"Ready for dinner"
Well, blow me down! I had no idea before reading “American Rhapsody” — bad-boy screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ “long-awaited,” “talked-about,” “must-read,” “buzz-generating,” “steamy,” “titillating,” “juicy,” “sensational,” “scandalous,” “tell-all” “blend of fact and fiction” (quotes courtesy of America’s fourth estate) — that former President Gerald R. Ford was famous for his flatulence.
I’m telling you the truth — I didn’t know that about Ford. I knew that Betty Ford normally had to be carried off Air Force One, drunk, after listening to her husband’s speeches, but not that, when she got home, she was subjected to blasts of wind beyond the call of love or duty.
Neither did I know that Lyndon Johnson had scrotum skin that hung “halfway to his knees.” I did know that LBJ had a big dong, Texas style, that he fucked his playthings on the floor of the White House, if not in the Oval Office, and that his creatures used to brief him in the morning while he was sitting (if you like) on the toilet — assuming he got that far. Johnson was known to conduct the high business of state in bed, lying on his side while one of his nontyping secretaries gave him an enema.
This leads me to another thing in “American Rhapsody” that I didn’t know before I read it. Are you ready? Because it’s a killer:
I didn’t know that the Hollywood party where New Line film producer Mike DeLuca got a public blow job was the same Hollywood party where Farrah Fawcett was seen “pooping” on the lawn. I knew that Hollywood producers like their blow jobs, of course — who doesn’t? — and that Fawcett, God bless her wizened, has-been head, had pooped on somebody’s lawn after her breakup with Ryan O’Neal. But I didn’t know that these things happened at the same time!
All the rest of the stories in “American Rhapsody” I already knew. Honest. Or knew enough like them, about the same or similar people, that they came as no surprise to me, much less as a shock, “titillating,” “sensational” or anything else.
I knew all of Eszterhas’ stories about Sharon Stone, for example — Stone smoking Thai, Stone washing out her mouth after kissing Billy Baldwin during the filming of “Sliver,” Stone not wearing her panties, Stone climbing on Eszterhas’ back, also during the filming of “Sliver,” to show him how a real woman masturbates: “She kept moving up and down, up and down … She clenched my sides tightly with her thighs, held them for a long moment, and then we both relaxed. ‘Better?’ she asked, laughing.”
I knew all these stories before I read “American Rhapsody” because, despite the much-touted embargo on the book, they were leaked to the press in advance. Not to mention excerpted in the current issue of Tina Brown’s Talk, and repeated in every entertainment wire story from here to the cold caverns of the moon. Indeed, Liz Smith declared not long ago that you had to live on the moon not to have heard about the “scathing” revelations in Eszterhas’ book. Liz and Joe were going to have lunch this week, and, boy, was she looking forward to it!
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Point of departure: There are Buddhists who believe that at the end of this particular cycle of time another Buddha will appear, Maitreya, who will preside over the final establishment of an enlightened society. Hindus, on the other hand, believe in more than one doomsday. Each cycle of Hindu time has four ages, called kalpa. We’re in the fourth age of the current one, the kali yuga. One Hindu scholar translates this as “the lousy age.” As the great American journalist Dorothy Thompson observed before her death in 1961, “The age of darkness is not something distant. It is upon us. We are in it.”
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You all remember Joe Eszterhas, don’t you? Child of poor Hungarian immigrants in Cleveland, ’60s radical, former gonzo reporter for Rolling Stone, National Book Award nominee and once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Following a string of box-office flops in the ’90s, Eszterhas, the “wildman,” “rule-breaking,” pussy-poking author of “Betrayed,” “Flashdance,” “Jagged Edge,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Showgirls” and, of course, “Basic Instinct” — remember Stone and her ice pick? remember Michael Douglas’ pathetic, sagging ass? — has been so far off the Hollywood radar screen you’d think he was dead. If you thought about him at all, that is, which you probably wouldn’t. Why would you?
The buzz is that Eszterhas is so washed up in Hollywood now that no one will read his scripts. At the same time, somehow the “scabrous” revelations in “American Rhapsody” are said to ensure that he’ll never work in Tinseltown again. Go figure. Here’s Eszterhas on his disappearing act:
Nearly three years ago, afraid that my public persona as a screenwriter was overwhelming my creative life, I went to the Island of Maui with my wife and our three children, shut my phone down, stopped doing interviews, and pretended I wasn’t a public man.
