We have come to the northernmost, westernmost point of Malibu to meet the master of Hollywood sleaze: Joe Eszterhas, creator of sexual thrillers "Basic Instinct" and "Jade," erotic suspense flick "Sliver" and bare-breasted drama "Showgirls."

We have come armed with questions, tough questions. Why his obsession with murder, betrayal and plenty of violent sex? From what dark place comes his relentless depiction and, it seems, celebration of the worst impulses in man: slick, all-in-the-family killers ("Jagged Edge"), duplicitous fascist fathers ("Music Box")? Why are so many of his female characters cold, manipulative man-eaters: Catherine Tramell, the bisexual, ice-pick-wielding sociopath of "Basic Instinct"; Trina, wife-by-day-whore-by-night in "Jade"; Nomi, the aggressively ambitious Las Vegas lap dancer in "Showgirls"? Is he a misogynist or merely a sexist? Is he contributing to moral decay, or merely reflecting it?

But it is difficult.


Eszterhas, 53, stoic, hairy and large, tenderly holding hands on the beige leather couch of his living room with his wife, Naomi. The room is filled with Native Americana -- a carved wooden Indian statue, etched silver artwork -- and film memorabilia including a large framed poster for "Telling Lies in America," Eszterhas's most recent film. He wears a caramel and dun colored print shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, shorts and Italian-style sandals; the shirt matches his caramel-and-dun colored hair, coarse and shoulder-length. His full beard is bristly and white around the edges and there's a prominent mole on his forehead. Naomi, blond, 39, is bathed in afternoon sunlight and glows with the aura of new motherhood, having given birth to the couple's third child two weeks ago. She wears a red gingham sundress. The image is of the Madonna and the Wolf Man.

Eszterhas is speaking. "I wrote Showgirls' at the single most turbulent moment of my life," he says in a low growl, reaching for the first of many Salem Lights. "The stuff I've done since then has more warmth, more humor, is more upbeat."

The turbulent part would be when his 24-year marriage to first wife Geri was breaking up and Eszterhas decided to marry Naomi, then separated from her first husband of five months, "Sliver" producer Bill MacDonald. MacDonald had left Naomi to take up with "Basic Instinct" star Sharon Stone, a short-lived affair encouraged by a psychic who said Stone and MacDonald were lovers in a former life. Mayhem, guilt and much media attention ensued.

The upbeat part would be the writer's latest project, "Telling Lies," a gentle, extremely un-Eszterhasish independent film loosely based on the screenwriter's childhood in Cleveland. Stylistically it is about as far from "Showgirls" as movies get, the story of a sensitive Hungarian immigrant boy coming of age in the rock-and-roll early '60s.

Naomi: "I call it the kinder, gentler Joe." Pause. "He was very lonely when I met him. Surrounded by people, by agents, lawyers -- he was very successful and totally alone. To some degree he had walls built up around him, that's the best way I can describe it."

Joe: "Part of me wasn't alive . . . "

Naomi: "I'm the dragon lady. He's the nice guy."

Joe: ". . . that deep, intimate part of me."

He belatedly hears her last remark.

"Naomi is the sun to all of us," he adds.

Interviewer: But what about all those perverted movies?

Eszterhas: "There's this twisted little man inside who writes this stuff." Throaty laugh. "He comes out in each script in some way."

Naomi beams: "I love him." Unordinary Joe

Clearly this is not the Joe Eszterhas we expected to get, the figure of Hollywood legend and lore. That Eszterhas is notorious (as opposed to famous) for his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to life, love and the promotion of his own interests. Among his more talked-about exploits are the dumping of his agent, the then-all-powerful Michael Ovitz, and living to tell the tale, then writing an open, tongue-in-cheek letter begging Ovitz to leave Disney, where he was an embattled president, and come back to agenting (Ovitz was soon fired). More recently Eszterhas snatched control of his still-unreleased satire, "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn," from veteran director Arthur Hiller, convincing the media -- not to mention the film's financiers -- that his version was better; as a result Hiller took his name off the film. Early reviews indicate that "Smithee," the Eszterhas cut, is terrible (though Hiller's cut is apparently no better).

Eszterhas has a knack for placing himself front and center as soon as his name fades from the headlines. As "Showgirls" withered in 1995 under the assault of critics who called it offensive and tasteless, the screenwriter defended it as "a deeply religious experience" with "a very moral message," setting off even more debate. This year he enraged the film industry's composers' guild by soliciting unpaid musical contributions to "Smithee" in a full-page ad in Variety. He eventually got 9,200 submissions from which to create the score, a fact he publicized with yet another full-page ad.

