Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!" by Joe Eszterhas

Oh, you know the best advice I ever got? ... If someone gets in your way, step on 'em. If you're the only one left standing there, they hire you.

The above is not a quote from Joe Eszterhas’s The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! Rather, it’s a quote from what is perhaps Eszterhas’s most infamous movie: Showgirls. Eszterhas — whose screenwriting credits also include Basic Instinct, Flashdance, and Jagged Edge — acquired a reputation as “the rogue elephant of screenwriting.” Certainly he’s one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood history; hits and flops have flowed from his manual typewriter in equal measure, and both have caused a lot of controversy. His personal image in his heyday as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, obnoxious bad boy only added to his allure. On the heels of his 2004 memoir Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas published The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood in 2006.

Written McNuggets
Humorist “Kin” Hubbard once said, “Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune.” This quote came to mind when I started reading The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood. The book, after an acerbic foreword that skewers self-proclaimed screenwriting guru Robert McKee (a subject that Eszterhas returns to throughout The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood), begins with a section called “Pursuing Your Dream” that consists of a string of quotes by other Hollywood personages interspersed with pithy observations from Eszterhas himself. I finished these literary hors d’oeuvres and, ready to get into the meat of Eszterhas’s work, turned to the next section (“Learning the Business”).

At that point, however, I discovered that the whole thing is written this way. I kept thinking this collection of brassy, bite-sized chunks of gossip, bragging, mudslinging, and tawdry tales of sordid sex was going to turn into a book, but it never quite does.

The resulting text is pretty disjointed. This isn’t necessarily bad; sure, The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood doesn’t reward sustained reading, but it’s a great book to leave on the back of the toilet and dip into for a few minutes’ entertainment while your pants are around your ankles. Somehow, I don’t think Eszterhas would be offended by that.

Step 1: Read The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood. Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit!
There are two reasons to read a book like this: to be entertained by war stories told by a colorful curmudgeon, or to get actual advice about screenwriting. Readers looking for the first subject will find plenty to satisfy them in The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood. The book is jammed with Ambrose Bierce-like definitions of “reelspeak” (“‘Parallel Creativity’ — the phrase that will be used by someone who has plagiarized you.”), admiring accounts of screenwriters who have prevailed over Hollywood venality (or embraced it in entertaining ways), quotable quotes from Eszterhas’s fellow Hungarian, Zsa Zsa Gabor; and plenty of skewering of Hollywood types.

Readers looking for practical advice from Eszterhas will have a harder time finding what they’re looking for — and may not find it all that useful when they encounter it. Sure, it’s there, but it’s sprinkled among reams of fart jokes and stories about jerk producers and their jerky ways. When you do manage to pan a nugget of wisdom out of the dross, it’s likely to be either really obvious (“All it takes to become a successful screenwriter is to sell one script”) or else the sort of advice that mainly works if you start by being Joe Eszterhas (leading off a negotiation by sticking a hunting knife into a conference table, for example). The most useful tips are either negative in format — things not to fall for, things you shouldn’t do, people not to trust — or things to remember in order to stay sane (e.g., “YOU are the storyteller, not the director… in musical terms, you’re the composer — the director conducts the orchestra.”).

Don’t Let Anyone Walk Over You
In the end, though, The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is an entertaining read that does have a genuine point about the undeserved contempt the film industry has for writers and the likely cause of that contempt (i.e., fear). Eszterhas rages against Hollywood’s marginalization of his fellow writers; moreover, he seems to truly want us to stand up for ourselves and succeed instead of being ground up by the Hollywood machine.  After all, as one of Eszterhas’s characters says in Flashdance:

When you give up your dream, you die.

Well said, you magnificent Hungarian bastard.

1 comment:

  1. In many ways, the anecdote is the advice. Getting into the biz means dealing with people that show up in those anecdotes... with all their faults...