‘Animal’ magnetism

Joe Eszterhas, the writer-warrior behind “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” has become a changed man in Middle America. But his new memoir, “Hollywood Animal,” reflects the same vitriol toward the industry that made him rich.

Joe Eszterhas was back on the scene again last week, a bruised and battered veteran who seems hobbled by too many combat missions. His new book, “Hollywood Animal” (an appropriate title), presents a ferocious account of his myriad battles with agents, stars, studio apparatchiks and everyone else who obstructed his path to big paydays.

It is not a pretty picture, but then Eszterhas prided himself on being a writer-warrior — the man who talked back to Eisner and Schwarzenegger, who walked off “Basic Instinct” and who refused to be intimidated by Michael Ovitz’s “foot soldiers marching down Wilshire Boulevard.”

He’s a changed man now, a cancer survivor, a reformed drunk, a cross-wearing crusader against tobacco, the father of four young kids living, not in Malibu, but in Cleveland. Having survived (barely) his scatological collaboration with Paul Verhoeven on “Showgirls,” he would now like to revive that team to shoot a movie about Jesus. He is addicted presently not to vodka but to carrot juice and lime yogurt.

When you talk to Eszterhas he seems benign, but his book belies that conclusion. Though it describes a spiritual journey, “Hollywood Animal” is steeped in rage and resentment directed at the various players who, he believes, betrayed his talents.

Eszterhas earned tens of millions from his screenplays, but to make that happen, he had to do battle with a succession of sociopathic bullies. What he now accepts is that he himself was a bully, a chip-on-the-shoulder provocateur who engendered creative clashes as well as being brutalized by them.

But his talent, along with his temper, was prodigious. Fostering such hits as “Basic Instinct,” “Jagged Edge” and “Flashdance” plus estimable movies like “F.I.S.T.” and “Music Box,” his paydays escalated to $5 million a script, thus setting a new gold standard for his fellow writers.

He wanted to empower his writing brethren with a sense of mission and self-esteem. Having survived Austrian refugee camps and work as a furniture mover, Eszterhas felt that Big Talent should wield a Big Stick.

When he made his first major script sale, the labor thriller “F.I.S.T.,” he witnessed how rudely the studio discarded a succession of worthy directors and producers on the path to a greenlight.

On “Basic Instinct,” Eszterhas savored his $3 million check only to be slapped around by Verhoeven (“I am the director, ja? You Will do as I say!”). Reacting to what he considered idiotic script suggestions, Eszterhas angrily resigned from the movie, issuing a petulant release to Variety. (Carolco promptly responded with lawsuits.) When the film was completed, he discovered that his script had been left intact.

Along the way, Eszterhas kept firing agents — his friend, Guy McElwaine, because he played too much golf, Arnold Rifkin because he wouldn’t instantly read whatever Eszterhas submitted and, of course, the soldiers of CAA. (Eszterhas claims Ovitz called industry leaders to warn that writers were getting paid too much money for their work, endangering the health of the studios.)

Not everyone would agree with his versions of these incidents.

No one involved with “Jade,” a 1995 Paramount movie, recalls Sherry Lansing pitching her husband Billy Friedkin for the directing gig or Friedkin furtively making script changes. Ovitz is long past making denials about anything, and most of Eszterhas’ former agents have now moved on to other professions.

But Eszterhas himself acknowledges that his scripts, and tantrums, hit the wall in the late ’90s. The feisty Hungarian kept pitching and kept selling, but his projects were banished to development hell.

Finally, no one was signing checks, and Eszterhas, a blunt-spoken, humorless man, decided to reinvent himself as a satirist. The result was a catastrophe called “Burn Hollywood Burn,” a mockumentary that was supposed to turn a hilarious spotlight on the town’s dirty dealings. It was neither funny nor revealing.

Eszterhas ended up recutting it and his director quit; the reviewers were eager to pounce.

To Eszterhas, it was a signal to move on. Health problems would soon overtake him and, for a time, Eszterhas wondered whether he could actually continue writing without his cigarettes and his vodka.

Remarkably, he has turned out a book that is at times powerful, at times disorienting. The talent remains; despite himself, so does the anger.

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