Equal only to his talent for self-promotion is the screenwriter's knack for penning the slash-and-screw scripts that set off bidding wars in Hollywood. As Eszterhas rarely fails to mention in interviews, he is the highest paid screenwriter in the industry, receiving in 1990 a record-breaking $3 million for "Basic Instinct." Since then he has gotten multi-million-dollar paydays for "Sliver," "Jade" and "Showgirls." He is reportedly making $2 million upfront with another $2.5 million after production to write "Evil Empire," a thriller about the Russian mob, and was paid $4 million for "One Night Stand," the story of an adulterous affair that ends up destroying two marriages (sound familiar?) that will be out next year.

Amazingly, Eszterhas continues to command such sums despite the financial failure and critical drubbing of his last three films. But it would be wrong to say the experiences have left him unchanged. The Eszterhas seated on the tooled leather couch in this Malibu mansion is not exactly contrite, but he is somehow, well, subdued.

"Look, clearly we made mistakes," he says about "Showgirls," a remarkable shift from his attitude of two years ago. "Clearly it was one of the biggest failures of our time. It failed commercially, critically, it failed on videotape, it failed internationally. . . . In retrospect, part of it was that Paul (Verhoeven, the director) and I were coming off of Basic,' which defied the critics and was a huge success. Maybe there was a certain hubris involved: We can do what we want to do, go as far out there as we want.' "

He slips on a pair of black sunglasses and reaches for another cigarette. "That rape scene was a god-awful mistake. In retrospect, a terrible mistake. And musically it was eminently forgettable. And in casting mistakes were made."

Notably, he has placed no blame on the screenplay itself, the story of a Las Vegas showgirl's rise from lap dancer to topless revue queen and of the vicious world she learns about along the way. "In my mind the underlying thread of the movie is a girl turning her back on a corrupt world," he says.

Naomi puts in, "I think he paints very strong women. I don't in any sense find him misogynistic. A man who, because I'm pregnant and can't go, doesn't go to the Mill Valley Film Festival? He doesn't take a meeting unless I can go. He puts me first, above everything -- me and the family -- and he prefers the company of women. So I've always been puzzled {by the criticism} . . . Misogynistic is a real stretch."

It is true, as Eszterhas and his wife point out, that several of the female characters he has created are strong and heroic, albeit flawed. Debra Winger played an FBI agent in love with a white supremacist in "Betrayed," Glenn Close an honorable if vulnerable defense attorney in "Jagged Edge," Jessica Lange a sensitive lawyer in "Music Box." But those movies are close to a decade past. His work of the '90s has leaned in another direction; at its best, as with "Basic Instinct," Eszterhas throws up onto the screen giant emotions, mirroring and magnifying the hidden goblins of our society. At its worst, as in "Showgirls," Eszterhas's work is self-parody, a Hollywood formula for commercial sleaze. Reaching Back

The screenwriter is probably more aware of this than anyone else. His latest effort, "Telling Lies in America," appears to signal a desire to step back from controversy, to evaluate his own past and, perhaps, to touch base with the more eloquent, creative core that has eluded him in recent years.

The script itself isn't new; Eszterhas wrote "Telling Lies" in 1983 under the title "Magic Man" and was unable to sell it. When Naomi came into his life, she hunted down all of his scripts -- Eszterhas writes on a manual typewriter and doesn't keep copies -- and suggested he take another look at it.

"It was so moving, so good, I couldn't believe it hadn't been made," she says as her husband listens intently. "I thought it was too good to be sitting on a shelf. I thought the relationship between Karchy {the protagonist} and his father wasn't entirely worked out."

Eszterhas: "So I went back and rewrote it from Page One." He drags on a cigarette. "I don't like to reread my stuff. I always thought that was a singularly writerly megalomania."

Naomi can't contain herself. "He's very modest, too."

The reworked script found a buyer in Banner Entertainment, a tiny studio, and a director in 31-year-old Guy Ferland ("The Babysitter"). It was budgeted at $4 million, and Eszterhas gave up his own $100,000 salary so that Maximilian Schell would play the father. Kevin Bacon stars as Billy Magic, a charismatic deejay who takes Karchy Jonas (Brad Renfro) under his wing, introducing the adolescent immigrant to the thrills and temptations of ascendant rock-and-roll.

Eszterhas, one suspects, put a lot of himself into Karchy. Like the character, he suffered the barbs of wealthy boys at the exclusive Catholic school he attended in Cleveland, bore up under the scorn of the priests who ran the school and spent hours in front of the mirror struggling to pronounce the word "the."