OK, if that’s how he wants to spin it — a self-imposed exile:
I played with my wife and played with my kids, let the sun beat me up, and thought about things. About values and success. About the Sixties. About my past relationships with the women I’d used and my present relationship with the wife I adored. Somehow or other those thoughts about my life inevitably led me to Bill Clinton.
Did I hear “juicy,” “titillating,” “must-read”? Did I hear that “American Rhapsody,” in the current parlance, would rock my world? Because that, exactly, is what it didn’t do. I’ve read the thing from cover to cover now and I’m still waiting to be blown away. With “sizzle” like this, you’d take a long time to fry.
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Point of clarification: Salon asked me to review “American Rhapsody” because, as my editor says, I’m a “noncombatant.” That is, I’m neither part of nor partial to the hopped-up, hyped-up world Joe Eszterhas inhabits, or used to before Maui called. On top of it, I’m queer — as in homosexual — so the only thing Eszterhas and I really have in common is the pendulum between our legs. And, boy, paraphrasing Ms. Smith, do we have a different take on that!
One of the advantages of being a poofter is that you don’t have to play by the white man’s rules. The August issue of Talk also contains an item about a planeful of Victoria’s Secret models flown en masse to Cannes, France, last spring. This news comes on the first anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., which is also being hyped this week to within an inch of its life. Thus, in regard to the difference between Eszterhas and me, suffice it to say that, as far as I’m concerned, the wrong plane went down.
Is that shocking? Is that in bad taste? Good. Because somebody’s got to give this story a jolt. Revelation-wise, a bigger disappointment than “American Rhapsody” couldn’t exist this side of Eszterhas’ “Burn Hollywood Burn!”
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Let’s face it, America: A straight man “telling all” isn’t telling much. Eszterhas is so straight he thinks blow jobs — “head” — were invented in the 1960s. He’s so straight he talks about “titties” and “holes” (although he’s careful to put the words in other people’s mouths). He’s so straight he can write a sentence like this, before falling completely silent on the matter: “Head also caused some men to open doors they had forced closed all their lives. Stoned enough or drunk enough, they discovered they didn’t really care if the form kneeling there in the lava light with lips bared and mouth open was a man or a woman.” Can you believe it? What next!?
All right, I’ll be honest. There are some Hollywood stories in “American Rhapsody” that I didn’t literally know about in advance. Mainly, these involve the aforementioned film producers (or, in one case, former O.J. lawyer Robert Shapiro) and their never-ending blow jobs, along with Eszterhas himself screaming at anyone who tries to alter his scripts:
I’m going to come down there with a baseball bat and bust your knees so you can’t walk. Then I’m going to bust your ribs so you can’t breathe. Then I’m going to bust your ears so you can’t hear. I’d bust your head, but you can’t think anyway. So I’m going to bust your balls so you can’t fuck.
Etc. But Joe’s Hollywood stories are all alike, and there aren’t that many of them, and they’re mainly about people you’ve never heard of, or won’t hear about again, or don’t care if you hear about at all. At one point, Richard Gere — he of the gerbil — showily changes his clothes in front of Eszterhas, and guess what: He isn’t wearing underpants! Don Simpson fucks a nymphet against the wall of his hotel room in Vegas and doesn’t even turn his head when he says goodbye to Joe! Gina Gershon — Gina Gershon? — gets hoity-toity with Eszterhas during a script conference and pays the price for it. Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” and “JFK” are pure fiction, “utter and absolute lies”! Goodness to Betsy — get out the smelling salts!
Point of curiosity: What does Gere’s dick look like, Joe? How big? Fat, skinny, long, short? White, pink, red, blue — veins or no veins? Cut or uncut? Were you stoned enough or drunk enough to … well, I guess not. And so what? Years ago, in the early ’80s, I used to see Richard a lot at Joe Allen’s in London, where he was filming “King David” with a cast of thousands. He used to come in with five or six Gere look-alikes in leather jackets, and believe me, the conversation at the next table wasn’t about baseball and boobs. OK? Tell us something we don’t know, Joe, or get back to your luau.
Eszterhas is equally tight-lipped when, musing about the contents of the Starr Report, he describes a deeply footnoted reference to President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s “oral-anal contact” — rimming, don’t you know — which he says was the report’s “most sexually incendiary revelation.” That it may have been. But while noting that no one in the press or the government “had the stomach, it seemed, not even Kenneth W. Starr,” to discuss “anilingus” any further, Eszterhas won’t discuss it, either. “Who was doing the rimming?” he wonders, and that’s that. Did either of them shower first?
