"My hands are bloody; so are Hollywood's," declares Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas in a recent commentary piece in which he also acknowledges he has throat cancer. "My cancer has caused me to attempt to cleanse mine," he adds.
In the piece, in the New York Times, the multimillionaire screenwriter literally begs his Hollywood colleagues to stop using alluring images of cigarettes, which, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kill 440,000 Americans annually. The CDC also says that every day almost 5,000 under the age of 18 try their first cigarette.
Eszterhas, 57, has smoked most of his life. He's urging Hollywood to put an end to the glamorization of smoking that he admits he reinforced in many of his screenplays. Much of his larynx is gone, he says, and it's tough for him to speak and make himself understood.
I disagree. Although the state of his health is unenviable, he's in an extraordinary position to make himself heard, more effectively--and more sincerely--than ever. But to make it happen, Eszterhas has to do something more than pen op-ed mea culpas.
Eszterhas' list of Hollywood contacts must be incredible. Shouldn't he be putting together a movie project that drives home his new way of thinking? Instead, his agent, Alan Gasmer, told me that "Eszterhas is out of the business."
The screenwriter acknowledges that smoking was an integral part of his writing because he says he was "a militant smoker ... part of a bad-boy image I'd cultivated for a long time--smoking, drinking, partying, rock 'n' roll."
Now he believes that smoking should be as illegal as heroin. Eszterhas says he has made a deal with God to spare him. In exchange, Eszterhas says, he will try to stop others from following the road he traveled.
My sense is it's not advisable to try to strike a deal with the almighty. This isn't, after all, a Hollywood power lunch. And so, if Eszterhas is serious about wanting to undo some of the damage he believes he's done, it may be time well spent for him to use his creative genius (or at least his dead-on sense of what sells in Hollywood) to write a film that shows the flip side of a devastatingly gorgeous and more than somewhat exposed Sharon Stone blowing smoke into Michael Douglas' face.
How about Leonardo DiCaprio (who smoked charismatically in "Titanic") on hands and knees, spitting up blood on a shiny linoleum hospital floor; or Kate Winslet (she was smoking away on that sinking ship, too) with emphysema and struggling for breath on a portable oxygen system? How would those images go over with R.J. Reynolds shareholders?
Even a rare exception--the 1999 Al Pacino and Russell Crowe hit about a tobacco industry whistle-blower, "The Insider," written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann--failed to boldly go where no studio had gone before: into the raw truth and frightening close-ups of the human devastation spawned by smoking.
I commend Eszterhas for coming to his senses, however late the date. But there may be more to the story. Was Eszterhas merely a purveyor of seductive, Humphrey Bogart-like images of the coolness of smoking? Or could he have unwittingly been part of a filmdom culture that choked off the creative voices over the years that had something bad to say about the tobacco industry and its de facto advertising agency, Hollywood?
Frank Freudberg is the author of the anti-tobacco novel "Gasp" (Barricade Books, 1996).