Authors: Joe Eszterhas
HEAVEN AND MEL
By Joe Eszterhas
I am Hungarian-born and I have discovered that these three things said about Hungarians are true:
If a Hungarian walks into a room filled with a hundred people… and if one of those people has a badly ingrown toenail… then the Hungarian will go right up to that person and jump up and down on his painful toe.
A Rumanian will offer to sell you his sister, but the Hungarian will do it.
If you see a Hungarian on the street, go up to him and slap him… he'll know why.
IN 2001, RECOVERING FROM THROAT CANCER,
I was born again. The man who'd written "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls" (and fourteen other films) accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
The three things sustaining me in my new faith at the most difficult time of my life were: Michael W. Smith's prayer-songs, Brennan Manning's ragamuffin God-is-love books, and a movie I kept watching over and over again: "The Passion of the Christ," directed by Mel Gibson, who'd gotten facials at the same place my wife, Naomi, had gotten them when we still lived in Malibu.
Mad Mel, as everyone referred to him in Malibu, was one of my bridges to Jesus.
* * * *
I'D NEVER MET HIM WHEN WE LIVED IN MALIBU
, though Malibu is a very small town and I had heard all about him and his wife, Robyn, and their seven kids.
We went to the same Greek restaurant all the time — Taverna Tony's — where a couple of his kids worked. But we'd never run into each other and one year we were rumored to be vying for the same dubious award — The Sour Apple Award — given by the Hollywood Women's Press Association to the biggest misogynistic fool of the year. I won (undeservedly so, I thought).
Ironically, in a piece of typical Hollywood surrealism, we had the same publicist, Alan Nierob of Rogers & Cowan. I heard that Mel liked Alan as much as I did.
Mel lived with his wife and family in Serra Retreat, in rocker Rick Springfield's former house, and I lived with my wife, Naomi, and our four sons in Point Dume, right across the street from Bob Dylan's house.
Mel was known as "the King of Malibu" and Los Angeles Magazine wrote an article about me calling me "The King of Point Dume."
For awhile, I heard, we had both thought about buying the big house atop the hill above Cross Creek shopping center called "The Castle." We had both passed because we separately discovered that "The Castle" was all false fronts. It was also directly on a fault line, obviously too Hollywood and too precarious for both of us.
* * * *
SEAN PENN CAME OVER TO DINNER
at our house in Point Dume one night and asked our son Joey, then six, if he surfed yet. Naomi and I freaked. We were both Midwesterners. She had grown up in rural central Ohio. I grew up on the streets of urban Cleveland.
Surfing? Our boys?
"You may not know where the Viper Room is," Sean said, "but he will."
We looked at each other when Sean left and I said, "Okay, we've had a lot of fun making these four boys — now how are we going to raise them?"
We decided to raise them in the Midwest, where we had both been raised. We didn't want them running wild in Malibu. We didn't want them running wild anywhere.
But if they had to run wild, and kids often do, we didn't want them running wild on the beach or around houses with false fronts and on fault lines.
We found a house in rural/suburban Bainbridge Township, thirty miles from Cleveland. Less than six months after Sean had come to dinner in Point Dume, we were living in Cleveland.
And less than a month after that, with movers' boxes still everywhere around the house, I was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer.
And a little more than a month after my surgery, desperate, unable to speak… I found God.
Or… God found me.
* * * *
PART OF THE REASON FOR THE MOVE
was that we wanted to give our boys a sense of family. Naomi's whole large family was in Ohio and the only family I had, my ninety-four year old father, Istvan, was in Cleveland Heights, taken care of by private nurses I was employing.
Istvan Eszterhas was the man I had loved most in my life. He was a Hungarian journalist and novelist who had supported me and encouraged me from the time I was a little boy. My mother was schizophrenic, a casualty of six years in Austrian refugee camps, who'd light up cigarettes in church and seal the electric outlets in our house so death rays from the Soviet Sputnik wouldn't reach us.
