The Talking Penis

Basic Instinct author crawls up Bill Clinton's pants and hangs on tight

At this point, what does Joe Eszterhas have to lose by writing American Rhapsody, otherwise known as The Media Event of the Summer of 2000? Not a damned thing. He's easily the most famous and most vilified writer in Hollywood, the man who helped turn movies into music videos (Flashdance), who made Sharon Stone's vagina a star (Basic Instinct, for which he was paid the then-unheard-of sum of $3 million), and who made nudity boring (Showgirls). He's a once-great writer (for Rolling Stone and in his two long-out-of-print books of the mid-'70s, Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse and Nark) relegated to laughingstock, at least before Hollywood tried to forget about him altogether: Eszterhas has no fewer than nine screenplays, some of them two decades old, languishing about town. Only two are anywhere near being made.

He's obsessed with his pecker and convinced he and Bill Clinton are the same guy: two men betrayed, in their separate ways, by the obsolete promise of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They ruined their marriages by chasing after their dreams of being rock stars--one, as a Hollywood player; the other, as president of the United States. Yet Eszterhas, who is on his second marriage, sees himself as being better than Clinton. In American Rhapsody, Eszterhas owns up to his indiscretions. Clinton just wags his finger and says he didn't have sex with that woman.

If ever a man was the likely candidate to write a book about presidential sex, stains, and cigars, it's Joe Eszterhas. What are they gonna do? Kick him out of Hollywood and ship his ass back to Maui? Lord, that's his plan.

I am his haircut, his reefer, his beard crumbs...his Joe Eszterhas.
I am his haircut, his reefer, his beard crumbs...his Joe Eszterhas.

"I think there's always been a fuck-it-fuck-them attitude with me," Eszterhas says. "The loyalty I feel is to express myself the way I want and then fight for the words. I started doing that in college, when I had a college editor who took one of my stories and took four paragraphs out, and we ended up in a near-fistfight, and then he just took it and threw it away. I boycotted the school paper for years as a result of it. Most of my fights in Hollywood have been because I insist on trying to get what I've written up on screen and not have it changed. I've always felt that if I don't remain true to my own muse, if you will, then my muse will abandon me.

"I think this book is like that. It's always been like that. It's always been fighting for what you've written. The only screenwriter I've ever admired is Paddy Chayefsky. He lived his life that way. It killed him young, because he had so many fights and so many battles, but for better or worse, that's what I do."

It's little wonder American Rhapsody is the most written-about book of the year. When Hollywood, D.C., insiders take shots at stars, politicos, and presidents, it's big news among the illiterati on both coasts, and American Rhapsody reads like a slightly dirty version of Entertainment Weekly as published by Congressional Quarterly. It's filled with random notes on figures already gone from the collective brainpan: Vernon Jordan, Linda Tripp, James Carville, Lucianne Goldberg, Matt Drudge, Dick Morris, Bob Packwood, Arianna Huffington, Kathleen Willey, Vince Foster. No doubt, the book will disappear just as quickly as it emerged, leaving behind it a trail of slime as it crawls into the half-off-half-off bins.

Bid adieu to the man who, in 1974, was nominated for the National Book Award, for the stunning Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse, about a kid who kills a cop. American Rhapsody contains vague hints of vanished greatness: The man who once held his own with Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Tim Cahill, Richard Ben Cramer, and all the other Rolling Stone hotshots has reduced himself to a self-parody.

If nothing else, his book finally, blessedly taps the final nail in the coffin of 1960s nostalgia: If this is what that generation wrought, Bill Clinton's finger-wagging bullshit and Joe Eszterhas' overheated remembrances of pussies past, good riddance. This is ultimately a book for those who care not about how the 1990s betrayed the 1960s, but about how fat, complacent old men thought they were gonna be rock stars, until they grew up and realized they were just roadies.

"Somebody said this book was generational slander, that it was unfair to an entire generation, and my take on it is the very flip," Eszterhas says, actually referring to a review by Janet Maslin in the July 20 New York Times. "We don't want to remember and really realize what we did and what we came out of. We'd rather stick our heads in the sand, and when it comes time to tell our kids and our junior execs what it was like, we fudge it. I think it's really important to tell the truth about it if we're going to learn anything from it. Those are some of the things the book deals with. I think the most I've learned, and it took me nearly 50 years to learn it, is that the whole notion of growing up to be a rock star and viewing yourself as a rock star and wanting to be a rock star is terribly injurious to mates, to partners.

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