By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas calls his new movie a "raw, twisted expose."

Movie critics call it something else.

"Only a surgical nuclear strike could suitably destroy what has to be one of the most enervating comedies ever made," the Los Angeles Times declares about "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn," a satire on Hollywood.

"Groan Hollywood Groan," decreed LA Weekly. "A snore."

"Hard to beat for the worst movie of 1998!" exclaims New Times.

With notices like these and following three successive bombs "Showgirls," "Jade" and "Slither" the biggest mystery in Hollywood these days is how Eszterhas manages to remain the industry's highest-paid screenwriter.

The answer in a nutshell: good contacts.

"He's a member of the club," said a studio executive who handled one of Eszterhas' flops.

The executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described Eszterhas as "a tacky and repulsive man who writes terrible stuff."

But in true Hollywood fashion, upon being asked if the production company would ever work with Eszterhas again, the executive said: "If he writes a good script, we'd love to have a chance at it."

In fact, Eszterhas is currently being paid a minimum of $2 million for a script he is writing for Paramount Pictures.

Prior to his recent string of flops, Eszterhas wrote three big hits "Flashdance," "Jagged Edge" and "Basic Instinct" which garnered a combined box-office gross of $1 billion. But for Eszterhas, success and failure are two sides of a glistening coin. When tossed, the gamble is that Joe Eszterhas will land back on the A-List.

"Nobody knows if a movie is going to be a hit until it is released," said Steve Cesinger, an entertainment specialist at Greif & Co., a Los Angeles-based investment bank. "Look at 'Titanic.' They were biting their nails before it came out. Now it is one of the all-time great movies."

Eszterhas, he said, continues to work because his successes still outweigh his failures, making him a bankable name for producers who want to get a green light from a studio.

"It's like an insurance policy when you have a name writer attached to a film," he said. "It eliminates one of the biggest risk factors. You don't want an untested, no-name writer."

Hungarian-born Eszterhas remains highly unusual in a town filled with low-key, low-profile screenwriters.

Last week, in response to widespread pans of his new movie satirizing Hollywood, Eszterhas took out full-page ads in the trade papers that read: "I extended a middle finger and the critics returned the gesture."

Despite such irreverence, or possibly because of it, much of the industry continues to embrace him although support is polarized. Admirers speak on the record; detractors prefer anonymity.

"He's the golden lion," said Gene Korman, who produced Eszterhas' first film, "F.I.S.T," a 1978 drama about the rise and fall of a union boss that starred Sylvester Stallone. "He believes in the work ethic and Ernest Hemingway. Keep the sentences short, the characters strong and the story readily identifiable."

For now, Eszterhas is busy, very busy. The $2 million script for Paramount is a thriller about the Russian Mafia, called "Evil Empire." If the movie is made, he will receive $4.5 million, which would be the highest price ever paid for a script.

The 53-year-old Eszterhas has the same deal for "Male Pattern Baldness" at Paramount. That film is in pre-production in Cleveland. Next up will be another thriller, "Land of the Free." Alan Ladd Jr., producer of "Braveheart" (winner of the best picture Oscar for 1995), will produce that drama about militia groups.

Eszterhas is also working on a film biography of the late Otis Redding, which has not yet been sold to a studio.

"Joe is a big conceptual guy who understands big entertainment," said Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced Eszterhas' 1982 hit "Flashdance," "As an ex-journalist, he understands deadlines and stories that are very dramatic and easily understood."

Another studio executive disagreed, asserting that Eszterhas has lost his edge and that his flops, like "Slither" and "Jade," demonstrate how thin his creativity has become.

"The bloom is off the rose," the studio executive said of Eszterhas. "The secret is out. He keeps repeating himself. 'Alan Smithee' was the worst piece of trash I've ever read."

Frank Price, an independent producer and former chairman of Columbia Pictures, disagreed. "Joe is a tremendously talented writer who has great originality. He takes chances. Remember, Babe Ruth was the home-run king who also had the strike-out record."

Price said Eszterhas shouldn't be blamed for all this flops. "When you look at what goes wrong with a motion picture, you have to ask, 'Was it the casting? Was it the director? Was it the producer?' Somebody at the studio felt good enough to pay a lot of money for his scripts. There really are not a lot of writers around whose words jump off the page, and Joe is one of them."