So it was my dad… always my dad… that I went to for anything I needed, and my dad taught me the basics. Judge a man by his character, he said, nothing else… not his skin color, not his race, not his religion.
I learned the lesson well. I was called a "greenhorn" and a "DP" on the streets and it gave me a natural sympathy for people who were called "niggers" and "faggots" and "spics" and "kikes."
* * * *
I GOT INVOLVED IN CIVIL RIGHTS
as a journalist and, in Hollywood, I wrote films about civil rights ("Big Shots") and about the vicious ugliness of anti-Semitism ("Betrayed" and "Music Box"). I travelled to Dachau and Mauthausen with my children from my first marriage. I spent time in Israel: in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Masada, Eilat, and at Yad Vashem, where I studied the Holocaust in Hungary and central Europe. I loved Israel and felt a natural and spontaneous kinship with Jewish people and Jewish culture.
In the early 90's, not long after "Music Box" was released (Elie Wiesel praised it; my father said, "I've never been prouder of you than I am now.") the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations launched hearings in Cleveland about Istvan Eszterhas's role as a writer and an official of the Hungarian propaganda ministry in the 30's and 40's.
The hearings, I discovered, were the culmination of a lengthy investigation.
The OSI charged that my father had written viciously-anti-Semitic articles, and an anti-Semitic book, and had even organized and participated in book burnings. He had also been involved in burning documents as the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross government toppled.
As I sat next to my father for weeks at the hearings, I realized that most of the OSI's allegations were true. My father's strategy was to lie and lie again, until the OSI produced documentary evidence… and then my father, faced with the incontrovertible proof, said he couldn't remember.
* * * *
I WAS CRUSHED
. This man that I loved more than any other man, who told me never to judge a man by his race or religion, had been proven to me to be an anti-Semite whose writings could very possibly have caused his readers to harm or kill Jews.
I asked my father why he had done and written these things and he told me that he didn't hate Jews, he had done them to "further his career" in Hungary, a country frightened by the shadow of Hitler and his storm troopers.
But writing these awful things for career achievement, it seemed to me, was just as unconscionable — perhaps more — than writing them because he hated Jews.
At one point my father said he did these things for
— for my life. I pointed out to him that many of these screeds, articles or pamphlets had been written years before I was born.
The Justice Department decided not to deport or indict my father, but my relationship with him was over. I hardly saw him in the last years of his life, though I paid for his nursing care.
And I did to him what Jessica Lange did to her father at the end of "Music Box": I didn't allow him to see our four young boys.
When he was dying at a Hungarian old age home, he asked constantly to see me. But I didn't go. I was in the hospital with throat cancer, but I knew even then that was just an excuse.
I didn't visit the man I loved most in the world among men at his dying moment… because I couldn't forgive him for what he had done. I was haunted by the fear that Jews had been hurt or had died as a result of the poison he had spewed onto his pages. My father had to pay for spewing that poison, and I was judge, jury, executioner, and son.
Istvan Eszterhas died a few months after we moved to Cleveland from Malibu, a move partly made to give our boys (who never even met their grandfather) a sense of family.
* * * *
FOR MY OWN PERSONAL AND PAINFUL REASONS THEN
, I was a watchdog against anti-Semitism and, when "The Passion of the Christ" was released, I watched it over and over again.
I respected The Anti-Defamation League. I had done a fundraiser for them in Los Angeles. I had passed on to them an anti-Semitic missive the producer Aaron Russo had written to me. I had won the Emanuel Foundations Lifetime Achievement Award for writing about the Holocaust in Hungary.
But try as hard as I could, I didn't see "The Passion of the Christ" as the anti-Semitic propaganda that The Anti-Defamation League called it.
I was, however, disturbed whenever I saw Mel Gibson on television. He always looked like a scared jack rabbit while talking about his film. And I'd learned from news accounts that his father, Hutton, was a Holocaust-denier.
But "The Passion of the Christ" moved me. I had only recently found my faith. I had only recently, as a friend of mine said, been "saved." I had undergone a tryingly-difficult time. I had a tracheotomy. I couldn't speak. I used a Fisher Price toy chalkboard to communicate. And I found that identifying with Christ's passion and crucifixion eased my own burdens.
