having anyone come on you.’”
The family secret left Eszterhas with a guilty conscience, and he somehow became even more devoted to helping Jews. He writes:
For my own personal and painful reasons then, I was a watchdog against anti-Semitism and, when The Passion Of The Christ was released, watched it over and over again. I respected the Anti-Defamation League. I had done a fundraiser for them in Los Angeles. I had passed onto them an anti-Semitic missive the producer Aaron Russo had written to me. I had won the Emanuel Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement for writing about the Holocaust in Germany.
Yet in spite of his self-professed status as a rabid watchdog for anti-Semitism and champion of the Jews (he later writes that a Hollywood powerbroker actually referred to him as “King Of The Jews,” which makes him happy until he remembers what happened to the other dude who got called that), Eszterhas simply didn’t agree with the Anti-Defamation League that The Passion Of The Christ was fundamentally anti-Semitic. On the contrary, the film was a crucial element of Eszterhas’ newfound spiritual life as a deeply religious man who put his faith in Christ above all other considerations.
The Passion Of Christ left Eszterhas with a strong desire to collaborate with Mel Gibson, even though Gibson clearly didn’t share Eszterhas’ soul-consuming commitment to the Jewish people. Then came Gibson’s ugly drunk-driving incident, and Eszterhas’ opinion changed. To illustrate this, Eszterhas once again lovingly quotes from his favorite writer—himself—and his 2008 book Crossbearer: A Memoir Of Faith: “Ballgame. Open and shut. No doubt now. Mel was a raving anti-Semite. The man who had composed his prayer of a movie about Christ shared the mind-set of Adolf Hitler.” As history has shown us, the stronger a person’s argument is, the quicker they are to compare their opposition to Hitler. Anyone who disagrees is clearly a Nazi, and probably a baby-raper to boot.
Eszterhas’ conviction that Gibson may not be that good a dude was only strengthened with the release of tapes of Gibson threatening Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his child, which Eszterhas quotes extensively under groupings like “Threats,” “Blow Jobs and Oksana’s Sexuality,” “Oksana To Mel,” “Mel to Oksana,” “Mel About His Wife, Robyn” and “Being Used.” Eszterhas then uses his journalistic chops and keen understanding of human nature to determine that Gibson is mentally ill, has anger issues, is racist, and has a thing about oral and anal sex.
Yet Gibson’s Hitler mindset and anti-Semitism somehow did not keep Eszterhas from meeting with him to discuss a script about the Virgin Of Guadalupe. The idea impressed Gibson so much that even though he ultimately passed on it, he was convinced Eszterhas was the man to write a rousing adventure epic about the Maccabees.
Eszterhas saw in the project an opportunity to redeem his family’s tainted legacy. As he writes in a characteristic fit of grandiosity, “If my father had written things that caused injuries or deaths to Jews—then I would write something that would be an inspiration to every Jew in the world. If my father had written things that promulgated hatred, then I would write a film that would promulgate heroism and glory. If my father had written things read by hundreds of thousands, then I would write a film seen by vast millions.”
Eszterhas was so deeply committed to empowering the Jewish people that he was willing to do the unthinkable and work on the script for free. As Eszterhas writes of his saintly selflessness, “Money, I knew, didn’t matter when God and my heart were involved. Okay, I’d do ‘The Maccabees’ for free. My deal was with God, not a studio. And not with Mel Gibson, either.” Wait, God wants Eszterhas to work for free? When He literally has everything in the universe? What a cheapskate.
Eszterhas begins to feel suspicious, however, once Gibson begins sending him long, rambling emails that suggest Gibson sees the Maccabees’ heroism only through the lens of his own radical, regressive Catholicism. In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, Eszterhas is horrified when he starts to suspect Gibson wants to make a film about heroic Jews solely as a way to converting Jews to Christianity. Who could have possibly imagined a man infamous for his hatred of Jews might have ulterior motives for making a film about Jewish heroism?
