Read an Excerpt
The King of Point Doom
I wanna show off the car. I wanna show you off.
Why do you have to show off all the time?
I ain’t got that much to show.
Telling Lies in America
My great-grandfather grew up a poor kid in a tiny village in Hungary. He was about to be drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and he fled to America.He worked as a miner in Pennsylvania for a while but didn’t like the work. He went out to the American West and became a stagecoach robber.He became wealthy.He rode with Black Bart and Jesse James.
I grew up a poor kid in the refugee camps of Austria and on the West Side of Cleveland, Ohio. I worked as a furniture mover, a disc jockey, and a newspaper reporter, but I didn’t like the work. I went out to the American West and became a screenwriter.
I rode with a whole lot of famous hombres.
I sold screenplays in Hollywood for record amounts of money.
My agent, Guy McElwaine, referred to these sales as “bank heists.”
My wife, Naomi, wore a leather strap of silver bullets around one of her cowboy boots when I met her.
And when she knew she had fallen in love with me, she gave me the strap of silver bullets and tied them around one of my cowboy boots.
The day I married her, I wore her silver bullets.
. . .
My great-grandfather took his fortune and went back to the village in Hungary where he had grown up.Old crones wearing black babushkas said they saw him through the cellar windows of his castle playing cards by candlelight with the devil.
He had sold his soul to the devil in the American West and was trying to win it back now.
When I was a screenwriter in Hollywood, the Los Angeles Free Press wrote that I had sold my soul to the devil.
A columnist in South Dakota wrote that I was “in the devil’s employ.”
A Canadian magazine wrote that I was “a devil living in Malibu.”
My hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote about me with a headline that said, “Eszterhas — Ordinary Joe or Satan’s Agent?”
A cartoon in Entertainment Weekly showed the devil’s hand on my shoulder and these words: “December 31, 1999 — The Devil Takes Formal Possession of Joe Eszterhas’ Soul.”
A secretary at Paramount who liked to wear Blessed Virgin Mary T-shirts had a vision of me.
I was ascending from the putrid steam of a black-water pond.
And shortly after her vision, during the making of the movie Sliver, the actor Billy Baldwin and I were walking down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles heading into a bar owned by the actor Tony Danza’s brother.
A bag lady approached us, took one look at me, made the sign of the cross, and turned around and ran in the other direction.
“Wow!” Billy Baldwin said, “maybe you are the devil.”
That secretary who liked to wear Blessed Virgin Mary T-shirts and said I was the devil worked for the producer Robert Evans.
My friend Robert Evans, as everyone in Hollywood knows, really is the devil.
Evans, the producer of Sliver, liked my Sliver script so much that he sent a voluptuous redhead wearing only a mink coat over to my hotel. She pulled a note out of a certain intimate body part.
“Best first draft I’ve ever read,” the note said. “Love, Evans.”
The note smelled fantastic.
That mink coat she wore, I later discovered, belonged not to her but to Evans. He dressed all the girls in that same mink coat on the occasions when he was dispatching them as fragrant human telegrams.
Our house in the part of Malibu known as Point Dume overlooked the sea.
Wolfgang Puck’s Granita, just down the road on the Pacific Coast Highway, catered our dinner parties. We bought our air-shipped white truffles at the TrancasMarket, where TomandNicole shopped. We bought clothes for our four boys at Ninety-Nine Percent Angels, where Demi roamed with her team of nannies.
Sean Penn and Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez and Jan-Michael Vincent used to hang out at our neighborhood bar, the Dume Room. A few blocks south of us was a ramshackle little seafront house where William Saroyan once lived, collecting stones. So many stones that when he moved away, he needed two houses to store them.
Naomi and I and our little boys lived in our house by the sea. We had a swimming pool behind the house, a hot tub, a guesthouse.
We lived right across the street from Bob Dylan’s house. Bob’s roosters woke us each morning. His mastiffs left great heaping mountains of dog doo in front of our gate.
Buzz magazine picked Naomi and me as “two of the scariest people in Los Angeles” and as “the scariest couple in Los Angeles.” Other “scariest people” were Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Val Kilmer, Heidi Fleiss, John Tesh, and my producer pal Robert Evans. There were no other “scariest couples” nominated. Naomi and I won that category unanimously.
