Throughout the '80s and '90s, a corpulent, gargoyle-faced beast named Joe Eszterhas reigned as the most hated man in Hollywood. While Billy Wilder put on a suit and tie, headed to the office every day, and waited for phone calls from studio heads that never arrived, Eszterhas scooped up multi-million-dollar paydays for sordid pitches scribbled haphazardly on cocktail napkins.
Throughout the glory years, Eszterhas' disturbingly leonine mug adorned many an aspiring screenwriter's dartboard. Along with Shane Black, Eszterhas came to symbolize an era of greed and excess. Civilians who couldn't tell Sam Fuller from Yosemite Sam were regularly assaulted with screaming headlines about the latest Eszterhas or Black spec-script bonanza.
Becoming the poster boy for Hollywood excess engendered a Hamlet-like sense of guilt in Black. A particularly fascinating passage in a 2005 Los Angeles Times profile of the writer-turned-director deals with the strangest, most masochistic manifestation of this anguish:
Success had already taken a toll on [Black's] psyche. "The biggest task I had to face was managing to believe that I in any way deserved it," Black said of his swift rise, "especially in light of all the people who had worked just as hard, as strenuously, but to whom it didn't come quite so easily."
A falling out with his best friend in the mid-'90s only added to his guilt. The man, whom he'd first met at UCLA, had decided he wanted to be a writer too, but his career never caught fire. Black said "he was very angered by my success," and several months after they stopped speaking, Black received a letter. "[It] said, 'I still hate you, I don't want to see you anymore, but here's a bank account number. Wire as much as you think our friendship is worth into it.'"
Black, who sent the man a large sum, remains stunned. "I said, 'Is this what writing does? Does it make you lose your friends? Make people hate you?' "
Needless to say, that is a very un-Joe Eszterhas-like way to handle the situation. I suspect that Eszterhas would have turned the tables on his former compadre by sending him a huge bill charging him a steep fee—say $3 million annually—for every year of unearned friendship selflessly provided to his jealous ex-chum. If Eszterhas felt any anguish whatsoever over his gaudy good fortune, it's probably because he felt grievously underpaid at $3 to $4 million per bad idea.
In the Darwinian ecosystem of Hollywood, screenwriters occupy a position just below the bottom; if they're allowed on film sets at all, it's generally so they can serve coffee to production assistants. In the minds of executives, screenwriters are to be neither seen nor heard. Yet Eszterhas continuously made a public spectacle of himself, feuding with producers, stars, directors, and most famously, super-agent Mike Ovitz. In a notorious bit of show-business lore, the unflappable Ovitz reportedly responded to Eszterhas' threat to sign with another agency by saying, "You're not leaving this agency. If you do, my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out."
Screenwriters are replaced and re-written on an hourly basis. Yet Eszterhas had the brass cojones to insist that his words were sacrosanct. Like his hero, Paddy Chayefsky, Eszterhas angrily demanded that his precious, precious dialogue couldn't be altered or re-written. Eszterhas wasn't about to let Johnny Improv or Joey Script Polish change a lovingly crafted line like "Well, she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!" with something less soulful or authentic.
In his characteristically self-indulgent memoir, Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas posits himself as the conscience of screenwriterdom, a proud culture warrior who used the power he accrued writing about ice-pick-wielding lesbian serial killers and plucky prostitutes to single-handedly win a place at the table for long-suffering scribes.
Eszterhas took it upon himself to elevate the screenwriter's status in Hollywood by being as obnoxious, greedy, and power-crazed as any director or actor. He expected his fellow ink-stained wretches to erect statues of him in tribute. Instead, they burned him in effigy.
So if Eszterhas was/is arrogant, publicity-hungry, ridiculously expensive, and mindlessly confrontational, why did Hollywood indulge him and his Texas-sized ego for so long? The answer, not surprisingly, is money. For far longer than logic would dictate, studios treated Eszterhas as the King Midas of screenwriting, a magic man with a roster of iconic hits to his name: Flashdance, Jagged Edge, and Basic Instinct. Besides, in Hollywood, success begets success: studios began paying Eszterhas $3 million for every glorified airport paperback of a script he churned out because, gosh darn it, everyone else was doing it. It's that lemming mentality that creates monsters of id and ego like Eszterhas, and sustains them through flop after flop.
