Mel Gibson vs. Joe Eszterhas: Did anyone win this war of words?
When it comes to outrageous blowups of the week, I never imagined that anything would top the admission by Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen that he loved Fidel Castro. But even that debacle has to take a backseat to the meltdown between Mel Gibson and writer Joe Eszterhas over the rejected script for Gibson’s Judah Maccabee movie.
The collaboration between Gibson and the “Basic Instinct” screenwriter has gone down in flames in a big way after Warner Bros. announced Wednesday that it wasn’t going ahead with the project, something the studio apparently told Eszterhas nearly a month ago. Eszterhas didn’t take the news lying down, penning a highly charged nine-page letter to Gibson that denounced the actor-director as anti-Semite and an anger-filled madman who used the Maccabee project as a way to help inoculate himself from charges of being biased against Jews.
Gibson (who was to produce and potentially direct but not star in the Maccabee film) fired back in a letter of his own, saying that the great majority of charges in the Eszterhas letter were “utter fabrications.” Gibson also bad-mouthed Eszterhas’ script, saying that having developed projects for 25 years, “I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time.”
As with so many spitting matches in showbiz, it’s difficult to truly assess the moral high ground in this dispute except to say -- does anyone really come out of this looking good?
Certainly not Gibson, who has been something of a pariah in Hollywood after ranting about Jews when he was arrested on a DUI in Malibu, then was captured on tape spewing hate-filled remarks about women and minorities during a dispute with his ex-girlfriend. Eszterhas’ letter, first posted on The Wrap, paints an ugly portrait of Gibson as a man prone not only to vile anti-Semitism, but truly scary fits of anger.
It reeks not only of delusions of grandeur, but of self-justification. When Eszterhas isn’t quoting other people’s praise for his script, he's quoting his own book, "Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith" and what he said about Gibson in it. As for Gibson’s behavior, Eszterhas says that during their meetings, Gibson would call Jews “Hebes” and “oven-dodgers.” He says that when someone’s name would come up, Gibson would say, "He’s a Hebe, isn’t he?" And oh yes, he also says Gibson told him that the mothers of the last three Popes were Jewish and that the Holocaust was “mostly a lot of [crap].”
The letter also offers a lengthy description of Eszterhas’ trip with his wife, Naomi, and his 15-year-old son to Gibson’s estate in Costa Rica. To hear Eszterhas tell it, the trip was like a string of scenes from “Hostel 6,” with Gibson erupting in hate-filled rants and the Eszterhas family hiding behind locked doors, arming themselves with golf clubs and butcher knives in case Gibson assaulted them.
Of course, if this is all true — a big if — it begs the question: Why did Eszterhas stick it out and spend months working on a script for a man who was so clearly hateful, if not badly in need of a long stay with an expensive psychiatrist? Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind, or anyone with any self-respect, have walked away ages ago, eager to keep their dignity intact?
Of course, that wouldn’t take into account Eszterhas’ over-inflated sense of his own artistic importance. Although his letter is stamped “Personal and Confidential,” it was clearly destined to be read by the world as a way to explain how Eszterhas had gotten entangled in the whole misbegotten project.
Although he addresses Gibson in the letter, he seems to be thinking about the court of public opinion when he writes: “I was hoping that the power of the story would overcome your anti-Semitic prejudices. I felt that my only choice was to, in a sense, ‘convert’ you through the power of the script.”
Sorry, but that’s an excuse that only a screenwriter deluded by their own ego could buy. If Gibson is as despicable as Eszterhas describes him, Eszterhas should’ve tossed the script into the trash, given back his fee and then, if he felt the need to have a clear conscience, shared his thoughts with the world. But for him to do it only after his script was tossed aside doesn’t exactly count as a profile in courage.
Warners isn’t talking, so it’s unclear whether the studio is willing to go ahead with the project with a new screenwriter, or wash its hands of the whole affair. I’m a big believer in free speech, so I think Warners has every right to stick with its talent. After all, Gibson says he has been working on the project for 10 years and isn’t willing to give up, even if he has to make the film himself.
When the collaboration with Eszterhas was first announced, I said we should keep an open mind, since sometimes the people with the most demons end up being the most riveting storytellers. I haven’t changed my belief about that. But after reading Eszterhas' and Gibson's opinions of each other, I suspect there's a riveting movie to be made about a troubled relationship between a writer and a movie star -- both of whose artistic motives are so murky that we might never know who was the hero and who was the villain.
Photo: Mel Gibson conferring with his attorney, Blair Berk, during his March 11, 2011, arraignment on charges of domestic violence. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times