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As one of the highest-paid and most notorious writers in 1990s Hollywood, Joe Eszterhas became that rare modern screenwriter who was able to lay claim to achieving auteur status. Eszterhas was less important for his talent - which some reviewers deemed rather dubious - than for his stature as a star writer in an industry that doted on high-profile actors and directors. With plots that tended to focus on love and betrayal, Eszterhas courted controversy almost from the start when he made his debut with "F.I.S.T." (1978) and begrudgingly sharing screenwriting credit with star Sylvester Stallone. He had his first major hit with the paper-thin but memorable "Flashdance" (1983), before tackling more mature fare like "Betrayed" (1988) and "Music Box" (1989). But Eszterhas achieved a great deal of infamy with his most successful movie, the erotic thriller "Basic Instinct" (1992), which he sold for a whopping $3 million and pushed the envelope on sexual content while managing to generate protests for its alleged anti-gay sentiments. He continued to mine the depths of eroticism with "Sliver" (199) and "Jade" (1995), before his career was effectively destroyed by "Showgirls" (1995) and "Burn, Hollywood, Burn"...
As one of the highest-paid and most notorious writers in 1990s Hollywood, Joe Eszterhas became that rare modern screenwriter who was able to lay claim to achieving auteur status. Eszterhas was less important for his talent - which some reviewers deemed rather dubious - than for his stature as a star writer in an industry that doted on high-profile actors and directors. With plots that tended to focus on love and betrayal, Eszterhas courted controversy almost from the start when he made his debut with "F.I.S.T." (1978) and begrudgingly sharing screenwriting credit with star Sylvester Stallone. He had his first major hit with the paper-thin but memorable "Flashdance" (1983), before tackling more mature fare like "Betrayed" (1988) and "Music Box" (1989). But Eszterhas achieved a great deal of infamy with his most successful movie, the erotic thriller "Basic Instinct" (1992), which he sold for a whopping $3 million and pushed the envelope on sexual content while managing to generate protests for its alleged anti-gay sentiments. He continued to mine the depths of eroticism with "Sliver" (199) and "Jade" (1995), before his career was effectively destroyed by "Showgirls" (1995) and "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" (1998), widely considered to be two of the worst movies ever made. Regardless of his reputation as a purveyor of mediocrity, there was no doubt that Eszterhas became exceedingly rich from his efforts while also helping to bring screenwriters out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Born on Nov. 11, 1944 in Csákánydoroszló, Hungary, Eszterhas was initially raised in a refugee camp in Austria before his father, Istvan, a newspaper editor and author of over 30 Hungarian historical novels, and his mother, Maria, immigrated to the United States. The family eventually settled in Cleveland, OH, where he spent the remainder of his childhood growing up in lower class neighborhoods. When he was 13, Eszterhas' mother became estranged from the family when she began seriously grappling with schizophrenia. After attending Ohio State University, where he edited the school newspaper, Eszterhas found work as a reporter at The Plain Dealer and courted early controversy when he found himself at the forefront of breaking one of the biggest stories to come out of the Vietnam War - the My Lai Massacre. Eszterhas was contacted by photographer Ronald Haeberle, who approached the young reporter at his hometown newspaper. Eszterhas battled with his superiors over publishing the story, which he wrote to accompany the grueling pictures of murdered civilians, namely women and children. Eventually, Eszterhas and Haeberle sold the photos to Life magazine and split $20,000.
Eszterhas soon fell out of favor with the higher-ups and was let go from The Plain Dealer. From 1971-75, he worked as a political correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine when he first caught the eye of the entertainment industry with a 1974 National Book Award-nominated novel entitled Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse. A talent agent for United Artists found the writing to be cinematic and gave him a call. Eszterhas entered the motion picture industry with "F.I.S.T." (1978), a fictionalized labor drama starring Sylvester Stallone that was based on articles written when he (Eszterhas) was a journalist. Under protest, he received a story credit and shared screenwriting credit with Stallone. Though a box office disappointment, the film earned critical kudos and helped jumpstart a soon-to-be lucrative Hollywood career. Eszterhas fared better, commercially at least, with his next project, "Flashdance" (1983), which became the first hit of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer despite critics lashing out for the movie's several plot contrivances and the MTV music video-style sequences that masked a rather thin story. Eszterhas scored a solid success with the improbable legal thriller "Jagged Edge" (1985), which starred Jeff Bridges as a wealthy publishing magnate accused of murdering his heiress wife who falls in love with his defense attorney (Glenn Close).
After writing the dismissed teen comedy "Big Shots" (1987), Eszterhas segued to producing with more adult fare like "Betrayed" (1988), which centered on an FBI agent (Debra Winger) investigating a white supremacist group, only to find herself falling in love with their leader (Tom Berenger). He next wrote "Music Box" (1989), a courtroom drama that focused on an attorney (Jessica Lange) who fights against the deportation of her Hungarian-born father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) after he is arrested and accused of hiding war crimes committed during World War II. Both projects were helmed by Costa-Gavras and boasted fine performances by the leads, but were nonetheless undermined by absurdly melodramatic aspects - a hallmark throughout much of Eszterhas' career. In late 1989, the screenwriter was at the center of a highly publicized struggle with Michael Ovitz, then head of Creative Artists Agency, concerning the degree of influence exercised over an artist by his or her representative. Eszterhas claimed that Ovitz resorted to threats when the writer announced that he was leaving CAA for agent and longtime friend Guy McElwaine at International Creative Management. The controversy highlighted a growing concern within the Hollywood community about the degree of power wielded by a small group of influential agents. Nevertheless, Eszterhas went on to achieve his greatest success after crossing one of the most feared men in town.