"I was insecure. Very gawky," he says, producing a picture of himself at about age 8, a somber, freckled kid with short, spiky hair. "It was the brothers that I still, at my age, have trouble forgiving. This was an upper-crust Catholic school that took in a few poor kids, and the brothers did nothing {to help me}. . . I remember one of them saying, Oh, Joe's wearing a new pair of pants today.' We did all our shopping at the Salvation Army or at the basement of the May Company at 4 a.m."

Eszterhas's origins marked him for life. He was born in a small Hungarian village near the end of World War II and spent his first six years wandering with his parents through refugee camps. The family came to Cleveland in 1950, joining a large Hungarian immigrant community on the west side of the Rust Belt city; they were exceedingly poor, and his fragile mother, mentally destroyed by her experience in the camps, barely spoke to her son. "I didn't know this world, neither did my parents," he says. "I had two tracks into this country, baseball and rock-and-roll. I would get up at 7 a.m. to listen to the radio -- I was completely into that."

But Eszterhas found a greater salvation in constant reading. By the end of high school, he had overcome his adolescent insecurity and discovered a talent for writing, entering a contest for the local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, which published his essay.

By the time he joined the paper as a reporter a few years later, Eszterhas had evolved into a tenacious news hound with a keen eye for a story. But while he snagged several high-profile scoops, his reporting tactics aroused jealousy and criticism in the newsroom. "He always set his mind on something and set out to accomplish it," recalls his friend Dick Conway, the newspaper's photo editor. When a man took his fiancee hostage at gunpoint, Eszterhas got hold of the man's mother in Pennsylvania, made arrangements to fly her in and interviewed her at the airport. Unfortunately, when she got to the scene of the standoff, her son shot his fiancee and then killed himself.

"He had his detractors and people that liked him back then," says Jane Scott, the newspaper's music critic, who published Eszterhas's first essay. "He's a good writer, but more of a fiction writer than a reporter. He loved making up dialogue that was not necessarily what people said."

Eszterhas ultimately was fired in the wake of a suit filed by the widow of a man who died in the 1967 collapse of a bridge. She objected to his implication that she was present during the writer's interviews of her children. (She wasn't.) To this day he stirs emotions at the paper; when he offered an exclusive interview at the time of "Basic Instinct" to a couple of old newsroom friends, the editors snubbed him by declining.

Eszterhas went on to become a star writer at Rolling Stone magazine, where he adopted his Hell's Angel look during the gonzo journalism of the '70s, then moved out to Hollywood when a producer called to suggest that one of his magazine pieces would make a fine movie.

Since then he has written 28 scripts, starting with the labor movement saga "F.I.S.T."; 13 of them have been made into movies. With each success he has learned how to play the Hollywood power game better, firing agents who aren't sufficiently attentive (he's switched agencies twice in recent years) and burnishing his bad-boy reputation in the media, a tactic that ultimately helps to sell his scripts.

"He's basically a shy person. The demeanor that he seems to have set in the last few years is maybe something that comes with the territory, that comes with doing what you have to do to be successful," Conway reflects. "Joe is very proud of his heritage and his background, and he's come a long way in his life."

Others say that Eszterhas became increasingly megalomaniacal after the notoriety of firing Ovitz, the success of "Basic Instinct" and the publicity surrounding the breakup of his marriage.

Says director Hiller: "I'd work with him again." Pause. "With some strict rules." History in a Hurry

Lining the stairway to the second floor of the Eszterhas seaside retreat is a series of large, black-and-white photographs: Joe in biker gear, Naomi and baby Joey, Naomi, Naomi and Joe, Joe and a vintage Ford pickup. There is the sense, in this vast house filled with objects, of a lot of history being created in a hurry. One more flight of stairs leads to the most convincing evidence of this: Joseph Jeremiah, 3, and Nicholas Pompeo, 2, munching pizza with their nanny and, in the room next door, 2-week-old John Law sleeping peacefully in a crib. There may be more to come. "We really want to have a girl, too," Naomi says.

In the space of a few years Eszterhas's life has once again radically changed. After years of living in Marin County near San Francisco with his first wife and two children, he now lives in Malibu -- as far from Hollywood as he can get, he claims. Says Eszterhas: "All I want to do is sit around here, play with the kids. We don't go out, we don't go to the movies, mostly we just read." He adds, "I've never been this happy in my life. I've always viewed myself as a loner. Now I have a partner." CAPTION: Joe Ezsterhas has a new wife and a new movie that smacks of tender memoir rather than misogyny. CAPTION: Male bonding: Joe Eszterhas, Kevin Bacon and Guy Ferland on the set of "Telling Lies in America."