Eszterhas closes the first chapter of the e-book with a passage that’s overwrought even by his standards:
BJORN PORK [Gibson’s pseudonym] Sent Me Another Email:
I HAVE VERY LITTLE HOPE OF FENDING OFF DEMONIC ATTACKS. I CHEAT AND ASK SOMETHING BIGGER THAN ME TO STOP IT. THAT SEEMS TO WORK.
The Devil would be with us in Malibu.
Oh, that he would be. Things in Gibson’s Malibu house—where, in a trademark fit of excellent judgment, Eszterhas has brought his wife Naomi to help him determine whether Gibson is a mensch—begin pleasantly enough, but before long, Gibson is erupting with violent, explosive rage for no discernible reason at a priest friend. Eszterhas and his wife fear for their safety, yet decide to stay in the house all the same.
Gibson keeps upping his crazy game. He takes Eszterhas and Naomi to his private church, where he tells him, “There is a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy to destroy the Catholic Church.” He also claims Pope John Paul II, whom Eszterhas venerates as a great man, was actually the Antichrist. But being a man of God, Eszterhas continued to hang around Gibson, apparently waiting for Jesus Himself to say, “What are you doing? This is insane! Leave while you still can!”
As they spend more time together, Eszterhas grows increasingly disgusted with Gibson. The endlessly self-involved, narcissistic author complains that Gibson only ever talks about himself and says horrible things about other people. Eszterhas should know, since Heaven And Mel is entirely devoted to saying horrible things about another person, merited or otherwise.
Still, Gibson is not entirely without redeeming facets where Eszterhas is concerned. He clearly loves his daughter, and he illustrates his impeccable taste when he remembers Eszterhas wrote a script he liked a lot, in which the president fucks a cow. Eszterhas writes that the unproduced script “became one of the most famous unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Steven Spielberg, of all people, almost directed it, as did Milos Forman and a long list of others. Stanley Kubrick almost produced it and sent me a note that said, ‘This is one of the funniest scripts I’ve ever read, but I don’t want to get within a thousand miles of it.’”
Eszterhas gets a sign only slightly subtler than Jesus begging him to abandon the project when Gibson tells him, “What I really want to do with this movie is convert the Jews to Christianity.” Eszterhas asks what he meant by such a maddeningly enigmatic statement. Gibson doesn’t respond, but my guess is that he meant he wanted to use the movie to convert Jews to Christianity. Gibson continues to make statements that might be interpreted as anti-Semitic, like his strong conviction that the Torah explicitly describes Jews sacrificing Christian babies. Then, in Eszterhas’ telling, Gibson threatens to murder Oksana Grigorieva and calls the powerful agent (and brother of Chicago’s mayor) Ari Emanuel a “cunt fucking Jewboy.” Continuing a theme, Gibson tells the great defender of the Jewish faith that the Holocaust was “mostly a lot of horseshit” perpetrated by “a bunch of oven dodgers.”
Finally, Eszterhas asks God what he should do, and he receives an “answer in his heart” presumably from the Lord Himself, imploring, “Don’t you want to write this script? I thought you wanted to write it. That’s why I sent it to you, because I want you to write it.” Wow! Elie Wiesel, Stanley Kubrick, and now God are all in awe of Eszterhas’ incredible talent! That’s enough to give Eszterhas strength in his endless battle with Gibson.
Somehow Gibson’s consistently terrifying, abusive behavior does not keep Eszterhas from accepting an invitation to join Gibson on a working vacation in Costa Rica, or from bringing his wife and 15-year-old son Nick along with him. Because honestly, what could be healthier for a suggestible teenager than subjecting him to a mentally ill hatemonger who loudly broadcasts his desire to murder people? Taking a 15-year-old who idolizes Mel Gibson to a remote villa in Costa Rica, then expecting Gibson to behave like a kindly, considerate mentor, is like inviting a rabid grizzly bear to babysit your newborn daughter, then being shocked when it devours her in one mighty chomp instead of reading her a bedtime story and rocking her to sleep.
