Shock waves have long rippled in Joe Eszterhas’ wake. Five years ago he was a gonzo journalist-turned-gonzo screenwriter of Flashdance and Jagged Edge and was best known for accusing superagent Mike Ovitz of attempting to ”blackmail” him. Three years ago his script for Basic Instinct sparked protests over its sexism and homophobia but went on to make $117 million and a star out of Sharon Stone. And ever since that blockbuster success, it seems that everything the 49-year-old Eszterhas does is designed for seismic effect. In the fall of 1992, he earned $2.4 million for Jade, a murder mystery involving a San Francisco call girl, and got a $1.5 million advance to begin writing Showgirls, about an ambitious Las Vegas lap dancer — subjects that did nothing to dispel his reputation as a purveyor of cheap thrills.
In April 1993 came the topper: Eszterhas left Gerri, his wife of 24 years, for Naomi Baka, 35. It was the last act in a tabloid melodrama that had started on the set of Sliver when producer Bill MacDonald — Baka’s husband and Eszterhas’ close friend — left Baka for his star, Sharon Stone. Baka sought refuge with the Eszterhases, moving into their Tiburon, Calif., home. One month later, in a twist right out of one of his scripts, Eszterhas left Gerri for Naomi while they were all vacationing in Hawaii. (Stone soon after dumped MacDonald.)
Despite that little earthquake, Eszterhas has continued to bang out scripts. After writing Jade and Showgirls, he completed the serial-killer thriller Foreplay, which Savoy Pictures bought in May for $3.5 million plus 2.5 percent of the gross — making Eszterhas the rare screenwriter (among only a handful of Hollywood actors and directors) who commands a cut of a movie’s box office revenue. After putting the finishing touches on yet another script, this one for the John Gotti biopic Gangland (a $3.4 million payday) in June, Eszterhas returned to Maui with Baka; they were married on July 30, their 5-month-old son, Joseph Jeremiah, in attendance.
Though Eszterhas looks — and sometimes is accused of acting — like a cross between Ernest Hemingway and a Hell’s Angel, he’s a courtly and accommodating interview subject. He traces his tough-guy persona to childhood trials: his emigration from Hungary in 1945, time spent in refugee camps, and his mother’s schizophrenia. ”I’ve always viewed myself as an outsider,” he says. But never a victim. After Eszterhas decided to leave Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency for agent (and longtime friend) Guy McElwaine, he wrote Ovitz a letter that was leaked to the press. In it he stood up to what he called ”blackmail,” alleging that Ovitz had tried to dissuade him from leaving CAA by saying, ”my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out.”
Eszterhas didn’t merely survive the departure; his career took off. Nine months later he sold Basic Instinct for a then-record $3 million. And over the past decade, his properties have been prized, even if they’ve often ended up gathering dust: Sacred Cows, Original Sin, and Beat the Eagle have all been bought but are unproduced.
Eszterhas and Baka now rent a Malibu house complete with a large pool, where he swims laps daily, and an office, where dozens of boxed, brand-new typewriters are stacked in a corner against the day Olivetti stops making them. For the interview, Eszterhas asked Baka, whom he calls Guinea because of her Italian ancestry, to sit next to him; she stared at him adoringly the entire two hours. He also brought out pictures of his parents. His 87-year-old father, Istvan, is the author of more than 30 Hungarian historical novels; his mother, Maria Biro, died when he was 23.