Two words were not being spoken much at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles: “Monica” and “Willard”. Monica needs neither introduction nor explanation, but Willard maybe does; it’s the name Bill Clinton gave to his penis, according to another of his women, Gennifer Flowers. Clinton’s reasoning: “It’s longer than Willy.”
Meanwhile, in Malibu, a few miles up the Californian coast, Willard has been on the mind of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing stars. Indeed, Willard is the protagonist in Joe Eszterhas’s new book, American Rhapsody, currently climbing the bestseller lists.
Eszterhas is the only movie screenwriter to attain and equal the superstardom of Tinseltown’s actors and directors. He has had many famous and infamous ideas during his career walking in and out of Hollywood’s portals, looking inside out and outside in. The best known is the “pussy shot” of Sharon Stone crossing her legs while wearing no knickers in Basic Instinct.
But even this was unambitious compared to American Rhapsody, which had political and movie-making circles holding their breath during the months before it was published. It’s a hilarious and scandalous book, part-fact, part-fantasy, about a serious subject: Washington observed through the prism of Hollywood and vice versa.
The Sharon Stone episode is there in full, along with a string of other fantasies that portray the actress as a dope-smoking, power-obsessed manipulator. Almost the entire Hollywood establishment is treated in the same way: Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, Warren Beatty, Glenn Close; many more are named and shamed as vain and self-obsessed.
Writs were expected to fly as soon as the book was published and although no one has yet sued, Stone’s agent, for one, has not ruled out action. At Knopf, the book’s American publisher, the lawyers were sufficiently concerned to write a 30-page memo. In Britain two publishers have turned it down after taking legal advice.
At the heart of American Rhapsody is an outrageous but astute portrait of Bill Clinton as the United States’s “first rock’n’roll President”; the man who ran the White House as a Hollywood mogul.
“Politics has become entertainment,” says Eszterhas, “and entertainment has become politics. Betty Thomas, who made Private Parts and Dr Dolittle, said that comedy in Hollywood was now ‘funny moments with liberal inserts’, and that is right, because Sixties liberals and political correctness have taken over the industry. And the inner dynamics of Hollywood are like politics. Say you give a script to a group of executives – they all sit around, afraid to voice an opinion, saying nothing, waiting to know what the consensus is. Just like focus groups, opinion polls or a Cabinet. Meanwhile, politics is about getting a candidate in front of the public as a star, politics as rock’n’roll, politics as a movie.”
These mutually reflective prisms are a product of the cult of rock’n’roll, as epitomised by Eszterhas’s own progression from Rolling Stone magazine to Hollywood and now the innards of the Clinton scandal. “I always wanted to be a rock’n’roll star,” admits Hollywood’s highest-paid scriptwriter, “and so did we all. So did Bill Clinton. Fact is we went on to do other things. But we still wanted to do our success like rock’n’roll stars.”
That’s why Bill should come to Hollywood, as he is urged to do in the pivotal chapter of American Rhapsody, titled Bubba in Pig Heaven. “You’ve got to move out here, Bubba – Hollywood is the place for you – this place reeks sex from its cellular pores. A townful of sluts on the make, Willard-friendly and experimental, bored with ham-and-egg Al Gore orgasms.”
Eszterhas’s point is best illustrated by the knotty problem that dominated a year of American politics: the status of oral sex. Blowjobs were central to the Lewinsky scandal. Bill Clinton insisted that blowjobs do not count as sex; much of the US agreed. Eszterhas assures the president that oral sex is what manicure girls offer in Hollywood as a matter of routine; they are “a little break in a busy afternoon”, just as they were for Bill in the Oval Office. Same for rock stars in between make-up and the stage. And that’s the whole point: “This is the permeation of rock’n’roll into everything,” says Eszterhas.
He was born in Hungary in 1944, the year the country’s Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.
“I’ve studied the Holocaust extensively,” he says. “It’s my lifelong obsession.” His family fled when the Red Army cut a swathe across the country, as far as Austria, where the boy and his parents were moved from camp to camp by British and American military authorities.