Naomi is part Polish and part Italian. She is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. She is also the smartest. She told me she will “hunt me down and kill me” if I ever cheat on her.
I will never cheat on her because she is my best friend and my wondrous lover. Also because I love her more than my children and I love my children more than anything in the world.
Naomi and I have four little boys: Joey, nine, Nick, six, John Law, four, and Luke, two.
“Dicks,” Naomi said to me recently. “I wake up in the morning and all I see in every direction I look are dicks.”
I have two grown children from my first marriage — Steve (also known as LaMon, also known as D. J. Rogue) is twenty-eight. He’s a white African-American. He’s the only white African-American member of the family, although Suzi, twenty-six (also known as Mo), spends a lot of time in Africa, photographing wildlife.
I think Suzi prefers wildlife to human beings.
I think she felt that way even before I left her mother, Gerri Javor, my first wife.
. . .
Even before we met, Naomi had spent months studying my face. She was a talented graphic artist and her boyfriend had given her a photograph of me and asked her to make a drawing of me as a Christmas present.
I thought her pencil portrait remarkable, especially my eyes. Naomi had drawn me with sad, wounded eyes.
You must understand why Naomi is the love of my life.
She grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, an hour away from Cleveland, where I grew up.
She was a cheerleader in high school, a Ramette — “a Ramit” is what they called them in Mansfield — who got straight As. She reads. She adores Edith Wharton and knows all of Prufrock by heart.
Her favorite meal in the world is McDonald’s French fries.
She was voted “class tease” in high school.
Like me, she was a journalism major in college.
For many years she worked in public relations in New York for Time Warner and American Express.
Her specialty? Damage control.
An American friend of my father’s drove me to Naomi’s hometown,Mansfield, Ohio, from Cleveland when I was eleven years old. We visited the museum — home of a famous dead American writer named Louis Bromfield. The house was the biggest and most beautiful house I had ever seen in my life.
My father’s American friend explained that if I, too,worked and studied like Looey Bromfield had worked and studied, I, too, could be a famous American writer one day and own a house as beautiful as this one.
After I met Naomi, I read a book about Looey Bromfield’s life. Born in Mansfield, Looey left his hometown and spent many years in California and abroad, writing many best-selling books and Hollywood screenplays.
Approaching sixty, he then returned to Mansfield, Ohio, and bought the property that he called Malabar Farm. His friends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall got married there.
He never wrote any other best-selling books or big-buck screenplays and drank himself to death, dying in the ambulance on the way to the hospital in Cleveland.
There was a little hill on Malabar Farm called Oh Jesus Hill. Looey had named it that because he’d made love to the wealthy heiress Doris Duke on that hill and had said “Oh, Jesus!” at a certain moment.
Naomi’s only visit to Malabar Farm was when she and her boyfriend visited it in high school.
Naomi claimed not to have visited Oh Jesus Hill but . . . Oh, Jesus! . . . I’m not sure I believed her.
I don’t mean to sound insufferable, but . . .
I realized reading about Looey Bromfield that I’d written more successful screenplays than he and while he’d written many more best-selling books than I, I’d gotten a much bigger advance for my best-selling book than he’d gotten for any of his.
I also realized that my houses in Tiburon and Stinson Beach and Malibu were all bigger and more beautiful than the house I’d been so razzle-dazzled by as a child . . . Looey’s relatively rinky-dink Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio.
I had worked and studied like Looey Bromfield had worked and studied and had become a famous American writer like Looey . . . but I owned much bigger houses than Looey.
I was a Great American Success Story.
I had out-Looeyed Looey!
I was a militant, fanatical smoker. I smoked three to four packs of Salem Ultra Lites each day. I’d started smoking when I was twelve years old, thinking that those who smoked in the movies I liked so much — like High School Confidential! — with Jerry Lee Lewis — looked cool.
Now I was writing smoking into my movies, combining smoking with sex as in Basic Instinct, because I still thought smoking was cool.
