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The Return of the Native
Joe Eszterhas's Hollywood Animal

In Hollywood Animal, Joe Eszterhas mixes guilty-pleasure gossip with a tender memoir.

Informed readers picking up Joe Eszterhas’s new book, Hollywood Animal, know what to expect from the screenwriter who gave the world Basic Instinct and Showgirls: equal doses of outrageous Hollywood gossip and over-the-top, testosterone-fueled narcissism. After all, Eszterhas’s previous Hollywood-themed book, American Rhapsody, offered up enough Hollywood dirt to make most people’s short list for Best Guilty Pleasures when it appeared in 2000, and its swaggering voice suggested nothing so much as a steroid-raging WWF wrestler.

Hollywood Animal certainly delivers the guilty-pleasure goods again, although some of the stories are looking a little shopworn at this point. (Does the man ever honor the sanctity of private conversations—or tire of telling the same story about Farrah Fawcett?)

But Eszterhas is up to something more, this time out. In between the dirty stories about perennial Eszterhas favorites Robert Evans and Sharon Stone, he tells us the story of how he came from post-World War II refugee camps to Cleveland, Ohio, and watched his parents struggle to survive in an environment often hostile to outsiders. A lawyer and published writer in Hungary, his father could find employment only as a low-paid editor for a Hungarian-language Catholic newspaper, and they lived in diminished conditions in poor ethnic neighborhoods. The fact that Eszterhas’s parents made little effort to learn English or assimilate into American culture didn’t help their cause.

Eszterhas’s account of life in Cleveland in the 1950’s is a beautifully presented piece of memoir writing driven by three powerful elements: his (possibly inevitable) maturation into a working-class street tough (culminating in his stealing cars, rolling drunks and even hitting an unsuspecting enemy in the head with a baseball bat); his tender relationship with his father (who was understanding enough to let himself get talked into buying a red convertible as a ‘family’ car); and his equally awkward relationship with his mother (whose growing mental illness didn’t help her accept her son’s transformation).

If Eszterhas had given his readers simply this childhood memoir, it would have been a powerful little book, and it would have helped replace the boorish, misogynistic role he’s perceived as playing with some of his louder screenplays. (In fact, Eszterhas has also written some beautifully gentle screenplays; they simply didn’t make the critical splash that Showgirls and Basic Instinct did.)

Instead, he sandwiches the Cleveland chapters in between gossipy tidbits and the story of how he rose to the status of being Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter. Ultimately, it isn’t satisfying as a whole; it’s too lumpy and piecemeal. Without question, an editor’s firm and aggressive emersion in the text would have yielded a better book (although I pity the editor who goes up against Eszterhas with nothing but his red pencil). The baggy-monster braggadocio accounts of his putting a variety of agents and producers in their place gets so redundant at times that readers may think they’re turning pages backwards and rereading earlier chest-thumping passages over and over again.

But Eszterhas is getting somewhere with the Hollywood sections of the autobiography because, he tells us, just as he and his second wife decided to move back to Ohio and raise their sons in a traditional setting, he was diagnosed with cancer and, in the process of recovery, he stopped drinking and smoking and even found God. Eszterhas is now, he tells us, a churchgoer who, like George W. Bush, believes fervently in prayer and exercise.

He also reveals a stunning fact about his father—but while it’s an element that lifts the book neatly up into a tidy story arc, I won’t spoil the surprise by telling it here.

Eszterhas wants us to marvel at his conversion from a wild-man devil to conservative, Midwestern family man. But even with the tiresome Hollywood bragging, we still see his end in his beginning, and his ability to show that to us is the strongest element of Hollywood Animal.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted February 2, 2004



About the Author

Photo credit: Naomi Eszterhas

Joe Eszterhas's screenplays include Basic Instinct, Flashdance and Showgirls. He lives in Bainbridge, Ohio, with his wife, Naomi, and their four sons. He has two grown children from his fourth marriage. Hollywood Animal is his fourth book.



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