I began going to church regularly and carrying the cross at Mass. I began reading Scripture, especially the New Testament. I said the rosary each day. And somehow, through all of that, I was able to stop smoking and drinking, the two poisons I was so addicted to, the poisons the doctor said would kill me if I didn't stop.
"The Passion of the Christ" was part of my prayer life. I didn't agree with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, both people I respected, that all the Jews in the film hated Christ and wanted to kill him.
I argued that Nicodemus, arguing with Annas and Caiphas, was clearly Jewish. Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped carry Christ's cross, was clearly identified as Jewish. The apostles were Jewish and, I thought, the trump card was this: Jesus was a Jew.
So I kept watching the movie and defending it publicly.
A friend who said that I looked like "a Ukrainian bishop" now, with a cross around my neck, also said, "Is Mel Gibson your spiritual advisor?"
* * * *
I WAS APPALLED
, though, when I read the book that Mel said was used as "historical research" for the making of "The Passion." It was called "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." It was written by a 16th-century visionary, Anne Catherine Emmerich.
It was, I discovered, a vile and hateful attack upon Jews. On page 81, "the cruel Jews." On page 64, "the crime of the Jews." On page 102, "The Jews, having exhausted their barbarity."
While Emmerich's anti-Semitism didn't prove that "The Passion" (and Mel Gibson) were anti-Semites, it gave me food for troubling thought.
Emmerich also, I noted, celebrated the presence of the Devil just as much as Mel's film did.
But that, ultimately, didn't bother me. I was fascinated by evil. Scripture is full of the presence of Satan, and I myself had experienced a tactile presence of evil: In the refugee camps in Austria; as a boy in a bad part of town who'd once observed (but not participated in) a gang bang; as a reporter covering the police and crime beats.
And then, of course, there was my lifelong study of Hitler and the Holocaust: the personification and realization of evil. I started reading about the Holocaust when I was a boy. I was told that if I wanted to understand evil, I should read about the Holocaust.
My dad, Istvan Eszterhas, the alleged war criminal, told me this.
* * * *
MY FASCINATION WITH EVIL
was apparent in my writing.
The director of "Basic Instinct," Paul Verhoeven, said: "I didn't understand at first the foundation of the script. Sharon is Satan and Michael Douglas is Everyman, repelled and drawn by Satan."
Michael was upset about the ending of "Basic" because he said, "Evil triumphs." Over the end credits of my first draft, we heard the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."
And in the mid-90s, I wrote a script for Paramount called "Land of the Free." It was about a right-wing militia group and its charismatic leader. In the beginning of the script, we met him and loved him. And as the script progressed, we saw that he was diabolically manipulative and that, underneath all the populist rhetoric, he was a crazed and hate-filled anti-Semite.
The film was never made, but the studio head, Sherry Lansing, sent it to a superstar actor that she said she would make it with.
Mel Gibson passed.
* * * *
AS I WAS WATCHING "THE PASSION
" for the umpteenth time in prayer, I thought: "I'd like to work with Mel Gibson sometime." I thought he was a visceral and powerful director, looking at "Braveheart" and "The Passion."
I thought it would be fun to work with a man of faith, considering my own devotion. He was Catholic too, and while I considered myself a baby Catholic, I envisioned us sitting around and talking about things like the Virgin Birth and the Transfiguration.
I was given some pause when I read that his co-screenwriter of "The Passion," an unknown former seminarian named Benedict Fitzgerald, had sued him, claiming that he was being cheated of his royalties.
I was also troubled by the fact Mel had screenwriter credit on the movie. I knew after thirty-plus years in the business and sixteen films that the only directors who demanded co-screenwriter credit (except writer-directors) were pigs. "Creative hogs," in Hollywood terms.
* * * *
WE WERE LIVING NORMALLY
in Ohio. We went to church and we went to all the Little League games and ate at hamburger joints and Dairy Queens with the kids.