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The skinny on Joe Eszterhas

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Whatever else you say about screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, he has a knack for getting attention. Last year, his script for Basic Instinct —besides fetching $3 million, still a record for a screenplay—landed him in the middle of what turned out to be a very profitable controversy. While provoking protest from many gays and women, Instinct went on to gross more than $115 million and to make a big star of Sharon Stone. Now Eszterhas is putting the final touches on his new script, Layers of Skin, which he says he wrote as an answer to Instinct and its critics. And it seems Hollywood can’t wait to get its hands on Skin, which goes up for auction next month. The positive-gay-role-model protagonist: a lesbian detective. The plot: Investigating the murder of an American Indian, she becomes pitted against a corrupt former politician in an elaborate Palm Springs land scam. (While Eszterhas concedes that ”there are plenty of retired government officials living in the desert,” the politician isn’t modeled on anyone in particular.)

Despite Instinct‘s cash coup, however, it’s unlikely that Skin will palm as much money. ”Hollywood’s in a different mood,” one studio executive says of the town’s economic woes. ”If the script is brilliant, he might get a million or a million five.” Yet Eszterhas’ agent, Guy McElwaine, says he has received 40 to 50 calls from interested parties and anticipates heavy bidding. ”I try to keep the word frenzy out of it,” he says. ”It’s going to be nice, easy, and gentlemanly.”

Interesting adjective for a movie about a female cop and a dirty pol. In any case, because both have the ability to pay deep-pocket prices, sources believe the main bidders will include TriStar (which distributed Instinct) and Cinergi (the independent production company that bought Eszterhas’ script, Original Sin, for $1.55 million in March 1991).

If Skin doesn’t rake in the cash, will it at least satisfy Instinct‘s critics? Gay activists are hedging their bets. ”Our hope is that Eszterhas took what he learned and translated it into more accurate portrayals of gays and lesbians,” says Chris Fowler, acting executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s L.A. chapter. But Eszterhas says his intentions are only, yes, skin deep. ”I’m not competent to write something about the internal psyche of a lesbian character,” he admits. ”But I am competent to write a good mystery where the hero happens to be gay.”

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