''Showgirls'' screenwriter's latest film, ''Telling Lies in America,'' is a personal look at his own past

Telling Lies in America

It’s been eight years since Joe Eszterhas, Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter, warred with then Uberagent Michael Ovitz. It’s been five years since Eszterhas left his wife of 24 years for Naomi Baka in a messy situation also involving Baka’s husband, who had already left her for Sharon Stone. And it’s been barely two years since Eszterhas’ Showgirls and Jade ”failed totally” (his words) at the box office.

Now Eszterhas, 53, finds himself enmeshed in controversies of a different sort. He’s been garnering some of the best reviews of his career with the sweetly semiautobiographical Telling Lies in America. His satire of moviemaking, An Alan Smithee Film — Burn Hollywood Burn (named for the pseudonym directors sometimes use), has literally become an Alan Smithee film with helmer Arthur Hiller disowning the finished product. (Featuring appearances by Sylvester Stallone and Whoopi Goldberg, it will be released in March.) Eszterhas himself has refused a writing credit for One Night Stand, a drama opening on Nov. 14, for which he was paid $4 million. What is going on here?

Are you deliberately trying to nice up your career with softer movies like ”Telling Lies in America”?

I [read] in a couple of articles that ”Joe has redeemed himself,” and I started to feel like [Watergate’s] Charles Colson, when he discovered Jesus. People forget I [wrote] 16 movies and some have been critically acclaimed.

Aren’t you embarrassed by some of the remarks you made praising ”Showgirls”?

Well, it was god-awful stupid to say it was ”a religious experience.”

So, did you get into big fights with ”One Night Stand” director Mike Figgis and Arthur Hiller?

Not at all. Mike said he wanted to do a polish on Stand, and it turned into a major rewrite. It was no longer mine, so I took my name off it. Arthur and I were hand in hand throughout the [Smithee] shoot. He did a beautiful job directing, but when he put it together it didn’t move. [When] I cut 22 minutes off it…Arthur felt I had betrayed my own work. But Arthur is the kind of man who the day after he took his name off the picture showed up in the editing room and said, ”I’m here if you need help finishing it.”

Were you happy when Mike Ovitz took a fall?

I simply wish him the best. I don’t take any pleasure in another human being’s problems…. I think the problems he had with me had to do with a personal hubris which is injurious to others and often comes back and injures the person himself. Maybe it will be a sensitizing experience.

Was the fallout from ”Showgirls” a sensitizing experience for you?

I was shaken on an intimate, personal level. I wasn’t sure I still had faith in my writing. I was in a meeting around that time, and some assistant turned to me and said, ”How does it feel to be the most reviled man in America?” But that’s me. If you’re going to fail, fail big time.

Telling Lies in America
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