Telling Lies In America 1985-1995: The Joe Eszterhas Era

By Yasmina Tawil

By Jessica Kiang
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“Written by Joe Eszterhas” is a phrase that has not had much of a workout on US cinema screens in over twenty years—and it’s arguable whether the 1997, 19-screen nationwide release of certifiable shitshow Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film exactly qualifies as “a workout.” But for those of us who had the parental training wheels come off our theatrical filmgoing in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, there were few individuals more central to our cinematic coming-of-age. And with perhaps the sole exception of Shane Black, a different animal in any case, none of the others—the Spielbergs, Camerons, Tarantinos—were exclusively screenwriters. For over a decade, the Hungarian-born, Hollywood-minted superstar writer of Basic Instinct bestrode the adult-oriented commercial screenwriting mainstream like a smirking colossus in a tight dress wearing no underwear. And given that Hollywood is primarily how the USA, the most loudly, proudly self-created of nations, expresses itself to itself and to the rest of the world, by the man’s own bombastic standards it’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that America, between the years of 1985 and 1995, was written by Joe Eszterhas.

But for all the dominance he exerted, the rules he rewrote and the sheer money he made, examining Eszterhas’ heyday today feels like an act of paleontology, even for those of us who lived through it. 1992 is not so very distant; in a variety of ways it is still with us. It was the year Quentin Tarantino, whose latest film is in theaters right now, broke out with his first, Reservoir Dogs. It was the year the current loathsome, racist, tinpot President of the United States made a cameo appearance in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, back when he was merely a loathsome, racist, tinpot property tycoon. It was the year that the number one box office spot was taken by Disney’s animated Aladdin, which felt close enough in time that the live-action remake which—and I’ve checked my notes on this, apparently was a thing that happened to us in 2019—felt entirely too soon.

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But it was also the year of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, the sine qua non of Eszterhas-penned films. And if Sharon Stone’s lascivious leg-cross (Verhoeven’s invention, incidentally, not Eszterhas’) provided posterity with the most iconic upskirt of a blonde in a white dress since Marilyn Monroe’s encounter with a subway grate, that is largely all that remains to us of it today. Well, that and the instantly forgotten sequel (sans Eszterhasian involvement) that already seemed wildly anachronistic in 2006. The original film, its writer, the erotic thriller genre it exemplified, the dunderheaded sexual politics it upheld while attempting to subvert, the whole idea of a mainstream screenwriter having a brand at all (even one as loosely defined as “writer of films you don’t tell your parents you snuck into”), all seem like ancient relics. These are the artifacts not only of a bygone age but of an extinct genus, a whole evolutionary branch that was nipped in the bud so comprehensively that even now scientists might argue over how closely the skeletons of certain bird species resemble the bones of Basic Instinct.

This containment, however, is what makes looking back at the Eszterhas era so fascinating. His brief Hollywood hegemony is a microcosmic event in cinematic history, one with a beginning, middle, and an end (barring some late-breaking epilogue, or a post fade-to-black pan down to an ice pick under the bed). And it didn’t start with his first produced screenplay, for the leaden Sylvester Stallone truckers-union drama F.I.S.T. (Norman Jewison, 1978), although the glimmer of future feats of financial alchemy was already present in the reported $400,000 he received for the novelization. Dawn really broke for Eszterhas, as it did for three of the only other people who could legitimately be termed his peers as purveyors of massively popular, high-concept, low-brow ‘80s sensationalism (producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, director Adrian Lyne), with 1983’s Flashdance.

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It was an improbable success, less a film than an aerobics video occasionally interrupted by some awkward sassy banter and Jennifer Beals’ popping-flashbulb smile. Its vanishingly thin story, which Eszterhas co-wrote, is of an 18-year-old welder in a steel mill, who moonlights as an exotic dancer while aspiring to become a ballerina—a logline that sounds like a hoot of derision even as an unadorned description—and is full of Eszterhasian hallmarks. There’s the high degree of preposterousness. There’s the gym scene, during which the ladies of the cast grimace and lift weights in full makeup, and while here the frictionless unreality of Lyne’s TV-commerical aesthetic makes the sequence abstract, the peculiar faith in the erotic potential of a workout would recur in the squash sequence in Jagged Edge (Richard Marqund, 1985) and the ludicrous gym date in Sliver (Phillip Noyce, 1993).

And Flashdance also prefigures almost the entire Eszterhas oeuvre in being a story that centers on a woman’s experience and that laudably—if here laughably—positions her career ambitions as at least equal to her romantic aspirations in the mechanism of the plot. But, as elsewhere, it’s a view of women constructed by a proudly unreconstructed man, directed and photographed by men. (Eszterhas’ hard-drinking, womanizing, hellraising, Hunter S. Thompson-of-the-movies persona is enjoyably self-mythologized in his memoir Hollywood Animal.) If anything, what comes across most strongly in Eszterhas’ conception of a “strong woman” is his bafflement when tasked with imagining what such a woman might have going on inside her brain. His filmography may be full of female-fronted titles, and may contain the most famous mons venus in film history, but most of Eszterhas’ work could not be more male gaze-y f it were written from the point of view of an actual phallus, like the closing chapter of his 2000 book American Rhapsody, which is narrated by Bill Clinton’s penis, Willard (I am not making this up).

