You know Joe Eszterhas. Well you know his films — or at the very least know of them: Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge, Showgirls.
Yeah, that guy. Well after years and years of abusing his body with booze and smokes, he was found to have throat cancer — then found himself on the jagged, ragged edge himself. Know what he did? He cried out to God.
And got saved. Yep. Saved. His word. And in Crossbearer (St. Martin’s Press), he offers his confession, of a life of sex, drugs, rock n roll, crime, booze, and enough nicotine to put a neat little hole in his windpipe.
He tells of the years he and his Catholic Hungarian family spent as refugees fleeing the Nazis, about growing up in Cleveland, about his work as a journalist and some of the psychological tricks he’d play on the families of crime victims to arrange just the right photo op. How he used to roll the drunken homeless. How he used women. How he bullied his way through Hollywood and managed $3 million pay days. How he was basically just the kind of self-absorbed fundament you would expect a screenwriter of sex-and-violence melodramas to be.
And then he got saved. On a curb, in tears. Fearing for his life. Fearing he couldn’t kick his smoking and drinking addictions. Fearing his throat cancer would keep him from raising his kids. growing old with his wife, Naomi.
And then … for the first time since I was a boy … I opened my heart to God on that curb … and instead of turning His back on me, instead of saying, “Come on! Give me a break! Not you!” God entered my heart. And God saved me—from darkness. From death itself. God saved me … from me.
And so he went back to the Catholic Church, the church of his youth. He became a cross bearer, the layperson who carries the large wooden cross in procession at the opening of the liturgy — Rolling Stones T-shirt and all.
While there are plenty of tantalizing stories here, there is no neatly told narrative. The book is more a collection of diary-like entries and fits of memory, anecdotes and closet-cleaning. This isn’t great literature but an absorbing attempt to come to grips with what it means to be a Christian given not only one’s own character flaws but everyone else’s. Eszterhas is writing about discipleship as much as anything. Each chapter, each vignette, describes a high or a low in his sanctification process — how he was judged by others and how he consigned others, stinking of religious hypocrisy and bigotry, to a hell of mutual abuse. (One of my favorite episodes is Eszterhas’ one-man crusade against the blasphemous recasting of Lebron James as an urban messiah!)
Along the way the writer delivers his views on priestly celibacy, gay marriage, and various and sundry other social and political issues that put him closer to Michael Moore than Mel Gibson (although he is decidedly anti-abortion, except in the case of rape). But as far as the person of Jesus goes, his theology is catechism-worthy. He loves Christ, wants to be Christ in the world, wants to raise his four sons in Christ. He prays earnestly and frequently and received concrete answers to prayers. And he wants a chance to shout to his friends, enemies, colleagues, that Christ saved him and that Hollywood needs some serious reform.
After I found God, I wanted to write something in celebration of my discovery of Him … I had thrown away the ice pick (Basic Instinct), the knives (Jagged Edge and Sliver), and the Dogon hatchet (Jade). I kept a Bible nearby. I wanted to write about my new faith … and about God and His relationship with man. But I knew my agents wouldn’t have understood any of that …
He sought out faith-based projects, even penned a TV series about a hard-boiled priest. But as you might expect, no one wanted such morality tales from the guy who gave you Basic Instinct. Hollywood wanted more sexy serial killers (though people seemed to have forgetten Eszterhas’ underrated Music Box, inspired by his father’s Nazi-collaborationist past). But he refused to take such gigs, turning away millions of dollars, refusing to glorify promiscuity and violence — and smoking. (His open letter to Hollywood to stop glamorizing cigarettes brought him a lot of attention and even some respect — but little real change in the industry.)
Eszterhas’ take-no-prisoners approach to testifying is not for everyone. He is Sharon-Stone-quick-flip-of-the-gams open. There is an extensive collection of four-letter words strung throughout (although the eff word is literally spelled eff). He addresses the double lives and sexual abuse among Catholic clergy that he witnessed personally — both here and in Europe — that made his return to the Catholic Church difficult. He is frank about his own bad behavior and habits. He is not afraid to make himself look bad or silly or overly credulous in the face of religious hucksterism. In fact, it is this fearlessness, worthy of a Christian knight errant, that makes the book a powerful witness to both the power of Christ’s transforming grace and the institutional depravity that has capitalized on that grace throughout history.
Despite the seemy stuff, it is not Eszterhas’ intention to titillate — not anymore. He is writing in his own cracked, almost-ruined voice about a life as dark as his salvation is light. And he wants street kids and Hollywood toughs, rock-n-rollers and big-rig drivers, to know that no matter what kind of life they have lead — or still lead — they can come to Jesus JUST AS THEY ARE. He wants them to know they can pray in their own argot, worship in a ratty T, and find a fresh calling in surrender to His will.
I had been a control freak all of my life in ways big and small .. Yet now, for the first time in my life, I gave up all control. I put my life in God’s hands. God was in control—my life was up to His will, not mine. I was amazed how happy I was with this new arrangement. I didn’t resent that I was no longer in charge. I felt a thousand-pound weight had been lifted off my back. For the first time in my life, I felt free—even though I was in a battle with cancer and my addictions. I thanked God for freeing me, for loving me so much that He was willing to take over my life. I trusted Him—whatever He decided to do with me. I was at peace.
Now that’s one helluva Hollywood ending.