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Of course, “American Rhapsody” isn’t about Hollywood in the way it’s hyped to be. It’s not about Richard Gere or David Geffen or Sharon Stone or Robert Evans or any of the other La-La Land names hauled out to build the buzz and drive the sales. Stuck with a 200,000-copy first printing, Eszterhas’ publisher, the once-gracious Knopf, calls “American Rhapsody” “the most basic, and basest, [book] in many years — an up-close and personal look at the people who run our world.” La Brown — that is, Tina — hoping her magazine will finally hit a nerve somewhere, describes the thing as “a mix of Hollywood memoir, political commentary and flights of fantasy about key players in Washington.” (She read it on the Concorde, naturally, on superagent Ed Victor’s recommendation. Both are thanked at the back of the book.)
“And, oh,” Brown adds, “[it's] about Bill Clinton’s penis as well.” As if you didn’t know.
In fact, “American Rhapsody” is a 432-page “fantasia” on the “American political landscape,” the “shadow culture war,” the legacy of the 1960s and the silliest, most infantile, most dispiriting and wasteful political scandal in history, the Clinton-Lewinsky follies. You remember — the impeachment drama; Monicagate; 1998, if you need a nudge, and a little bit of 1999. Last century’s news, you’d think, and you’d be right.
So what’s the catch? Here’s Eszterhas again, splashing about in the shadow of Kali:
I thought I recognized and knew Bill Clinton and what made him tick. I understood the ambition, the success, the political duplicity, the Hollywood charm. I understood the mad priapic obsession which had always fuel-driven his life … because it had driven mine until I met Naomi.
Naomi, you should know, is Eszterhas’ new wife, once the spouse of his best friend and currently great with child. (Geri, Eszterhas’ first wife, got the house, the car, the art and, I should think, the last laugh.) We’re asked to believe that Naomi’s love by itself has ended Eszterhas’ own lifetime of whoring, pumping, thumping, fucking, shooting and dumping into “holes” — and if you believe that, you’ll swallow for sure.
“I wasn’t just thinking of Bill Clinton anymore,” Eszterhas writes solemnly, “but about a generation, my generation, which, in some ways, even though it was entrenched in power, creeping up on sixty, was still struggling to find itself. I was thinking about the state of the union and the state of our hearts and privates, as we tried not to stumble and slide on the treacherous Internet ice of the new millennium.”
We did? Quoting Dorothy Thompson again: “There is nothing more terrifying than a society congealed in the pattern of an adolescent mind.” Too late to worry about that, unfortunately. And why shouldn’t Eszterhas have a crack at Fornigate? Everyone else has. Why shouldn’t he write about Clinton’s penis — “Willard,” as he calls it throughout, so named by Gennifer Flowers, apparently because, as Clinton says, Willard is “longer than willie.”
The conclusion is automatic, nevertheless, and “American Rhapsody” only bears it out: No one — no one — would read this book if it didn’t have a talking cock as its grand finale, if Eszterhas’ favorite word, “panties,” didn’t appear for the first time on Page 4 (“wet,” at that), if Brown hadn’t made it her baby, if it weren’t laden, larded — throbbing — with sentimental, he-man prose. Speaking of Bill and Monica:
He kissed her then and they moved to the hallway she’d missed so much. She unbuttoned his denim blue shirt … He kissed her again and unbuttoned the top buttons of her navy blue dress. They did what they had done before and she knelt down.
The rest, as they say, is history. Except there isn’t any history anymore, as everyone knows. There’s only Joe, in this case, and, by extension, you and me. An unhappy conclusion, but what else can you think when even immediate history is rewritten immediately, torn out of context and broadcast at a level of frightful noise?
Point of fact: Like most straight men obsessed with their own penises, Eszterhas knows nothing about women. I mean, he knows nothing about women. “Sympathetic” though he is to the president’s Willard problem, Eszterhas doesn’t understand that the reason so many women go for Clinton is that he has a strongly feminine nature. “Ain’t nothin’ so pretty as a white boy with lips,” as a black Republican friend of mine says.
According to Flowers’ own book, repeatedly cited by Ezsterhas, Clinton likes to be tied to the bed with silk scarves. He likes hot wax dripped on his nipples. He asked Flowers to “use a dildo on him.” He can give it and he can take it, in other words, and if he prefers jerking off to any other sexual activity — well, a woman can understand that, too, knowing full well that she can give herself a better blast than any thrusting Neanderthal can. (Take a look at Eszterhas’ jacket photo and you’ll see what I mean.)