Through the years, I’d smoked Marlboros and Gauloises and Luckies, even smoked a pipe for years, and then discovered menthol cigarettes, cool with a K. I’d worked my way down to Ultra Lites and didn’t even have a smoker’s cough in the morning.
My mother, a chain-smoker, died of cancer when she was fifty. Her mother, a chain-smoker, died of lung cancer at forty-five.
Naomi begged me to stop but her parents had been heavy smokers, too.Her father died when he was seventy-eight of complete respiratory arrest. Her mother’s death was not smoking-related.
“Don’t worry,” I’d say to Naomi, “I’m going to be that little old guy you read the stories about, the one who’s puffing away at a hundred and two.”
A half hour before my mother died, she smoked her last cigarette. She was fifty years old.
I held it to her lips because her hands trembled so badly she couldn’t hold it.
When she was finished smoking that cigarette, I left her room and went outside and smoked a couple of cigarettes myself.
Then I went back inside and held her hand.
She died holding my hand.
My hand was bleeding from how hard she had dug her fingernails into it.
My mother smoked Herbert Tareyton filters and then Viceroy filters, but only after she “purified” them.
She took each cigarette out of the pack and sliced the filter off it. Then she put the cigarettes back into the pack and took them out all day and smoked them that way.
I asked her why she didn’t simply smoke unfiltered cigarettes but she said the unfiltered ones were too strong and filled with poisons.
She said the people at the cigarette factories purified their cigarettes in the process of putting filters on them and all she was doing was purifying them twice by slicing the filters.
That’s why, my mother said, she didn’t even have a smoker’s cough in the morning.
Naomi’s father, Barney Baka, smoked Viceroys, too, like my mother, but he didn’t razor the filters off them.
After a lifetime of smoking, he never got cancer.
But he couldn’t laugh.He coughed instead of laughing.He had a good sense of humor, so he coughed much of the time.
The morning my mother died, a hearse from the John J. Hriczo Funeral Home in Cleveland came to take her body away.
The two men from the funeral home had just gotten her body into the hearse and were ready to go . . . when the garbage truck came by for the weekly pickup.
The hearse had to stay in the driveway with my mother’s body inside it as the garbagemen emptied out one garbage can after another.
For many years afterward, I dreamed about the hearse waiting for the garbagemen to empty the garbage cans.
The day my mother died, the roses she had so carefully cultivated at the back of our house in Cleveland Heights died as well. The roses in all of our neighbors’ yards were alive and blooming.
After the worldwide success of Basic Instinct, a tobacco company released Basic cigarettes, no doubt inspired by the sex/smoking scenes in the movie.
Thanks to me, even more people in the world would be smoking.
Thanks to me, more people would die.
Here are some other reasons why Naomi is the perfect woman for me:
1. She rolls the best joints of any . . . of the very many . . . that I’ve toked.
2. She used to work pumping gas at the Sohio station on Crider Road in Mansfield.
3. She’s hell on wheels on roller skates.
4. When she was a little girl, her mother addressed her as “The Little Devil.”
5. In high school, she went to parties dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
6. She loves Madonna, and calls her “Madoo.”
7. She keeps a journal.
Madonna almost played the part of Cristal in Showgirls, but Paul Verhoeven, the director, didn’t like Madoo’s script ideas.
Had Paul liked Madoo’s ideas:
1. Then the critics would have liked Showgirls better because it would have been Madoo’s script, not mine.
2. Then Showgirls may not have been one of the greatest clinkers of all time.
Besides Madoo, Paul Verhoeven nixed both Drew Barrymore and Sharon Stone for Showgirls.
Had Showgirls starred Madonna and Drew Barrymore instead of Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley . . .
The script would have been very different, thanks to Madoo.
The acting would have been very different, thanks to Drew.
And it’s just possible that Showgirls would have been a hit movie!
If the script had been Madonna’s, then I probably wouldn’t have called it “a deeply religious message.”
Had I not called it “a deeply religious message,” I probably wouldn’t have issued a press release telling teenagers to bring their fake IDs to see it.
Had I not told teenagers to bring their fake IDs, I would have avoided making a colossal asshole of myself.
A hit movie! Showgirls! A hit movie!
You have no idea how happy that would have made me!