After the war, they moved to the rust-belt town of Cleveland, Ohio, where his father edited a Catholic-Hungarian newspaper.
Young Joe knew little English, but learned quickly enough to graduate and get a job on the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for which he interviewed Jimi Hendrix. He was obliged to leave the paper, however, after causing it to lose a libel suit to the tune of $16 000, a colossal sum in 1971. At that time, there was only one magazine that would give a home to a man who had developed a lifestyle propelled by a mix of drugs, booze and his Willard (by his own admission). He joined Jan Wenner’s Rolling Stone and from there made the move to Hollywood.
His first script, which got him into an immediate fight with Sylvester Stallone, was Fist. “It was 300 pages long. A page a minute – that’s a long movie, and that’s how little I knew.” At the time, Eszterhas said: “I have always been fascinated by the corruption of power.”
Eszterhas lives in a house on the ocean-front of the Malibu Riviera. Bob Dylan is a neighbour. The greeting is warm and relaxed; his kids charge around covered in sand and seawater. The sofas are decorated with Native American designs and the walls are a shrine to the Sixties: a picture of the Beatles signed by George Harrison; Muhammad Ali; Robert Kennedy. His own scripts – Jagged Edge, Music Box, Telling Lies in Hollywood, Sliver, Basic Instinct – share shelf space with the complete works of Charles Dickens.
Eszterhas’s wife, Naomi, moves as graciously around this mâ€šnage as is possible for someone who has given birth to a fourth son, Luke, just two days before. They are blissfully happy. “But it took me 50 years to get there,” says Eszterhas. Their meeting is a story in itself: Sharon Stone ran off with Eszterhas’s friend, Bill McDonald, who duly deserted is wife, Naomi. As an act of friendship, Eszterhas and his wife, Geri, decided to take Naomi on a break, only for the screenwriter and the jilted wife to fall in love. “If someone asked me if I introduced Bill and Sharon deliberately to get hold of Naomi, I’d say, subliminally, I’m sure they’re right.”
When most American writers call themselves “outsiders”, one is sceptical. With Eszterhas, you know it’s more than partly true. “I was six when we came to this country. When I was 14 or so, I still had a lot of trouble with it. I saw my father humiliated countless times in limitless ways. I find myself with an immediate understanding of people who are on the
outside, the Jews, whatever colour or creed they are. The showgirls, gays and outcasts.”
In Hollywood, Eszterhas has done many out-of-the-ordinary things, but one above all. He has made the usually hidden figure of the screenwriter into someone not only visible but also bankable. “I have only one loyalty – to my writing. I never wanted to be the head of a studio or a producer,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure that what I write is what appears on screen, to not have some idiot change it on its way to the screen. There sure as hell are some idiots in Hollywood. Complete morons.”
This attitude has led Eszterhas into some famous scraps, victories and defeats. It led to his fight with one of the most powerful titans in Hollywood, Mike Ovitz, when Eszterhas left Ovitz’s Creative Artists empire to rejoin the agent with whom he originally worked in Hollywood, “and who gave me my break” – out of loyalty. “I’m the only sucker in Hollywood to be accused by Ovitz of disloyalty for doing something loyal,” he shrugs.
His greatest triumph, he says, was protecting the coda scenes of both Jagged Edge and Flashdance from “going to the wall in the hands of the directors”. His biggest failure, he says, was the loss of control of a script dear to him, “written with my friend, Richard Marquand, who later died. It was about an escaped convict and the relationship he had with children. The script was taken and destroyed many years later by Jean-Claude Van Damme as Nowhere to Run. It lost its sensitivity, it lost everything. I don’t like to remember that movie.”
His favourite among his own movies is Music Box, in which Jessica Lange plays an attorney defending her Hungarian father against accusations that he was a collaborator with the Nazis and a war criminal. It was the most serious film to establish the hallmark Eszterhas theme – that everyone has a past, and that it is not always the past you want people to know about.