But as the '90s wore on, folks began to notice that the most expensive scripts (Showgirls, One Night Stand, Jade, Last Action Hero) had a curious way of turning into the most expensive flops. A quick glance at Eszterhas' filmography reveals a few big hits, but also an alarmingly high rate of failures, both high-profile (Showgirls, Jade, One Night Stand, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn) and less so (F.I.S.T, Big Shots, Checking Out, Nowhere To Run). By the time 1998's An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn hit theaters, it had become glaringly apparent that Eszterhas didn't possess a magic formula for box-office bonanzas. He was just a prolific hack who pumped out a mess of tacky, incredibly commercial scripts, some of which hit, but most of which missed.
Burn Hollywood Burn, today's entry in My Year Of Flops, is both the film that effectively killed Eszterhas' screenwriting career, and the ultimate expression of its creator's lovingly crafted persona as a sharp-witted working-class outsider intent on beating Hollywood at its own dirty, loaded game. Eszterhas wasn't technically the director—that "honor" belonged to an ancient husk named Arthur Hiller—but everyone knew it was Eszterhas' baby. His ugly, ugly, hateful, hateful baby.
Eszterhas was finally going to stick it to the loathsome Hollywood phonies who made him rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. But by 1998, his star had fallen precipitously, as evidenced by the low-wattage nature of the film's cast and crew. In 1972, teaming Love Story director Hiller with Burn Hollywood Burn stars Eric Idle, Ryan O'Neal, and um, perma-tanned Hollywood survivor Robert Evans would have qualified as quite the coup. In 1998, it more or less meant "our top 10 choices all passed, then Jan-Michael Vincent gave us a tentative 'maybe,' but ultimately couldn't squeeze the film into his comic-book convention schedule."
Eszterhas and Hiller's loving catalog of lazy show-business clichés concerns the sad fate of Trio, a high-concept, $200 million buddy movie pairing Sylvester Stallone with Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Chan. Not surprisingly, the filmmakers resorted to Chan and Goldberg—who, let's face it, has always been a huge action-movie draw, as evidenced by such super-hits as, uh, Burglar, Jumping Jack Flash, and that direct-to-video movie she did with the talking dinosaur—after Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis wisely passed.
A clearly embarrassed Idle plays Trio's tormented director, Alan Smithee, a revered editor who resorts to drastic measures once he sees how the studio has butchered his creation in post-production. Idle's Smithee longs to take his name of the turkey and replace it with a Guild-approved pseudonym, only—here's the high-larious part—the Guild-approved pseudonym is Alan Smithee! So the official fake name is the character's real name! Are you laughing yet? Busting a gut? Short of breath from a solid hour of non-stop guffawing at that inspired twist?
Now here's the even more hilariouser part: In what is very transparently not a stupid, stupid gimmick to raise interest in a terrible film, Hiller was so unhappy with the way the film was edited that he had his name taken off it and replaced with—are you ready for this?—Alan Smithee! So An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn is technically directed by Alan Smithee! The director's guild was so delighted by the filmmakers' antics that they officially retired the "Alan Smithee" pseudonym after the film's release, no doubt out of abject shame.
The film takes the form of a mockumentary that treats every lazy show-business cliché as a piece of profound existential wisdom. In a bravura display of subtlety and understatement, the film's principal characters are introduced with graphics stating their names and salient characteristics. Richard Jeni's scheming Hollywood player, for example, is introduced thusly:
* President, Challenger Films
* Nickname—The Dwarf
Ryan O'Neal's producer, a sleazy, whoring, hypocritical amalgam of Jon Peters and Don Simpson, meanwhile, receives the following introduction:
* Veteran Producer
* Slept In The White House
* Academy Award Winner
That isn't satire. Those are schoolyard taunts. It's the equivalent of taking out full-page ads in Variety decrying your professional enemies as poopyheads and stupidfaces. Ah, but schoolyard insults aren't the only weapons in Eszterhas' satirical arsenal. Apparently a small child explained the concept of "sarcasm" to him as well, since Jackie Chan is introduced as a "linguist" and a "scholar" and Stallone is hailed as a "superstar," "rocket scientist," and "brain surgeon."
