The Bigger Picture: Does Eszterhas versus Mel Gibson benefit anyone?

04.12.12 5 years ago 20 Comments

AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, Pool

When you write about entertainment all day every day, you tend to get caught up in minutiae, and it leads to editorial decisions I would call questionable.  When you’re writing breathless headlines about Pez dispensers, you may be working too hard to find relevance in the irrelevant.  Getting hung up on the micro often prevents us from focusing on the macro, but I’d like to take the opportunity to take a step back from time to time to examine ‘The Bigger Picture.’

Short version:  don’t expect Warner Bros. to produce Mel Gibson’s film about the Maccabees any time soon.

When Mel Gibson first announced his intentions to make a film telling the story of the Jewish rebel army that existed around 160 BC, it seemed like it fit well into the larger arc of his career and his fascination with doing films set in a historically violent era featuring the characters speaking in accurate-to-the-age-and-region languages, something that has been a big part of his directing career.  It also sounded like it was going to be a hugely controversial project for reasons that would be obvious to anyone aware of Gibson’s ongoing tabloid troubles.

When Joe Eszterhas was announced as the writer of the film, that seemed even more like they were waving a red flag in front of a bull.  Eszterhas has been out of the business for a while now, but when he was working on a regular basis, he reliably dealt in empty provocation, and he was great at making people think that his films were both darker and more explicit than they actually were.  He was a perfect collaborator for Paul Verhoeven at his most excessive, which is a polite way of saying that the two of them together made some truly toxic garbage.  Eszterhas managed to rack up some of the biggest dollar value spec sales in Hollywood history, but few of his films hold up to scrutiny now.  As much as anyone working in the modern studio system, Eszterhas comes across as all hype and nothing underneath.

In 2008, he published a book called “Crossbearer” in which he detailed how a throat cancer scare led him back to the Catholic faith and how he’s now devoted to God and his wife Naomi and their family, and the old Joe Eszterhas is long gone.  That sounds good, but today’s new controversy makes it seem like the old Joe Eszterhas was just waiting for the right minute to come roaring back to life, and more than anything, this very public battle between him and Mel Gibson strikes me as a desperate act that will end up burning everyone involved.

If you haven’t been following the drama, The Wrap got hold of a nine-page letter that Eszterhas sent to Gibson that was supposed to be confidential.  The letter details a parade of verbal and physical abuse that Gibson unleashed while he and Eszterhas were working on the script for the Maccabees project.  What we do know for sure is that Warner Bros. passed on the Eszterhas script and has declined to move forward with the project.  Beyond that, we have two equally unreliable sources here, both painting the other in the worst possible terms.

Eszterhas had better hope no one can ever prove he leaked the letter, because it is actionable in every way, especially if Gibson can prove that it’s not accurate.  In it, Eszterhas alleges that “Mel shares the mindset of Adolf Hitler,” and while I think his own actions have absolutely established Gibson as a man with plenty of demons that he continues to work to overcome, the portrait that Eszterhas paints here is so over-the-top moustache-twirling evil that it’s almost funny.  In fact, Gibson comes across as the reasonable one in his response to Eszterhas, which first appeared at Deadline today, explaining that the script isn’t being made because it’s just not very good.  If anything, Mel’s relatively curt dismissal of the wild claims made by Eszterhas just make the screenwriter look bad.

None of this should be public record.  I’ve witnessed some amazing behavior over the years from people while working on various projects, and it would never occur to me, even when things go south, to try to use the public record to browbeat my way back onto the project.  The Wrap’s reporting on this goes way past grotesque as they gleefully exploit the letter, wringing at least four articles out of it already today.  Every word, every allegation, every filthy phrase, all of repeated over and over, all of it boiling down to a private battle of wills between two men who have each demonstrated such bad behavior in the past that it’s comical to see people picking sides, as if one or the other is “obviously” telling the truth.

It’s probably a good thing that Mel Gibson’s not going to proceed with a movie about the Maccabees, because it feels like the sort of project that’s doomed no matter what.  Even if he works tirelessly and gets every detail right, there will be many who accuse him of making it simply to appease his harshest critics.  As far as Gibson’s concerned, the damage is long since done, and there’s a reason his latest film is heading straight for the VOD market.  He is not the box-office draw he once was, nor will he ever be again.  Once someone’s heart is revealed to be as dark and damaged as Gibson’s has been, it’s hard for people to summon that suspension of disbelief and just accept him in a role. Real life has a way of crowding in when the headlines reach a certain level of ugly, and for Gibson, this is just one more incident tarnishing the reputation he spent decades building.

And for Eszterhas?  This is proof that he’s not worth the trouble anymore.  No matter what he wrote, no matter what he was paid, if this is what happens when he’s unhappy or feels slighted, then what producer’s going to sign up for that?  Who wants to put themselves in that particular line of fire?

If Hollywood really is just high school with money, then we should do our best to tune out the empty blather about what is essentially a slam book writ large.  Joe Eszterhas might be invested in convincing people that Mel Gibson wants to kill Jews and his ex-girlfriend and John Lennon and Walter Cronkite, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend the next week’s worth of news cycle endlessly reprinting every alleged bit of bad behavior.  The media loves to pick sides, and they love a ready-made bad guy even more, but it’s a dangerous game you play when you start taking the words of a disgruntled screenwriter as fact and accusing people of murderous intent, especially when you’re an outlet that claims to write about the business and not a tabloid.  Even worse, if you look at the way Deadline deals with The Wrap’s article, it’s obvious that this is also about the feud between them as outlets, and it sickens me that there’s so much petty turf war nonsense that underlines the work being done on many of these sites these days.  It’s not about the stories they’re reporting… it’s about them.  It’s not about being right or being good or offering any real perspective.  It’s about chest-beating and marking territory and nothing else.

We should all work to elevate the conversation, not degrade it.  On a day like this, our entire business loses.

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