Skies not always blue in Malibu

Guest column

Most people are aware that screenwriter Joe Eszterhas decamped Hollywood for his native Cleveland. But most haven’t heard exactly how a well-paid screenwriter sours on Malibu. In this excerpt from his new memoir, “Hollywood Animal,” he explains.

There was always some damn movie being filmed at night on the beach below us in Malibu keeping us awake.

And Joey found a used hypodermic to play with on the local playground.

And we were forced to buy what we called our “Brinks Mailbox” because one of our neighbors, starstruck, was stealing our mail.

And an Alaska Airlines jet crashed a few miles out at sea and the beach beneath us was awash for weeks with body tissue and suitcases.

And we’d fired one of our nannies because L.A. sheriff’s deputies had caught her threatening and stalking the television actor Robert Conrad.

And yet, that wasn’t really what was wrong. Something was very wrong, I felt, but none of those things, added together, summed up the problem.

I was the problem. Something was wrong with me.

.  .  .

In some deep part of me, I didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t want to go to the wall and fight the battles . . . and do the seductive, empty chitchat at Morton’s. I still wanted to write screenplays, but I didn’t want the rest of the package: the fights with directors, the paparazzi at the premieres, the limos, the best table at Spago, the weekends in Palm Springs or Laguna.

I felt like I’d befouled myself somehow, like I had turned into something I didn’t want to be: the screenwriter as Hollywood Animal … not as victim and servant and peon and whore … but as the Hollywood Animal, the gun in my hand.

An ancient Hollywood equation says that in the beginning of a project, the screenwriter has the gun and when his script is finished he hands the gun off to the director … and when the director’s cut is finished, the director hands the gun off to the studio … and when the studio has the gun … the studio fires the gun and kills the screenwriter and the director with it.

Well, not me! I had the gun and kept it and could even aim it at studio heads and get them to throw their hands up and give me what I wanted!

Hollywood animal behavior. Another symptom of the same disease that had caused a producer friend of mine to slap his maid bloody for not moving fast enough at a dinner party, or another producer friend who viciously beat up his fiancee two weeks before their wedding date — a date he kept, but with another woman.

You’ll never work in this town again was blackmail and extortion, because there was always an “if” attached to that time-worn sentence . . . “If you leave CAA,” Michael Ovitz had said to me, talking about his foot soldiers who’d blow my brains out.

And now I was engaging in the same sort of blackmail and extortion. I was a Hollywood animal, I feared, just as much as Ovitz, pulling the same gangster tactics on the town that he’d pulled on me. I had become what I detested.

“So do whatever you want to do,” I’d written to Ovitz, “and fuck you,” more than implying that he was trash, Hollywood scum, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Now I was off my high horse, muscling and browbeating the other players in the gutter.

I felt like I should send myself the same letter I’d sent to Ovitz. There was no doubt in my mind that the Ovitz jacket I saw myself wearing fit to a tee: Michael had even turned on Ron Meyer, his best friend, the way I’d turned on Guy McElwaine.

I found myself reconsidering and reevaluating my whole battle with Ovitz. Was it really wanting Guy back in my life that made me resist Ovitz eleven years ago? Or was it me saying: You’re candy, frat boy. Welcome to Lorain Avenue. You don’t have a chance. I’m gonna hit you in the fuckin’ head with a baseball bat … because I’m the real Hollywood animal, asshole, I’m the real Thousand-Pound Gorilla!”

The longer I’d lived in this town the worse I’d become … until I was out of control, amok in Malibu. Wildlife. A barbarian hanging scalps and check stubs off his figurative dick. There was something about this cursed and glitzy town that infected you and fired you with delusions. Living here was like functioning on low-desert meth cut with just a crust of PCP.

L.A. was a separate nation, not a state within the United States … but a separate nation between the United States and Mexico whose Twin Towers was the Industry. It was impossible to imagine this separate nation without the Industry because the Industry was its big, beeping, buzzing, glowing sacred heart.

Everyone wanted to be a part of the Industry … as a screenwriter, actor, producer, gofer, gaffer, whatever — it didn’t matter. As long as they could be a part of it and suck off its glamorous, poisonous, siliconed, corrupt tit.

Jeremy, Naomi’s 40-year-old little brother, made a lucrative salary. He was a brilliant PR man, a talented singer and songwriter. Yet one day, out of the blue, he suddenly decided to write screenplays with a friend. Why? Because if Ben Affleck and Matt Damon could do it …

Jeremy read the trades too, tried to get invited to “industry events.” He kept a list in his office of movie stars he and his co-workers had glimpsed in the outdoor cafés of the Sunset Strip.

A screenwriter! He was a screenwriter now! Boom! Just like that! Out of the blue! Even though he’d never written anything but songs and PR releases before. Even though he got so jittery sitting in one place for twenty minutes that he had to get up and pace around the room.

Naomi and I loved Jeremy and we feared this deadly suckhole of a town was sucking him in, too. He drove a hot car. He went to the gym each day. He was on his cellular all the time. He didn’t check his at-home mail for a week, but he checked his e-mail at his office every hour.

The truth was that in the Nation of L.A. you … didn’t matter … if you weren’t sucking off the Industry tit. You were nothing even if it seemed that you were something.

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