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This powerfully eroticized dissociation, this sexualized incomprehension of women as people with interior lives, is the animating idea behind the most Eszterhasian of Eszterhas scripts. But it’s a blank space in which directors, and especially actresses, could sometimes find room to create for themselves. Sharon Stone is genuinely, in-on-the-joke fantastic in Basic Instinct—who else could have delivered “What are you going to do, charge me with smoking?” as if it were an unreturnable Wildean riposte? Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989) is by some distance the sturdiest and least dated of Eszterhas movies, a lot due to its comparative sexlessness, but also because of a great, warm, real performance from an Oscar-nominated Jessica Lange. Debra Winger just about wins out in her more thankless role in Costa-Gavras’ first Eszterhas collaboration, Betrayed (1988). And Glenn Close imbues the heroine of the superior thriller Jagged Edge with such shrewdness that it’s almost a liability to the believability of the central deception.

But live by the sword, die by the sword, and when the director/actress combo fails to operate in similar sympathy we get Stone horribly miscast as a… sexy wallflower?… in Sliver, or Linda Fiorentino visibly flailing as a… downtrodden femme fatale?… in Jade, or poor Elizabeth Berkley thrashing wildly about in the neon-lit swimming pool of kitsch that is Showgirls. In these failures, the writer’s almost panicky vision of women as vast, dangerous cognitive black holes is best revealed. But then, mistrust of the opposite sex is only one aspect of the wider mystery that underpins even Eszterhas’ outlier titles: his entire output is preoccupied with how little any of us can ever know anyone.

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In Eszterhas’ semi-autobiographical Telling Lies In America (Guy Ferland, 1997), a teenage Hungarian immigrant (Brad Renfro) is dazzled by Kevin Bacon’s smooth-talking DJ, but blindly unable to work out if he is friend or fiend. Music Box details a lawyer’s dawning disillusionment over her adored father’s murderous past—eerily mirroring Eszterhas’ discovery of his own father’s collaboration with the Hungarian Nazi regime. Betrayed has Winger’s FBI agent falling for Tom Berenger’s farmer only to discover he is, in fact, the neo-Nazi she insisted to her bosses he was not, in similar vein to Jagged Edge, in which Close’s lawyer discovers that the lover she successfully defended actually dunnit after all.

Oftentimes, the credulity-stretching ambivalence of these characters is all that powers the suspense, as in the is-she-gonna-kill-him-or-is-she-just-orgasming moments in Basic Instinct. In the misbegotten Nowhere to Run (Robert Harmon, 1993) Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a ruthless ex-con turned valiant protector, his blockish inertia apparently meant to signal that inner ambiguity. More often, it leads to final-act fake-out twists so unmoored to anything like recognizable motivation that they become weirdly weightless, as in Sliver when Stone’s Carly does not know if she’s killed the right man until the final four seconds of the film, and where, had the coin-flip gone the other way, it would still be equally (un)believable.

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If it’s part of the egotistical remit of the writer to believe they have an insight into human psychology, it’s remarkable how much of Eszterhas’ oeuvre pivots around how fundamentally unknowable people are to one another. And while that schtick, by which you can’t tell if someone cares for you or is simply a talented sociopathic mimic, resonated briefly at the exact moment when the grasping, solipsistic ‘80s were segueing into the untrustworthy, PR-managed ‘90s, it proved not to have much long-game sustain. Critics had always been sniffy about Eszterhas, who clearly mopped up his tears with massive wads of 100 dollar bills. But when audiences started staying away, like in the Showgirls and Jade-blighted annus horribilis of 1995, the inflationary bubble that allowed Eszterhas to command millions for two-page outlines scribbled, one suspects, on the back of strip club napkins, abruptly burst. The idea of screenwriter-as-auteur, or rather as reliable bellwether of commercial success, proved a fallacy, an expensive experiment that began and ended with Joe Eszterhas, its earliest progenitor, luckiest beneficiary, and biggest casualty.

Glossy, vacuous, adult-themed thrillers were not the only thing going on in Hollywood, and Eszterhas was not the only big-name screenwriter. Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon, also commanded astronomical sums for his early ‘90s scripts, but the key difference is that Black wrote in the register of the franchise-able action-spectacular blockbuster that would eventually trounce all others as the Hollywood model for the future. Black has gone on to become part of the Marvel machine as a writer and director, while aside from one Hungarian-language period film, Children of Glory (Krisztina Goda, 2006), Eszterhas’ contribution to the pop cultural landscape post-2000 has been in the form of self-aggrandizing memoirs, or highly public fallings-out with celebrities, like Mel Gibson, of a similarly corked vintage.

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The tastemaker point of view has historically been to consider Eszterhas among the worst things that ever happened to Hollywood—so much so that disdain-dripping sarcasm seems to be the fallback for critics summarizing his impact. But while no one is going to make the case for the man’s filmography as some sort of artistic landmark, the Eszterhas era did represent one of the last gasps of a Hollywood that believed, however misguidedly, in personality over product, when the idiosyncrasies, idiocies and ideologies of a single person—a writer at that—could, with studio backing and a 1,500 theater release strategy, influence the cinematic development of an entire generation. That might not have seemed like a good thing but retrospect, like cocaine, is a helluva drug and in 2019, with blandly anonymous, market-tested content churned out by mega-corporations bi-weekly to siphon your hard-earneds away, the kind of salacious tackiness Eszterhas represented feels oddly adorable, even quaint. Now that singular talents—even the obnoxious and objectionable ones—who could make decent returns on mid-budget, adult-oriented mainstream fare, have been steamrollered by infantilizing, monolithic billion-dollar mega-franchises, it’s hard not to be a little nostalgic for the vanished hiccup of time when Hollywood briefly uncrossed its legs for Joe Eszterhas, and Joe Eszterhas told us all what he saw.

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