Joe Eszterhas turns his rapture into a purpose-driven pitch.
By Billy Frolick
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
In 2001, after decades of indulgence in mostly nasty habits, Joe Eszterhas was hit with throat cancer. During his recovery, he was hit again—this time by the divine light and the hand of God—and denounced his life of debauchery.
The (mostly self-described) notorious Esztherhas, a former screenwriter (“Basic Instinct”, “Flashdance”), has spent his second act as an author, chronicling his own mixed-bag movie career (“Hollywood Animal”), anthropomorphosizing the chief of staff’s, er, staff as a talking penis in a surrealist roman a clef (“American Rhapsody”), and now, detailing his own religious conversion in “Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith.”
Eszterhas is wise enough to sidestep the recovery porn genre, which was pretty much euthanized two years ago by the infamous James Frey, perpetrator of that Oprah-touted megaseller, “A Million Little Pieces,” which turned out to be a bogus personal memoir of his criminal, substance-abusing past. Instead, Eszterhas has taken a page from “The Player” and seems to have designed “Crossbearer” as a high-concept hybrid: “An outspoken, alcoholic screenwriter loses his voice… and finds religion! Think ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ meets ‘The Passion of Christ!’”
“Crossbearer,” however, is far from "The Greatest Story Ever Told." In fact, there’s barely a story at all. Eszterhas—whose writing career began as a reporter—has always expressed his brainy-biker attitude with an entertaining, though far from original, prose style. But despite the grand subject matter, his book peaks in the first few pages, when he’s saved during a walk around his neighborhood.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe that realizations, insights, and revelations visit us regularly on this mortal coil. But let’s face it. Epiphanies only happen in the movies. And Eszterhas rolls out just about every cinematic trope to describe his—the shaky legs, the hammering heart, the blinding light. If he were to pitch his memoir to a dozen different studio executives, every response would be the same: “Sorry, Joe… I just feel like I’ve seen it before.”
“Crossbearer” recycles Eszterhas’ familiar autobiographical bullet points – from his childhood in a Hungarian refugee camp to Hollywood head-butting with Michael Ovitz – and weaves them through an episodic, aw-shucks account of his current churchgoing activities, community service, and newfound perspective. But in the absence of any compelling narrative or authentic articulation of his self-discovery, Eszterhas falls back on his old habits and manufactures drama.
When the hard-boiled egghead brazenly challenges the widely-held belief that Bible study alone leads to ascension in the church hierarchy, it’s clear that his fiction-writing days are far from over. “(Father Bob) told me that a line in one of my films, “Flashdance,” had inspired him: ‘When you give up on your dreams, you die.’” Does Eszterhas really expect us to believe this? Hey, all you clergymen wannabes out there—maybe all you need is the right DVD collection! Why dilly-dally with Ecclesiastes when the soulful wisdom of Michael Nouri is available on Paramount Home Video?
The author’s narcissism and credit-mongering is relentless. Famously uncollaborative, these days he either doesn’t have an editor or agent, or didn’t get slapped hard enough with the gratitude stick to bother with book acknowledgements.
Eszterhas seems to have forgotten that he’s not The Creator but the creator of “Showgirls.” When he cracks a joke, he takes great pains to report that the listener laughed. When he wears one of his vintage Rolling Stones tee shirts to church, it magically inspires a visitor to join the congregation. And when he watches Cleveland Indian legend Rocky Colavito take the field at an Old Timers’ game, Joe really sees… himself.
Sadder still are Eszterhas’ incessant references to his partying days, which diminish in credibility with each thou-insisteth-too-much mention. “I was the bad boy,” he writes, like an NC-17-rated Maurice Sendak. “The wild hair. The rogue elephant. The drinking, drugging, effing wild man… The cocaine cowboy. The weed eater. The tequila king.”
After jonesing off cigarettes, Eszterhas rages against the Hollywood machine, appearing in public service announcements against pop culture’s glamorization of smoking. Given the rampant use of coffin sticks in movies like “Basic Instinct,” this feels like Michael Richards’ promise to wipe out racism, or O.J.’s commitment to finding “the real killers.”
Eszterhas also pledges to stop penning movies about sex and violence, a vow that seems easy to fulfill given the lack of demand for his once-coveted services. When he writes an original outline for a TV series about a macho priest, Joe recalls, his agent labels it “Brilliant, revolutionary, groundbreaking, and incendiary.” Now that’s an outline! But the show doesn’t sell – perhaps because, clearly unbeknownst to Eszterhas, Robert Blake broke the same ground twenty years earlier, on a short-lived NBC turkey called “Helltown.”
Always too hip for the room, Eszterhas won’t refer to himself as “born again.” Instead, he tells anyone and everyone that he’s in “a new relationship with God,” which sounds suspiciously like a movie tag line. And though he insists that moving to back to Cleveland grounded him in the importance of faith and family, Eszterhas has yet to leave his old relationship with show business. He’s ecstatic when he finds out that a new priest likes sushi, while another suggests to Joe that his powers of recruitment might merit him “getting commissions on new membership, like royalties from your movies.”
Move over, James Frey. In Joe Eszterhas’ world, men of the cloth not only quote lines from his R-rated movies, they’re also fluent in Hollywood accounting lingo and know where to find great spicy tuna rolls. Hang on a second, Joe—is this Cleveland… or heaven?
Eszterhas insists that his newfound faith is life-changing, but his low emotional intelligence only sees the world in black-and-white. This reduces his allegedly profound experiences to the same banality as the activities of the ice pick-wielding lesbians and welding pole dancers in his scripts. He describes himself as an addict, but makes no mention of faith-based programs like AA; instead he seems to view abstinence as a simple act of will (which, statistically, is rare). He flies to Hollywood to make nice to the people he mistreated, and they accept his apologies as easily as it was for him to get off booze and drugs.
“Crossbearer’s” dearth of compelling events might have been mitigated by sharp commentary or a fresh point of view on institutionalized Catholicism’s regularly-criticized hypocrisy (which should spike again with the November release of Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ documentary, “Religulous”). But since Eszterhas’ ideological default is almost always the road most traveled, he rarely takes a position beyond the obvious. Despite embracing his local church as a second home, he’s hell bent on clarifying his brave stance against pedophilia, and his suspicion that faith healers are con men. But he can’t seem to articulate the separation between church and his new, enlightened state.
“Crossbearer” meanders towards its conclusion with a few generous portions of Hamburger Helper—a melodramatic recounting of Eszterhas’ daughter’s romance with a loser of whom he disapproved, and a dog story (the literary equivalent of showing someone your home movies). Finally Eszterhas—ever the showman—shrewdly tacks on a Hollywood ending with the kind of intimate material that’s been M.I.A. for the first 200 pages. He may have held back his most moving reminiscences for last, but by this point his memoir has hardly been “saved.”
Maybe another spin through the Good Book would have inspired Eszterhas to write one himself.
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