But Eszterhas saves his most of his vitriol for women, who are uniformly depicted as star-fucking whores, ball-busting shrews, or most damning of all, Whoopi Goldberg. Then again, maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, since here's how Eszterhas sums up my oft-reviled industry:
Boy, has he got our number! That ought to silence the critics. But back to the hilarity. After witnessing the mess the studio has made of his film, Idle takes the only print of his $200 million movie hostage and threatens to burn it unless he's allowed to re-edit it. Idle quickly and believably becomes a national celebrity, popping up on Larry King Live and the front cover of a New York Times parody Eszterhas has hilariously re-titled New York Slimes. Get it? 'Cause they're so slimy! The grey lady isn't the only publication taking it on the chin: Eszterhas has cunningly re-dubbed Rolling Stone as "Rolling Phone" (which doesn't even really make any sense) and Newsweek as "Newsleak."
While O'Neal and Jeni conspire to get their blockbuster back, Idle goes into hiding and joins forces with angry black filmmaking team "the Brothers Brothers" (played by Coolio and Chuck D, who also provided the film's dreadful score). The brothers' wacky surname sounds suspiciously like a joke purloined from In Living Color, because it is, only this time, the Brothers Brothers are a parody, in theory at least, of the Hughes Brothers instead of the Smothers Brothers.
The Brothers Brothers subplot allows the filmmakers to explore satirical ground that makes the excess and duplicity of Hollywood seem positively virgin and untouched by comparison: the cultural differences between blacks and whites. See, white people be all, "I say, that new John Tesh album is quite delightful," and the brothers are all "I be straight kicking it in the hood, yo." 'Cause they're cool, ya dig?
In his zero-star review of the film, Roger Ebert adroitly compares it to the video tributes PR companies put together for retiring bosses. It has the smug, self-indulgent feel of an inside joke. If it were a winking video tribute/roast put together by Eszterhas' agent in recognition of the millions he brought to the agency, it'd be easier to accept uncritically, but it does not even begin to hold up to the scrutiny that comes with putting a real, live film before critics and audiences.
Smithee is a terrible, terrible film: smug, hateful, joyless, and condescending. Yet re-watching it a decade after it first crashed and burned, I found myself warming to it ever so slightly. For beneath all the childish taunts and heavy-handed jibes is a grudging admiration for Hollywood and the parasites and glorified con artists at the top of its food chain. Eszterhas might hate the Don Simpsons and Jon Peters of the world, but he also clearly admires their 24/7 hustle. Similarly, he depicts Evans as a creepy whoremonger who insists on being called "Daddy" by his well-compensated partners because "incest turns them on." But he's also drawn with a certain warped affection. Here and elsewhere, Evans comes off as a slickster so phony that he somehow transcends phoniness and becomes achingly, poignantly sincere. In a fakey, artificial, show-biz sort of way.
Smithee more or less marked the end of Eszterhas' career as a big-money Hollywood scribe. He then turned his attention to writing wildly self-indulgent memoirs like Hollywood Animal and The Devil's Guide To Hollywood: The Screenwriter As God! Though I wouldn't describe what Eszterhas does as writing: He's teasing mah dick! Also it must be weird for Eszterhas to now have a job where people don't cum on him. Sorry 'bout that, I had to shoehorn my Showgirls references in there somewhere.
Ah, Showgirls, Eszterhas' timeless masterpiece and the giddy apex of his lifelong love affair with vulgarity. I think Showgirls is one of the greatest films ever made, but like so many of its apologists, I give all the credit to Paul Verhoeven, a subversive genius whose filmography is as studded with warped cult classics as Eszterhas' is riddled with opportunistic crap. Yet Eszterhas deserves at least part of the credit for Showgirls. It is his glorious, glorious dialogue I find myself quoting constantly.
On the basis of Showgirls alone, I'd argue that Eszterhas deserves at least one more shot at big-time Hollywood filmmaking. Given Hollywood's warped ways, it seems somehow fitting that 13 years on, Showgirls, the biggest and most public failure in Eszterhas' checkered career, now stands as his greatest triumph. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a Showgirls-like critical reappraisal of Burn, Hollywood Burn. It's an ugly duckling that stubbornly refuses to turn into a swan.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success? Fiasco