It was a theme he returned to in Showgirls, which he admits is the least favourite of his own films. In the film, a girl escapes a life of prostitution to join a dance troupe in Vegas. The film contained an infamous rape scene, “which we should not, I feel now, have shown, although I do insist that to show such a scene does not imply any complicity in it. I worry that we are approaching a time when that which is shocking is squeezed out by the Stalinism of political correctness. I think the messenger was slain for the message. It’s against the tyranny of political correctness that American Rhapsody is an assault.”
The book took shape after the failure of Showgirls and the sudden convergence of other movies. “Every time I flicked channels, there I was, talking. I was talking too much and writing too little. So Naomi and I went to Hawaii. The phone was cut off and we lost touch. This gave me the chance to have a good think about my life.”
On his return to Los Angeles, the Lewinsky scandal was in full bloom, and Eszterhas became addicted and immersed. “I had in mind to do a piece for Rolling Stone, but I had no idea that it would become an obsession and a 1Â 000-page manuscript.
Maybe as a writer I was getting hemmed in by scripts. I felt like someone let out of jail and going berserk.”
Apart from Bill, Monica and the political cast, the book singles out Sharon Stone for treatment. Eszterhas claims to have “created” Stone and to have been her lover. He feels a “proprietary interest” when he hears about the friendship between Clinton and Stone. She was “Bill Clinton’s ideal woman” and “every bit as political as he”, given that “a star’s career is a lifelong political campaign”. She had “ascended her star on the strength of her privates, but had handled the challenge well”.
“I just had this idea that Bill and Sharon wanted to get together and should have got together,” explains Eszterhas. “But Bill would not have got away with what Hillary has let him get away with. Not only would he have had scratches on his nose, but Sharon can be quite lethal with an ice-pick.”
Does he have it in for Stone? Eszterhas puts on his sincere face. “Of course not. Who would? She is cuddly and warm.” Cuddly and warm? “She’s a great actress and, like Marilyn Monroe, she’s the sex symbol of her time. I’m just saying this: Kennedy/Monroe, Clinton/Stone – it would have been perfect.”
Then there’s Warren Beatty, whose political ambitions are derided not only because he is “the man with the golden Willard”. He quotes Joan Collins: “Three, four, five times a day was not unusual for Warren. And he was able to accept phone calls at the same time.”
The most wonderfully insulting reference to Beatty concerns not his sexual prowess but his own presidential ambitions – and his lacking the concentration required to last four years in the White House. Eszterhas adds: “Warren’s problem is common for method actors. It’s a natural reaction – method actors getting too caught up in their parts. He had done [the political satire] Bulworth and he couldn’t let go. He had to pretend that he could do it in real life. You see? Politics as Hollywood and vice versa.”
The book also fantasises about Farrah Fawcett Majors defecating on a lawn at a public function and Richard Gere unzipping his flies and revealing “no boxers” while pitching a movie idea to Eszterhas.
“He’s made a few enemies with this,” one Tinseltown insider told me. But when a magazine editor threw a party for Eszterhas “about 300 of the supposedly offended Hollywood people turned up. Mike Medevos, head of Phoenix, said he loved it and he was happy he wasn’t in it. There are plenty more like him.”
The White House has nothing to say, even though American Rhapsody is as sympathetic a portrait as Clinton is likely to get in any book that is not by a party-political ally. In understanding the Willard-propulsion of Clinton the man, Eszterhas has explained the drama that befell Clinton the president.
And by seeing that drama through Hollywood’s eyes, he has spoken for that stubborn 65% of Americans who were unmoved by the whole affair.
But there is one thing Eszterhas cannot forgive: the lying. Richard Nixon casts the shadow of evil in this book. “The important thing,” says Eszterhas, “was that Nixon was a liar and the Sixties was about telling the truth. Now we had Clinton, jabbing his middle finger at us with a great big fucking lie.”