Because I had done something else tragically foolish, too.
I had named the lead character of Showgirls “Nomi” . . . Nomi . . . Naomi’s childhood nickname . . . Nomi . . . the name I loved and was always going to call her in our most intimate moments.
Until the movie came out and disastered and turned my true love’s childhood nickname into a national joke.
No more “Nomi”!
Now I never call the love of my life “Nomi” anymore!
For the record . . . what I was thinking by saying Showgirls has “a deeply religious message” was this:
At the end of the movie, Nomi Malone turns her back on stardom and leaves Vegas because of the amorality she has seen and experienced there.
She has become a star as the result of participating in that amorality . . . but rejects her stardom . . . and that amoral world . . . and gets back on the road, hitchhiking out of town . . . with her own billboard looming above her.
Whatever I was trying to do, I admit now that it was a dumb-ass thing to do.
For the record . . . what I was thinking by telling teenagers to bring their fake IDs to get into the theaters to see Showgirls was this:
1. There was nothing in the movie to harm them because I didn’t believe that either four-letter words or naked body parts would do any harm to teenagers.
2. Since only those teenagers who look close to eighteen have fake IDs, I certainly wasn’t calling for ten- or fourteen-year-olds to see it.
3. The movie, in my mind, for reasons I’ve explained above, has a moral message . . . it would be good for teenagers’ values to see Nomi Malone rejecting stardom and money because of the amorality which was its cost.
4. It’s impossible to show the rejection of an amoral world without showing the amoralities which make someone reject it.
Whatever I was thinking . . . I admit now that telling teenagers to bring their fake IDs to see Showgirls was a dumb-ass thing to say.
In the year 2000, I was fifty-six years old, a Hollywood screenwriter, the author of fifteen movies. Some of them (Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge, Flashdance) were some of the biggest box office hits of our time. Some (Showgirls, Jade, Sliver) were some of the biggest critical disasters in recent memory. Some were pretty good: Music Box, F.I.S.T., Telling Lies in America, Betrayed. Some were movies that I loved but few others did: An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, Big Shots. Some were movies that I hated: Nowhere to Run, Hearts of Fire.
My movies had grossed more than a billion dollars at the box office. I had made millions and millions of dollars writing them. I had sold one script for $3 million, another for $3.7 million, another for $4.7 million.
I was the only screenwriter in the history of Hollywood who had groupies.
I was one of the few screenwriters in the history of Hollywood who were paid more for writing their scripts than some directors were for directing them.
The New York Times headlined: “Big Bucks and Blondes — Joe Eszterhas Lives the American Dream.”
ABC News called me “a living legend.”And Time magazine asked this question: “If Shakespeare were alive today, would his name be Joe Eszterhas?”
I was “the Che Guevara of screenwriters” (Variety) and “the Andrew Dice Clay of screenwriters” (the New York Times).
Details magazine said,“He is a sexually transmitted disease.”
Another New York Times article said, “In his own way, Mr. Eszterhas is as much an object of fantasy as Sharon Stone.”
In a story about the rock group U2, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Remember when people thought Bono just wanted to be God? Now he wants to be Joe Eszterhas.”
I got two thousand fan letters a week.
The best fan letter I’d ever gotten came to me when I was a writer at Rolling Stone magazine in the seventies.
A young woman wrote: “Do you want to come to Mars with me and play?”
It was addressed to “Ms. Esther Has.”
When I knew I was falling in love with Naomi, twenty years later, I asked Naomi the same question: “Do you want to come to Mars with me and play?”
Fan letters and autographs and limos and groupies . . . I was in hog screenwriter heaven . . . I was insufferable!
How insufferable was I?
Well, I called one of my directors “a doddering old fuck.”
How insufferable was I?
At a meeting with a group of studio executives, I said, “You guys better get your hands off my dick and stop diddling me.”
I was wearing an International Brotherhood of Teamsters jacket as I said that. Underneath the jacket was a black T-shirt with the words:“My inner child is a mean little fuck.”
How insufferable was I?
On my last movie, I wasn’t content with screen credits for screenwriting and executive-producing. I insisted that the first credit to be shown on-screen say: “Joe Eszterhas presents.”
