Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas knows all about strange plot twists and he is convinced that God often sends big messages in the final acts of people’s lives.
Once a scandalous Hollywood insider, the author of twisted thrillers such as “Basic Instinct” and “Jagged Edge” can quote chapter and verse about life and death in Tinseltown. Consider the ruthless movie mogul who died during a beach vacation when a metal bar fell from a construction crane and pieced his heart. Or how about the Casanova actor whose reputation made his testicular cancer a bit too ironic?
Eszterhas will name names, when confessing his own sins.
The screenwriter’s egomaniacal tantrums were the stuff of legends, along with his appetite for alcohol, cocaine and first-person research for the lap-dancing scenes in “Showgirls.” Then there was his foul, blasphemous mouth.
It was tempting to connect the dots when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, said Eszterhas, during his blunt and mildly profane testimony at Biola University’s annual conference on faith and the entertainment industry. The resulting surgery claimed 80 percent of his larynx.
“Was it possible,” he mused, in his one-foot-in-the-grave voice, “that God had to cut my throat?” Then he heard the harsh commandments for his new life.
“I adored my wife and children, so I tried,” Eszterhas told the audience at CBS Studio Center. “I stopped smoking. I stopped drinking. I was trying my best to stay alive. I was trying my best not to die, but I knew that I couldn’t do it.”
Thus begins the wild conversion story he has shared many times, reading from his book, “Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith.” The turning point arrives with a weeping sinner on his knees, his heart skipping beats, his hands shaking, his voice moaning through his tracheotomy tube. Then Eszterhas hears his own voice mumbling strange words.
“I didn’t know why I had said it. I had never said it before,” he said. “Then I listened to myself say it again and again and again. ‘Please God, help me.’ ‘Please God, help me.’ ‘Please God, help me’ … I thought to myself, ‘Me, asking God, begging God? Me, praying?’ ”
Then his pain was gone and he was staring into a bright light. He decided that, with God’s help, “I could defeat myself and win, if I fought very hard and if I prayed. … God saved me from me.”
Condensed into the punchy talking points that sell screenplays, Eszterhas said his life has gone from “Malibu to Ohio, from booze to diet Sprite, from Spago to McDonald’s, from Sharon Stone to Jesus.” Now he walks five miles and prays for an hour every day. With his second wife and their four sons, he worships at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he volunteers to carry the cross in Sunday Mass.
“The twisted little man” who wrote his scripts still lives in his head, he said, but is no longer in charge. The big question was whether Eszterhas could write without the tobacco, alcohol and deadly darkness that fueled his 16 screenplays, which became movies that grossed more than $1 billion.
Eszterhas said he sat frozen at his old typewriter, feeling “like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining.’ ” He faced a complete mental block until he pounded out: “This is how I found God or how God found me.” The memoir had to come first.
Since then, Eszterhas has written two scripts, including a “narco-terrorism” thriller he thinks would fit Nicholson. He also wants to write a small-budget movie about Our Lady of Guadalupe. In an age in which Hollywood keeps remaking old blockbusters, he wonders why no one has produced spectacular, digital versions of “The Silver Chalice,” “The Robe” or “Quo Vadis.”
While he wants to keep working, what Eszterhas can’t imagine is writing the kinds of scripts that made him rich and famous.
“My head’s not really in that place. I mean, the thing that I would like to do very much, in the time that I have left, in terms of my own screenwriting, is to … write some things that reflect my faith,” he said. The goal would be to put “the same kind of energy, … into doing faith-based films that I think can really be commercially viable, that I put into other films of a different sort that became commercially successful.”