Turmoil is nothing new to Eszterhas, personally or professionally. He was born in a tiny Hungarian village at the end of World War II and spent much of his early life moving from one refugee camp to the next. His family immigrated to Cleveland in 1950. Poor, the young boy focused on reading, rock 'n' roll and the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

After graduating from high school he attended Ohio University, where he was named one of the country's top collegiate jounalists. He joined the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he developed an eye for dramatic stories. But he was fired in 1971 for writing an article critical of his bosses just as the paper was being sued for one of his pieces.

He then moved to San Francisco where he became a star writer at Rolling Stone magazine. Producer Gene Korman liked a story Eszterhas wrote about heavyweight boxing great Joe Louis and commissioned him to write "F.I.S.T." (Eszterhas challenged Stallone to a fistfight when they disagreed about the script.)

Eszterhas' first hit was "Flashdance" in 1983. Two years later, "Jagged Edge" also was a smash. Over the next seven years, he wrote four more screenplays, including "Music Box," about a Nazi war criminal, and "Betrayed," about white supremacists. None did well at the box office.

But in 1992, lightning struck again with "Basic Instinct." The edgy thriller about a bisexual murderess starring Sharon Stone earned $350 million worldwide. That catapulted Eszterhas to superstar status. He earned $3 million for the script, at the time the highest price ever paid a screenwriter.

During that period, his personal life churned. His 24-year marriage to his first wife ended and he married Naomi Baka, who had separated from Bill MacDonald, co-producer of "Sliver."

MacDonald, meanwhile, had begun a romance with Sharon Stone, who had been told by a psychic that the two had been lovers in a previous lifetime. The tabloids loved the tale and Eszterhas' bad-boy image soared.

It grew even larger when Eszterhas took on Creative Artists Agency chief Mike Ovitz, who at the time was the most powerful agent in Hollywood. Word quickly spread around town that Ovitz had threatened Eszterhas, who wanted to jump to CAA's rival International Creative Management. When Ovitz left to become president of Walt Disney Co., Eszterhas wrote an open, tongue-in-cheek letter begging his former agent to quit the studio and return to the talent agency business.

But since "Basic Instinct," Eszterhas has written three colossal bombs. "Slither" and "Jade" were both financial disasters. "Showgirls" was not only a financial disaster but was attacked by movie critics, feminists and religious groups for what they called its sleazy, exploitative portrayal of women.

One screenwriter, who asked for anonymity, said Eszterhas' outrageous persona has actually helped him continue to work in Hollywood.

"At the root of the Eszterhas phenomenon is titillation," he said. "There is a sense of danger about him, violence. For a lot of movie executives, who have no life experience, he's exciting, exotic. They get a sense of danger by being in business with him."

There is also a business element to these deals. Estzerhas' glitzy thrillers have cachet overseas, where his stories of sex and violence need little translation.

"The foreign market loves what he does," the screenwriter said. "Violence and mayhem are formulas that will make your money back overseas."

Bruckheimer, who went on to produce "Top Gun," "Con Air" and the upcoming "Armageddon," said he is confident Eszterhas will bounce back.

"We all go through peaks and valleys," he said, "and I am not saying that Joe is in one of those valleys, but you can never count him out. He is an enormous talent."

Eszterhas recently became involved in a low-budget film, "Telling Lies in America," which is loosely based on his growing up in Cleveland. The film, which was shown at the New York Film Festival, has been praised by critics.

Bob Berney, who produced the $4 million film, said many people in Hollywood are jealous of Eszterhas' success.

"Everybody wants to shoot down the top guy," he said. "He is a wild guy who has led a flamboyant life. He likes to get into trouble. He can be his own worst enemy."

But he predicted Eszterhas will once again click with mass audiences and the Hollywood power players who write his multimillion-dollar checks.

"All he needs is one comeback hit," Berney said. "It always puts you back on the map. People are never willing to say it's over, over, over."

Eszterhas declined to be interviewed. But he once told the Chicago Tribune that all he ever wanted to do when he came to Hollywood was to write.

"I have no aspirations to direct or produce, and we don't socialize in town," he said. "One of the reason I love this country is that, at its fundamental best, it was a society of mavericks."

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