JOE ESZTERHAS, who was once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, is today a stricken man -- stricken in body and stricken with remorse.
"Eighteen months ago I was was diagnosed with throat cancer, the result of a lifetime of smoking," the writer of Basic Instinct, Jade, and a dozen other movies disclosed in a recent New York Times op-ed column. Much of his larynx has been removed. He speaks with difficulty. He describes himself as "alive but maimed" and, "desperate to see my four boys grow up," has given up smoking and drinking for exercise and prayer.
Now that he realizes what cigarettes can do, Eszterhas says he is filled with guilt for all the scenes in his movies that deliberately glamorized smoking.
"I find it hard to forgive myself," he writes. "I have been an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings. I am admitting this only because I have made a deal with God. Spare me, I said, and I will try to stop others from committing the same crimes I did."
Time was, Eszterhas thought of himself as a militant smoker and reveled in his bad-boy image. He believed that smoking was every person's right and wrote that view into his scripts. ("What are you going to do," a cool and alluring Sharon Stone taunts Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, "arrest me for smoking?") Now he says that smoking should be "as illegal as heroin" and that "a cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star onscreen is a gun aimed at a 12- or 14-year old." Cancer opened his eyes. "My hands," he confesses, "are bloody."
Like a lot of Eszterhas's writing, this is vivid, hard-hitting -- and ridiculously overdone. He may have a lot to answer for, but he isn't "an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings." Smoking is nasty and unhealthy, but it is not nearly as deadly as heroin. Some smokers do eventually die from their bad habit, but they are typically in their 70s, not 12 or 14 years old.
Of course it is a terrible thing to be afflicted with cancer. I wish Eszterhas a complete recovery and many more years with his sons. It is admirable that his suffering has prompted a moral self-reckoning, and that he now wants to atone for the damage his movies have done. But if he really believes that the worst thing about his screenplays is that they glorified smoking, his self-reckoning has a considerable way to go.
After reading Eszterhas's New York Times piece, I went out and rented Showgirls, his 1995 picture about a Las Vegas stripper who claws her way to stardom. It came out in 1995, and was as noteworthy for its NC-17 rating as for its witheringly bad reviews ("a film of thunderous oafishness" -- L.A. Times). To be honest, I can't actually remember if any of the characters in "Showgirls" smoked, so if there was a message in there about tobacco, I missed it. But there were plenty of other messages, and those came through loud and clear.
There was the message that it's stylish to use drugs -- that a little cocaine, for example, is just the thing when you want to celebrate or relax or be entertained.
There was the message that sex is simply one more commodity, something to be bought, sold, or bartered for. Or extorted or taken by force, if you can get away with it.
There was the message that deception and lies are everywhere and only suckers tell the truth.
There was the message that ruthlessness is the key to success -- that only those who are willing to break their rival's bones (literally, in the case of "Showgirls") will make it to the top.
There is the message that decency is for losers. Of all the characters Eszterhas created for this picture, only one is kind and considerate -- and her fate is to be brutally beaten and gang-raped.
But above all there is the message about women. Some of them are conniving sluts, others are stupid sluts, but all of them, Eszterhas makes clear, are primarily sex objects who can be degraded at will. The point of women is their bodies, and Eszterhas's script calls for female bodies to be paraded, ogled, leered at, mocked, and exploited almost without letup. Misogyny runs through Showgirls like sewage through a pipe.
And not only through Showgirls. In the best-known scene from Eszterhas's best-known movie, an actress languidly uncrosses her legs during a police interrogation, giving the detective (and the audience) a flash of her naked private parts. In his New York Times mea culpa, he says he regrets writing that scene into "Basic Instinct." Because of its crude suggestion that women are nothing more than "holes," to use Eszterhas's own term from his book American Rhapsody? No. Because Sharon Stone had a cigarette in her hand.
Well, it's just a little hard to take Eszterhas's self-flagellation seriously. During his years as a screenwriter, the percentage of Americans who smoke cigarettes steadily declined. At the same time, the debasement of American society -- the sleaze, the violence, the coarseness, the relentless sexualization, the moral insensitivity -- went through the roof. Eszterhas and his Hollywood friends do indeed have much to answer for. Smoking is pretty far down on the list.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)