In the realm of women’s character, moreover, as distinct from their holes, Eszterhas is dead wrong on every count. There’s not a woman mentioned in “American Rhapsody” who isn’t trashed and slighted, from the abandoned Geri to the fecund Naomi (who seems to have been put on this planet solely to reform Joe) to Jane Fonda, Arianna Huffington, Tipper Gore, Jean Houston, Elizabeth Berkley (of “Showgirls” fame) and right on to the book’s predatory female leads, Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Rodham Clinton. (I won’t even talk about the “Ratwoman,” Linda Tripp, or Lucianne Goldberg, the “Bag Lady of Sleaze,” who can take care of themselves.)
It’s a fact that, as yet, few people have understood Lewinsky — rarely does anyone get how intelligent and witty she is, for example, or how her energy and good nature alone could seduce a man, despite her naiveti, her gooey hopes, her weight problem and her Snoopy phone. Anyone whose favorite painter is Egon Schiele and who can send the president of the United States a card that reads “The only thing I’d like to see more than you is you naked, with a lottery ticket in one hand and a can of whipped cream in the other” is a character for the ages. She’ll come into her own yet, you mark my words.
As to Hillary — dream on, Joe. Love her or hate her, she’s a lioness. She can’t be dismissed as a coldhearted bitch, a putative lesbian or a screaming Mimi who narrowly escaped being raped in the third grade. And Sharon Stone, whom Eszterhas thinks and actually says he “created,” is laughing her head off at his characterization. Stone has recently adopted a baby. She’s getting $15 million for the sequel to “Basic Instinct.” She has been noshing with the Dalai Lama. “I knew he was funny,” she says about Eszterhas, “but I didn’t know he could write comedy.” And if Eszterhas thinks you can invent Sharon Stone without Sharon Stone, it’s no wonder he’s been grilling pineapples on the beach.
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Point of order: Near the start of “American Rhapsody,” Eszterhas gets all silly about his children. “We loved our kids and wanted the best for them,” he writes, speaking, as usual, about “our” generation: “We wanted them to be not like us, but like our parents, like grandpa and grandma sitting watching the sunset after fifty years of mostly monogamous marriage, talking about the long-ago senior prom as they sipped their warming his-and-hers mugs of tea and honey.”
Right. You bet we do. As an aside — cough, cough — the current issue of Talk features a cover photo of Elizabeth Hurley tonguing a rope of Harry Winston diamonds. Pundits are saying that Brown has hit her stride with this one, that she’s wrapped and packaged Talk to sit perfectly where she’s been putting it, at the supermarket checkout. Eszterhas’ bio insists that he has never missed a single one of his son’s Little League games, but somehow I don’t believe him when he says he’s worried about what the kids are lapping up in this national cesspool, this 24-hour televised motel room, which he has done as much as anyone to bring about. Grandpa and Grandma, my ass.
Don’t lie to us, Joe. More important, don’t lie to them. Just take the money and hope for the best. Someone’s bound to call, sooner or later.
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Point of honor: No writer’s book should be panned merely on the grounds of differing opinions or opposite tastes. Eszterhas is a good writer. Sometimes, he’s a very good writer, and while “American Rhapsody” tells us absolutely nothing about Clinton-Lewinsky that we didn’t know already — “As the impeachment psychodrama began, I watched every mini-second of it … I read everything, I saw everything” — it reads like a rollicking novel when he allows it to, when he takes himself and “us” out of it, that is, and just lets the story rip. His chapters on James Carville, Larry Flynt and Warren Beatty’s presidential aspirations — “The Man With the Golden Willard” — are worth the price of the book.
Eszterhas is especially good in the boldfaced imaginary monologues (from Clinton and Al Gore, from Bob Dole, from John McCain, from Dubya) he has invented both to skewer the powerful and to razz the Zeitgeist. These sections were written, Eszterhas tells us, by “a little devil,” “a writing partner who has cursed my career” and who turns out to be — what else? — his own Willard, now happily held in check by love, in the form of Naomi. These sections are funny and crazily insightful, and I’d be the last person on earth to keep anyone from reading them. Hats off to you, Joe, for naming Richard Nixon the “Night Creature” and reminding us that the lies and blather Nixon fed his own Monica before he died — Monica Crowley, girl amanuensis — and that Crowley repeated with a straight face in her book about the Dick of dicks, were “much deadlier” and more damaging to democracy than anything Clinton stuck in his Monica’s mouth.
So there, Joe — get a blurb from that. I mean it, every word. You should be writing novels if you can’t get work in Hollywood. Just make sure they are novels next time, and try to think of something besides us and that thing between our legs.
How big is yours, anyway, Joe? You never said. I looked and looked, but you never said.
Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.More Peter Kurth.