How insufferable was I?
My hair was halfway down my back. I wore frayed jeans patched with red bandanas and a black hooded jacket with the words “Fuck You” at the top.
How insufferable was I?
I said to Robert Evans, “I’m not going to roll over and let him fuck me just because he’s the director and happens to be married to the head of the studio! You’ve rolled over so many times that it doesn’t even hurt anymore.”
How insufferable was I?
When I said that to him, Evans was (and still is) a dear friend of mine.
I was such a big-shot screenwriter that, in San Rafael, California, as I was being wheeled into an ambulance after an artery in my nose burst . . .
I saw a man on the street with his son pointing to me.
“Look,” the man said, “there! That’s Joe Eszterhas!”
His son said, “Where?”
The man said, “There! Bleeding.”
I was such a big-shot screenwriter that I could even keep Mick Jagger waiting.
Mick was calling from Bali, trying to talk me into letting him get an early look at a script I had written about Otis Redding called Blaze of Glory.
I told him that I really couldn’t do that . . . it wouldn’t be fair to the other producers, etc., etc. . . . enjoying every moment of it as Mick started to charm and nearly beg to have a shot to produce it.
Here he was, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the ultimate rock star of my generation, begging just to be able to read my words.
So I finally said okay — he was, after all, Mick Jagger, the man every guy of my generation wanted to be. Naomi and I faxed every page of the script over to him in Bali and . . .
He didn’t even call me back to tell me he didn’t like it.
An assistant called three days later, to say that Mick had passed.
Oh, well, it was worth what had been my opening line to him: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
A couple years later, Mick Jagger came around again.He was interested this time in acting, not producing . . . playing Alan Smithee, the title character in An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.
His assistant called the producer of our film.
She said Mick had read the script and wanted to talk about it — not with me . . . but with the director, Arthur Hiller.
The producer, who was a Jagger fan, told the assistant Mick shouldn’t meet with Arthur Hiller, who was in his seventies and hardly knew who Mick was.
Mick, the producer said, should meet with Joe Eszterhas, who was a Mick Jagger freak and who had all the juice on this movie.
The assistant spoke to Mick and called the producer back.Mick didn’t want to meet with Joe Eszterhas, Mick said. Mick didn’t have meetings with screenwriters, Mick had meetings with directors.
Besides, the assistant said,Mick had some script ideas.Maybe Arthur Hiller would hear them and decide to bring in a new screenwriter.
The producer told me what Mick Jagger’s assistant had said and I asked Arthur Hiller if he wanted to meet with Mick.
“Not especially,” Arthur Hiller said and tried to talk me into letting his friend Michael York play the part.
In my insufferable way, I told the producer . . . to tell Mick’s assistant . . . to tell Mick, Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself . . . to go fuck himself.
I was such a big-shot screenwriter that, in a little Mississippi town near Memphis, I accomplished something Tom Cruise and Danny DeVito couldn’t do. I called my boyhood idol Jerry Lee Lewis, introduced myself, told him I was in town, and he said sure, come on over.
I heard later that Cruise and DeVito had made similar calls but Jerry Lee didn’t like Cruise’s work and he thought DeVito was “a pygmy,” so he wouldn’t see them.
When I got to his ranch, Jerry Lee came out from behind the steel door of the bedroom he spent most of his time in, wearing a white terry cloth robe and panda slippers.He had an unlighted Dunhill pipe in his mouth.
We looked like two aging geezers who’d seen too many miles of bumpy, potholed road. Two aging geezers who’d used too many unhealthy substances to cushion the bumps.
“Basic Instinct — that’s one of my favorite movies,” Jerry Lee Lewis said.
Then he said, “You know that shot where she sticks her whatchamacallit into the camera? Did they have to shoot that for a long time?”
“How does it feel,” an assistant to a director said to me in those post-Showgirls days, “to be the most reviled man in America?”
I smiled and said, insufferably, “You mean I’m worse even than O.J.?”
She turned archly away and said nothing.
It didn’t help that in the week after he was found not guilty and got out of jail, O. J. Simpson went to see two movies: Showgirls and Jade.