Eszterhas’ family trip to Gibson’s Costa Rican paradise goes predictably awry when Gibson behaves exactly how he’s behaved in more or less every encounter with Eszterhas, saying things like:
“I hate John Lennon. He deserved to be shot.”
“[Walter Cronkite] was a hebe, wasn’t he?”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fucking hate! Fucking cunt cocksucker whore! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
“I want to fuck [Oksana] in the ass and stab her to death while I’m doing it!”
Supposedly this last rant was delivered to Eszterhas’ son. In a trademark bit of subtlety, Eszterhas writes, “Does Mel Gibson smear this kind of reeking black sludge over the hearts and souls of his own sons? Or does he just subject it to strangers, to boys who admire him?”
Finally, Gibson’s rage reaches its inevitable endgame when Gibson sees an unflattering photograph of himself and unleashes his fury on the Lord himself,
I look so fucking old! I look horrible! That fucking whore [Oksana] is destroying my life!
Look at me! Fucking look at me! Look how terrible I look! Answer me, God! Why did you turn your back on me? Fuck you! Fuck you! I’m not gonna take it up the ass anymore and say, “Thank you, your honor.”
Yet even after all this, Eszterhas still holds out hope that Gibson will make his godly, righteous tribute to the resilience and strength of the Jewish people. Why shouldn’t he be hopeful? According to Eszterhas, his script was universally regarded as a masterpiece of the form, a screenplay of such undeniable genius that only a vicious Jew-hater could look at it and see anything other than a timeless masterwork in the making:
I got up excited every morning, waiting for a response. I just knew they’d like it. I had passed it around earlier to some people who were close to me, many of them Jewish, and they loved it. They were moved and overwhelmed. Some of them cried at the end. They were moved as Jews—and as human beings.
One of the people who loved the script was Jeff Berg, the head of International Creative Management, long an industry heavyweight. Jeff called Mark Gooder, the head of Mel’s company, Icon. Mark Gooder said the script knocked him out: “I just loved it. As far as I’m concerned, we should be in pre-production for this tomorrow. But I haven’t heard from Mel.”
So Eszterhas is blindsided when Gibson eventually writes, “Honestly, Joe, in twenty-five years of script development I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time.”
To Eszterhas, this statement is conclusive proof of Gibson’s insanity. Imagine, someone calling a script “substandard” when it was written by Joe Eszterhas, favorite of God, Stanley Kubrick, Elie Wiesel, and the Jewish people! In Eszterhas’ telling, “That made me laugh. I envisioned Judah Maccabee brandishing his sword above Mel’s head, threatening to cut it off.” To my eyes, Gibson’s appraisal of the script is the most reasonable thing he says in the entire book. Given that the script excerpts Eszterhas liberally favors readers with back up Gibson’s analysis, the opinion qualifies as a rare moment of sanity.
As a spokesman for the Jewish people (see, Joe? You aren’t the only one who can be grotesquely hubristic and grandiose), I would officially like to tell the author, “We don’t need you. There are millions of Jewish writers infinitely more gifted than you who could tell quintessential Jewish stories better, and without trying on a crown of thorns, hoisting themselves up on a cross of their own devising, then demurring, ‘Don’t mind me, I’m just professionally dying a martyr’s death for my beloved Jewish people.’”
In Eszterhas’ disingenuous telling, ego plays no part in his actions: He isn’t a spoiled writer devastated that his precious screenplay was deemed inadequate, he’s a warrior for the Jewish people whose script would help ensure that another Holocaust never happens. As he writes of his righteous crusade:
I knew, because [Jews] were my brothers and sisters, that I would stand shoulder to shoulder with them and fight at their side whenever I could.
Judah Maccabee felt as close to me as Jesus Christ.
I had taken on anti-Semitism as my own personal battle, but I believed that all of us who weren’t Jewish had to do that. Only in that way could we as individuals guarantee that it would happen “never again.”
It’s honestly too bad Eszterhas and Gibson weren’t able to make their impossible union work, because God knows these deplorable show-business demons with out-of-control martyr complexes deserve each other.