As a movie, it has everything. It’s the story of a troubled man struggling to transcend his dark past with an act of faith, a Manichean battle between the forces of darkness and light inside each one of us, a cautionary tale of power gone mad and talent corrupted by hate. It’s got religion, violence, revenge, betrayal, fanaticism, addiction, really creepy sex, and an enormous stuffed owl. Added up, it’s a scenario so compelling you might be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed that it’s Joe Eszterhas who’s writing it.
But Heaven and Mel, Ezsterhas’ juicy new Kindle Single detailing how the Basic Instinct writer bravely discovered that the permanently embattled What Women Want star is in fact a genuine, virulent anti-Semite (as opposed to a circumstantial, alcohol-influenced fashion designer type) and a paranoid, possibly dangerous maniac while collaborating (as many, including me, have noted) on M.C.K.B.I., a biopic about Judah Maccabee—which the Chicken Run star planned to produce and direct (if you’re wondering if I plan to continue referring to Gibson as the star of various mostly forgotten films from the mid-to-late 1990s, the answer is yes; the Internet isn’t going away, and we might as well make good use of it) is his story, and tell it he does, with the bravado and lack of moral ambiguity of the experienced Hollywood hack. As one of those one-word titles starring Liam Neeson my husband watches on pay-per-view, it’s a work of art. As a piece of genuine insight, it leaves something to be desired.
It took Ezsterhas the space of several years, nearly two of them in constant communication—as it would seem from his meticulous transcript of emails of varying degrees of unhinged-ness received from the account “Bjorn Pork,” Gibson’s creative cyber-alias—to realize what the rest of us figured out when the Forever Young star called for the death of Frank Rich’s dog and betrayed a suspiciously hostile fixation on the mating habits of gay men on a Spanish talk show. (Never forget: Before Mel Gibson was an anti-Semite, he was a homophobe; if you’d like to take this opportunity to shout “what the hell are you doing in show business?” please do so now.) This might be chalked up to the bizarre Tinseltown myopia that if you have enough money, you must be sane—but only if Ezsterhas himself didn’t take such pains to point out how un-Hollywood he has become.
When we first meet our hero, he is living a quiet, morally unambiguous life: ensconced in a big house on the outskirts of Cleveland, burying the demons of his old life through the love of a good woman, four boisterous boys, and being “born again” into his Catholic faith, the observance of which for Ezsterhas seems to consist mainly of wearing a variety of rosaries and medals, decorating the house with various folkloric crucifixes (Catholicism involves a lot of tchotchkes), and—appropriately—repeated, almost compulsive viewings of The Passion of the Christ. Itching to get back into the screenwriting game—if no longer quite worldly enough to conceive another Showgirls—Ezsterhas pens a screenplay about Our Lady of Guadalupe, a “miraculous” experience he believes is divinely inspired.
It doesn’t go anywhere (not even God can get through the studio development process) but it comes to the attention of Gibson, living in grand Norma Desmond-like seclusion in Malibu, who approaches Ezsterhas to collaborate on the script about the Maccabee story. Ezsterhas, seeing God’s hand in the project—he can win an Oscar and reform Hollywood’s most prominent Holocaust denier at the same time!—quickly agrees.
In a twist that will surprise absolutely no one who has followed the Bird on a Wire star’s rapid decomposition in the public sphere over the last few years, Mel Gibson proceeds to behave like a complete lunatic. He goes from professing his desire to make a glorious “Jewish Braveheart” to declaring his hope that The Maccabees would be the movie that “would finally convert all the Jews” (evincing, to my mind, a touching belief in the power of cinema) to casually dropping references to “Hebes” and “oven-dodgers” in otherwise unrelated conversation (a term that brings his later Holocaust denial into question—how can you be an oven-dodger if there were no ovens? Have I made that joke before?) to going absolutely batshit crazy, screaming about people using him, threatening to have someone murder Oksana Grigorievna (who comes off the best of anyone here), his former girlfriend and mother of his small daughter, and eventually destroying the private Costa Rican pleasure palace to which he has brought Ezsterhas and his family in a scene of crazy-rich-person torture straight out of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
So, why does Ezsterhas stick around as long as he does? That there is a clear personal affinity between the two men, both devout Catholics and recovering alcoholics with massive God complexes, might have something to do with it. More convincing (and compelling) is the way Ezsterhas describes his genuine writerly attachment to the project—the way the characters are living in his head, his sense of obligation to bring their story to life, the sense of betrayal he would feel in letting them down.
And then there are the practical considerations: He has a deal with Warner Bros., after all (just what kind of deal we’re talking about he demurely fails to mention), and four kids in private school and apparently a sizable Guatemalan religious art habit to support. Eszterhas mentions these almost as an afterthought, a wry aside in between his genuine attachment to his creative process and his self-appointed role as Defender of the Jews. And look, I don’t mean to call his intentions into question (!), but his disappointment in, and subsequent dismissal of, the Jews who don’t quite seem to feel they need defending as “self-hating” is a perfect example of why people sometimes get a little antsy about so-called “philo-Semitism” and betrays a deep misunderstanding of the traditional Hebrew peacetime response to loony Jew-haters like Mel Gibson; namely, to laugh and laugh and laugh.
In any case, these practicalities have a peculiar poignancy that a more subtle, less reflexively self-aggrandizing writer might have explored, not least because of his own history. In 1994, investigations by the U.S. State Department revealed that Ezsterhas’ father Istvan, then a low-level Hungarian bureaucrat, authored a number of anti-Semitic propaganda pamphlets for the Nazis, a discovery that revoked his visa and ruined what was left of the elder Ezsterhas’ life. When confronted by his horrified son as to how he could have done such a thing (by Ezsterhas’ own admission, throughout his childhood his father had taught his children religious and racial tolerance), the old man expressed remorse and said, “I don’t know. I suppose I thought it would be good for my career.”
Eszterhas, as he states continually, even proudly throughout his narrative, never spoke to his father again.
I don’t mean to conflate anti-Semitic pamphleteering with the work Ezsterhas did: I haven’t read M.C.K.B.I. (although I’m waiting, Warner Bros.!), but I’m sure it’s filled with glory and guts and enough Jewish triumphalism to fill my post-Zionist self with a kind of queasy, self-loathing pride. And I’m as happy as anyone to have Joe Ezsterhas unapologetically on our side. But in the name of Freudian analysis (what Mel Gibson and friends would probably call “the Jewish science”) I hope he can bring himself to extend a little of the Christian forgiveness he generously heaps on himself to his poor old dad. After all, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I think it was Ari Emanuel who said that.
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