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''American Rhapsody''

”American Rhapsody” — Joe Eszterhas talks about why he decided to tackle ”Clintongate” now in his new novel

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What’s Joe Eszterhas been up to these past few years? The highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood — $3 million for Basic Instinct, $3.7 million for Showgirls, $4 million for One Night Stand — has been sequestered in his Malibu beach house. Rumors percolated: He was working on a secret project for Spielberg; he was penning a tell-all about his 25 years in the movie business; he’d given up writing altogether.

Now that the truth is finally revealed — that Eszterhas, 56, spent the past two years hatching American Rhapsody, his 432-page run-amok ruminations on politics, the culture wars, and President Clinton’s penis — we’re really wondering what’s up with him. To find the answers, we ventured into that beach house, where we found the party-size, fuzzy-faced author lounging on a leather sofa in his airy living room, smoking cigs and holding hands with his wife, Naomi Baka, who’s expecting their fourth child.

No offense, but most people are kind of sick of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Why write a book about it?

One of the copy editors of the book said exactly the same thing. When she first heard that Bill Clinton was a central character, she thought to herself, ”I don’t want to read anything more about Bill Clinton.” And then when she heard the book was by Joe Eszterhas, she thought, ”I hated Showgirls and I didn’t much like Basic Instinct.” But she told me that after she started reading, she laughed so hard she thought she was going to pee in her pants.

So, you see this book as comedy?
I have no idea what to call it. But I was hoping that it wouldn’t be just a book about Clinton. That it would be about larger issues. About the values of the new millennium, about where we come from and where we’re…

Uh-huh. And you’ve got some fun Hollywood stuff in there, too. That dish about Farrah Fawcett going to the bathroom on the lawn during a party, for instance. Aren’t you worried about making enemies?
Once they read the parts about themselves, I think most people will be relieved at what I didn’t write. Believe me, if I wanted to write a Hollywood tell-all, it would scorch the earth.

We heard the lawyers at Knopf had 40 pages of legal notes — tons of stuff they wanted you to take out.
It was more like 100 pages, with like 800 points. A Knopf lawyer — a former federal prosecutor — went through it page by page. I remember one point was about a detail in the book on how Marlon Brando decorated his wall with used Tampax. The lawyer was like, Where could this possibly come from? I dug out Brando’s ex-wife’s biography and just pointed to the page.

Did you end up losing much?
We lost some chapters, but because of length, not lawyers. We lost a chapter called ”Two Fatsos Bonding,” with dialogue between Lewinsky and Tripp. I became a scholar of the 3,000 pages of taped conversations between the two of them. The banality of that dialogue will be with me till the day I die. Anyway, all these chapters are in the unabridged audiocassette of the book.