Pulp non fiction: Joe Eszterhas tells all about Mel Gibson
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has given up chasing women. He’s given up booze. He’s given up smoking, after barely surviving a horrible bout of throat cancer. But judging from “Heaven and Mel,” his new Amazon e-book about his ill-fated attempt to write a historical action drama about the Maccabees for Mel Gibson to direct, Eszterhas hasn’t lost his fondness for larger-than-life showbiz soap opera.
Eszterhas was once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, a man who fought bitterly with directors, studios and actresses — at least when he wasn’t sleeping with them. He lived across the street from Bob Dylan in Malibu, wore a T-shirt to studio meetings with the motto “my inner child is a mean little ...” and once sold a pitch written on the back of a cocktail napkin for $4.7 million. His biggest hit was “Basic Instinct,” but his second-most-impressive piece of writing may have been a blistering screed he penned in 1989 to then-CAA czar Michael Ovitz. At the time, Ovitz was threatening to ruin Eszterhas’ career because he was leaving CAA to rejoin his old agent.
In short, Eszterhas is no babe in the Hollywood woods.
A decade ago, Eszterhas left Hollywood to return to his native Ohio, where he and his wife, Naomi, are raising four kids. But he hasn’t managed to put all the fireworks behind him: When he turned in his Maccabees script this spring to Warner Bros., the studio financing the project, it crashed and burned — executives told him it didn’t cut the mustard. Upset over the rejection, which he blamed on Gibson, Eszterhas wrote another blistering letter, this one to Gibson. It described Gibson as acting outrageously during the time they spent together, and Eszterhas has now expanded that into a 150-page book.
“I feel that it’s a powerful story that I had to tell about truth and values and choices,” Eszterhas told me this week via phone from Ohio. “I leaned over backwards not to make it a hatchet job. I show the love Mel has for his daughter and other good things he’s done. But if you were putting this in fundamentalist Baptist terms, you’d have to say that Mel is a man who’s been battling his demons and the demons have won.”
It’s clear from the book that religion is what brought the men together, as well as what shredded their relationship. What’s less clear is why Eszterhas stuck around as long as he did.
Eszterhas says he wanted to write the Maccabees story not just because the tale of the embattled warriors was a stirring chapter in Jewish history. Eszterhas had old wounds to heal; his father, an émigré from Hungary, had turned out to have written anti-Semitic propaganda and organized book burnings in Hungary during World War II.
Eszterhas, who became a Christian in 2001, says he “felt a weight and a burden” that could perhaps be lifted by telling the Maccabees story. He also felt a kinship with Gibson, a devout Catholic, who has a complicated relationship with his own father, Hutton Gibson, a Holocaust skeptic who has said that the Second Vatican Council — which significantly reshaped and modernized Catholic liturgy and ritual in the 1960s — was a “Masonic plot backed by the Jews.”
Gibson, of course, has been shunned by many in Hollywood since he was arrested for drunk driving in Malibu in 2006 and launched into an anti-Semitic diatribe that became public. This was followed by a series of hate-filled rants against minorities that his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva taped during their phone conversations in 2010 and that also became public.
Eszterhas’ book is crammed with salacious allegations about Gibson, focusing on a series of disturbing scenes in which Eszterhas claims to have been on hand as Gibson launches into obscenity-filled denunciations of his ex-girlfriend, refers to Jews as “Hebes” and “oven-dodgers,” describes Pope John Paul II as the ringleader of a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy to destroy the Catholic Church and makes denigrating remarks about a host of his showbiz loyalists, including his longtime publicist Alan Nierob. (Nierob said Gibson had no comment about the book.)
It’s hard to say how true his account is. Eszterhas has an audiotape of one Gibson rant that the writer’s son recorded while the family was at Gibson’s retreat in Costa Rica. But when I asked Eszterhas if all of the richly detailed scenes in “Heaven and Mel” were substantiated by notes he had taken at the time, he said no.
“I wasn’t keeping notes,” he said. “I had no idea I was going to write a book until I wrote the big letter to Mel. But Naomi was always there, even in some of our script meetings. And she has an amazing memory.”
But, I asked, what about his lengthy description of his first meeting with Gibson where Eszterhas depicts the actor railing against the modern Catholic Church, saying for example, that “any priest who came after Vatican II in the ’60s isn’t a real priest” because “that’s when the church was ruined.”
“It’s from memory,” Eszterhas explained. “It was my first meeting with Mel and even though I’m 68, my memory is still pretty good.”
Maybe. But if Gibson is as awful and vitriolic as he’s portrayed in the book, why didn’t Eszterhas walk away? How could Eszterhas possibly occupy the high moral ground if he was willing to expose Gibson only after the studio rejected his script? After all, Eszterhas says he was paid $300,000 for the first draft. Was it about the money?
“Not at all,” Eszterhas said. “I convinced myself that I could write a script that was so powerful that either Mel would decide to do it because it was so cinematic or that the top Warners executives, who were Jewish, would love the story and convince Mel to do it. It wasn’t about the money. I desperately wanted to do this, both because of my father and my faith. My God wanted me to do this. I would’ve done it for $25,000.”
It’s hard not to recoil from the idea of Eszterhas willingly working with a man he accuses of such hate-filled behavior. Yet the screenwriter’s pairing with Gibson makes more sense if you consider what kind of drama Eszterhas is drawn to.
In “What Happens Next,” Marc Norman’s terrific history of American screenwriters, Norman cannily notes that, over and over, from “Basic Instinct” to “Jade” and “Sliver,” Eszterhas’ films focus on one central theme: a person who falls in love with someone who turns out to be a maniacal wack-job.
In “Heaven and Mel,” you realize that Eszterhas is simply telling his favorite story one more time.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Joe Eszterhas pictured in 2000 during an interview in his living room in Malibu. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press