Eszterhas became the highest-paid writer in the business when his script for "Basic Instinct" (1992), which he reportedly wrote in 13 days, sold for $3 million following a bidding war that involved all but one of the major Hollywood studios. An erotic thriller about a cop (Michel Douglas) investigating a sexual murder case, only to fall for a seductive author (Sharon Stone) who turns out to be the prime suspect, "Basic Instinct" was a giant worldwide success amidst mixed reviews. More significantly, it gained special notoriety for its feisty performance from Stone, who notoriously revealed more than audiences expected in the infamous investigation scene where she uncrosses her legs. Following the international success of the otherwise panned Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner "Nowhere to Run" (1993), he teamed with Stone again on "Sliver" (1993), an erotic thriller in which she played a book editor who becomes suspicious of her voyeuristic landlord (William Baldwin). Meanwhile, Eszterhas achieved a great deal of ignominy for "Showgirls" (1995), a glitzy, sleazy take on "All About Eve" set in the world of Las Vegas lap dancing and starring Elizabeth Berkley in one of the more notoriously awful lead performances in cinema history. Rated NC-17 for its gratuitous sexuality and nudity, "Showgirls" attempted to be provocative with its lurid subject matter, but instead came across as crass and rather silly. Still, the movie went on to enjoy cult success thanks to cable and video rentals.
Feeling the effects of the disaster that was "Showgirls," Eszterhas went on to script and executive produce "Jade" (1995), yet another erotic thriller, but this time starring David Caruso as an ambitious assistant district attorney who investigates the murder of a millionaire and becomes involved with the prime suspect (Linda Fiorentino). Abhorred by critics and ignored by audiences, "Jade" marked a creative low point for the screenwriter. Following a rare turn into warm-hearted drama with the coming-of-age tale "Telling Lies in America" (1997), Eszterhas slide further into his career nadir with "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" (1998), a truly dreadful comedy ironically about a director (Eric Idle) who helms a big budget action movie that turns into a creative and financial mess. The notoriously awful movie was dismissed by most critics on its way to becoming an utter box office failure. The damage inflicted to Eszterhas' career was profound, as the writer immediately fell out of Hollywood favor and was relegated to nothing more than an afterthought. Though he continued to write, none of his scripts were produced following the "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" debacle. He managed to have foreign companies produce "Children of Glory" (2006), a historical drama set against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, but Hollywood remained distant for the foreseeable future.
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Eszterhas has earned nearly as much notoriety for his personal life as for his screenwriting. He introduced close friend and "Sliver" co-producer Bill MacDonald to star Sharon Stone in February 1993. The pair embarked on a whirlwind affair which broke up MacDonald's five-month-old marriage to Naomi Baka. MacDonald and Stone were engaged by March. (The releationship did not last however.) Joe and Gerri Eszterhas took the still distraught Baka along on their family vacation to Hawaii. Over the course of the outing, Joe and Naomi fell in love but did not act on their passion until after Joe had made a painful declaration to his wife and children. He then went to Naomi's adjoining room at the Four Seasons, announced his love and informed her that they were leaving. The pair moved across the island to the Ritz Carlton and their romance bloomed. They would eventually marry and have two children of their own.
Eszterhas was paid $2.4 million for the screenplay for the murder mystery "Jade" in the fall of 1992. That same season, he received a $1.5 million advance to begin writing "Showgirls".
"The quality most writers exhibit toward another is jealousy....I have heard from no writers congratulating me, not one. I have not heard from the Writers Guild...and I make a lot of money for them. They have my address."---Eszterhas quoted in "Man Behind Screenplay Calling Shots" by Tom Green, USA Today, June 1, 1994.
"I think we would see better movies--and God, we see a lot of s---ty movies these days--if writers would stand up for what they've written and if directors would stand up for what they believe in with studio heads and the Michael Eisners of the world." --Joe Eszterhas quoted in "Guts", an interview/profile in Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994.
"I like putting women in a situation where they don't take any s---, or they try not to. I've always thought the key to writing interesting women on screen is to treat them simply as human beings, make no differentiation in terms of what they want, the respect they want, the fact they fight for things, that they hurt, they cry, they bleed. Calling me a misogynist is not a fair overview of what I've done. I think I've gotten some of the best actresses of my generation into pictures, between Jessie [Jessica Lange] and [Glenn] Close and [Debra] Winger. These women are very attuned to who they are, to what they represent." --Joe Eszterhas quoted in "Guts", an interview/profile in Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994.
"I work in the Hollywood mainstream. Almost all of my pictures have been with the studios. . . . It may be a rarity for someone to speak up to protect his work. But I speak up within the confines of doing commerical, accessible work. My defiance is to do my own vision." --Eszterhas quoted in "Man Behind Screenplay Calling Shots" by Tom Green, USA Today, June 1, 1994.
After being a smoker for years, Eszterhas began an anti-smoking campaign aimed at stopping depictions in film. Eszterhas was also diagnosed with throat cancer. He had a New York Times op-ed piece on the subject in August of 2002.
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