Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas: 1992's 'Basic Instinct' Would "Have Serious #MeToo Protesters" in 2018
The once-notorious Hollywood figure also gives his side of the legendary feud with super-agent Michael Ovitz.
Joe Eszterhas — the swaggering screenwriter of such iconic films of the 1980s and '90s as Flashdance, Basic Instinct and the so-bad-it's-good Showgirls — has emerged from self-imposed industry exile to appear on The Hollywood Reporter's new podcast, It Happened in Hollywood.
Discussing his 1992 smash Basic Instinct with co-hosts Seth Abramovitch, a senior writer at THR, and comedy writer Chip Pope, Eszterhas, 73, estimates the controversial thriller would likely be met today with "serious #MeToo protesters," particularly over one scene in the Paul Verhoeven-directed film in which star Michael Douglas, playing an alcoholic cop, appears to date-rape the character played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, his psychiatrist.
Eszterhas says he never envisioned the encounter as a rape.
"It was rough sex," he insists, "but today's yardstick is different." However, Eszterhas, who frequently defended his films from critics who dismissed them as being exploitative of women and even misogynist, says he's a big supporter of the #MeToo movement. "I think they've done terrific things, certainly in terms of the industry," he says. "Societally, they've done terrific things."
In 2001, Eszterhas relocated his family from Malibu to Cleveland, where he was born and once worked as a newspaper reporter covering the crime beat. It was there that he first drew inspiration for Basic Instinct.
"I knew one particular cop that I liked who had been accused in three or four different police shootings. We drank together, we hung out together and I got the feeling that he really liked using a gun," he says.
Later on, he had a tempestuous relationship with a "gorgeous" woman who was an "expert manipulator." He imagined what would happen if the cop "hooked up with a woman like this, who's a killer."
When he finally sat down at his Olivetti typewriter to write the script in 1990, it poured out of him in 13 days. The original title was Love Hurts — but as he walked the manuscript down to the FedEx office to ship it to his agent, inspiration struck, and the title "Basic Instinct" popped in his head. Eszterhas turned around, typed up a new title page and mailed off the manuscript.
The screenplay ignited a historic bidding war in Hollywood, eventually selling for $3 million ($6 million today). Already something of a legend in town, where he rode a motorcycle to meetings and started a very public war of words with then-CAA head Michael Ovitz, the sale made Eszterhas an international celebrity. "CBS Evening News flew in a helicopter on the beach to get an interview," he recalls of the media frenzy surrounding the sale.
On the subject of that Ovitz feud, Eszterhas describes the fateful meeting at CAA headquarters where he told the super-agent he was leaving the agency for ICM. "I was essentially dressed like a beach bum," he recalls. "He had his suit on and his tie. He looked very buttoned-down and formal."
After informing Ovitz that he was returning to his original agent and mentor, Guy McElwaine, Ovitz "sat there kind of stone-faced and said, 'You can't do that. If you do that then my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard will put you into the ground.' He said it very mildly, calmly. And I remember thinking to myself, 'What the fuck did this asshole just say to me?'"
The feud spilled into the news when Eszterhas fired off an angry letter to Ovitz informing him, in very colorful language, that he would not be staying at CAA.
But according to his new memoir, Ovitz disputes Eszterhas' version of the story.
"Joe's account was total nonsense," Ovitz writes in I Am Michael Ovitz. "His problem was that he couldn't see how to stay with us without seeming disloyal to Guy. In jest, I said, 'It's simple, Joe. Tell Guy I said I'd make your life difficult and you didn't need that kind of pressure. Tell him I said my foot soldiers will blow your brains out.' We both laughed."
For more on that legendary feud and further tales of Eszterhas' adventures in show business, listen to the latest episode of It Happened in Hollywood, and be sure to subscribe.