Charles Bukowski once told Sean Penn at dinner that Madonna, his wife, smelled like ‘she sucked donkey’s cocks all day’. Penn leaped up and challenged him to a fight. ‘Sit down Sean,’ said Bukowski, then in his seventies. ‘We both know I can take you.’ –
paraphrased from Joe Eszterhaz’s The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood. (Shorter and snappier).
This feast of scandalous hilarity is served in bite-sized portions, each with its own headline, ideal if you have lost your attention span, as I have. He couldn’t have made it any easier other than showing up to read it to you. Which might be a daunting prospect as Eszterhaz is what polite people would call ‘larger than life’ though many would use something shorter and pithier. The egomaniacal author of Basic Instinct, Flashdance and Jagged Edge mostly likes starting fights.
The Bukowski story is headlined ‘Sylvester Stallone Fights Like A Sissy’. A dispute on F.I.S.T led to Eszterhaz challenging a man fit enough to credibly portray the world boxing champion for many years. Eszterhaz was hoping his greater experience in barroom brawls would carry him through. Which is why he told Sylvester Stallone that he fights like a sissy. Eszterhaz’s father then advised him, ‘by all means challenge him, but I have seen Rocky, I have seen him fight. He will beat you bloody.’
As an armchair hardman I like the way Eszterhaz has claimed macho kudos here, without having to get into the ring, also winning sympathy from the reader by mocking his own reputation as an outrageous asshole. Throughout this book he is an entertaining host although the message is dubious – might is right and be a bigger bastard than everyone else. For balance there’s plenty of wisdom from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, also fascinating gossip throughout.
You may have wondered who elected screenwriting guru Robert McKee as the three act Moses, the Eternal Overlord of Story. Eszterhaz enjoys telling us that McKee only ever had one television movie produced. And that he apparently said, unwisely, ‘If you’ve only one story, get out of town!’ Well, Eszterhaz’s movies may not be critical favourites but they have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars so far. And he’s taking Showgirls’ kitsch afterlife as vindication.
Endings are always difficult. Want to know exactly what Eszterhaz’s sometimes ambiguous finales really mean? You won’t find out here. He always tells people to watch the film again, ever eager to sell another ticket. So Basic Instinct ends how you think it ends. Never mind if, say, Jagged Edge doesn’t feel right, a lot of crime stories now sacrifice everything for the twist, the more unlikely the better. Roger Ebert, a much more perceptive writer and an infinitely better human being, gets it in the neck from Esterhaz, for having pointed out the flaws in Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct: a story which works both ways is bogus (see various reviews at rogerebert.com. He’s very good on how bad Joe Esterhaz is, without being needlessly cruel, as Esterhaz would have been). But then the dollars Esterhaz’s fakes generated were real. And Eszterhaz may be a macho blowhard but that doesn’t invalidate his central point: nothing can happen without a script. Auteur theory is bullshit. Pretentious, too.