FIFTEEN years ago, Joe Eszterhas was arguably the biggest screenwriter in the world. He feasted on Hollywood largesse, earning seven-figure paydays for a string of box-office hits that grossed, he brags, a cumulative $1 billion. He partied with the entertainment world’s elite, and his ego and his reputation were both so bloated that he could publicly fire super-agent Mike Ovitz and still eat lunch in this town again.
That reputation -- built on such moneymakers as “Flashdance” and “Basic Instinct” -- took a meteoric nose dive after Eszterhas penned a string of critical and commercial busts in the mid-1990s that included “Sliver,” “An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn” and the gleefully awful “Showgirls.” But the super-sized ego is still going strong in “The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood,” a rude and sometimes crude manifesto for screenwriters from an ex-icon who wants it known he takes no prisoners in a business where writers are perceived as dispensable cogs.
This is not another how-to manual for fledgling writers; Eszterhas has little interest in discussing act breaks and character arcs. Instead, he strings together hundreds of sound-bite-sized anecdotes, definitions and quotes (many his own, many borrowed from friends, enemies and idols, and many dating back decades) into a rollicking, rambling macro-rant against anyone and anything that would obstruct a writer’s path to success, power and respect. (The book’s title is both a nod to Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” and to the times Eszterhas has been called “Satan” -- a sobriquet he’s quite proud of.) What emerges is an uncensored field guide to Joe’s Hollywood, a world populated by stupid, illiterate, duplicitous, weak and evil people heading studios, production companies and agencies. His mission? To embolden writers to use that stupidity and duplicity as a sword: “Studio execs know they can’t write,” he writes. “That’s why they need you. So as you sit there in a meeting with them, don’t ... be afraid to tell them they don’t know what they are talking about; they know they don’t and in their hearts (deep, deep in their plaqued-up hearts) they agree with you.”
He dispenses practical career advice, such as how to argue with directors (“dismiss” most of their ideas), how to prevent producers and actors from “ruining” a movie, how to deal with critics (most are “supreme egotists” or “failed screenwriters”), what to do with script notes from the studio (“tear them up”), how to get fired instead of quitting a job (that way, you’ll get paid in full) and how to laugh all the way to the bank. Screenwriters who don’t fight the system are written off as toadies.
It’s not all negativity and vitriol. There’s an entire chapter on how to have an affair with an actress during a movie shoot, which gives Eszterhas the opportunity to remind the reader, once again, that he “bedded” Sharon Stone. Eszterhas even manages to shoehorn in a chapter on screenwriting, but many of the tips he offers are rather pedestrian compared with the over-the-top advice found elsewhere in the book. He does heap praise upon writers he idolizes, although most of them are non-Hollywood types, such as Harlan Ellison and Hunter S. Thompson, or old-school icons like Raymond Chandler and Ben Hecht. Eszterhas seems to long for a Hollywood that doesn’t exist anymore -- not just the Hollywood of the moneyed ‘80s and ‘90s, when studios were tripping over themselves to pay outlandish sums to a handful of marquee writers, but the Hollywood that Eszterhas grew up on, where writers like Dalton Trumbo, William Faulkner and Hecht lived a storied-yet-troubled existence.
Despite the outrageous anecdotes and the rapid-fire, Bukowski-on-steroids prose style, it’s clear that Eszterhas, who was a journalist and novelist before he wrote movies, is dead serious about writing. And so while “The Devil’s Guide” falls short as a battle plan for screenwriters, there’s a bawdy humor that makes it highly readable, a humor that was lacking in “Hollywood Animal,” the 2004 cathartic, acidic autobiography Eszterhas wrote while battling throat cancer. Eszterhas, his cancer now in remission, lives happily in a self-imposed exile with his second wife and four sons near Cleveland, not far from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood where he grew up. He’s gone from writing big-budget movies to more personal films -- his latest, “Children of Glory,” is set during the Hungarian revolution. The bitterness of his barbs now seems to be tempered by a knowing wink, but the devil still wields a pitchfork pencil. *