The letter that preceded one of Hollywood’s most epic downfalls.
“I am a human being.”
Hungarian-American screenwriter Joe Eszterhas grew up in a refugee camp in Austria. As a child, his parents fled Europe, eventually moving to New York City and then Cleveland, Ohio. He would become a writer for Rolling Stone and eventually contribute to the screenplay for the 1983 mega-hit “Flashdance." This led to an illustrious career that included writing the screenplays for “Jagged Edge" (1985), “Big Shots" (1987), and “Betrayed" (1988).
Eszterhas wrote the smash hit "Flashdance"
In 1989, shortly after he sold his screenplay for “Basic Instinct" for $3 million, Eszterhas told his powerful agent, Michael Ovitz, he was leaving Creative Artists Agency to join a rival.
Ovitz, who was known for his bullying, mob-like tactics, threatened to destroy Eszterhas' career. Eszterhas responded with a powerful letter defending himself, which was quickly circulated around Hollywood. After it hit the trades, other allegations of Ovtiz's tactics surfaced.
In the letter, Eszterhas reflected on his experience an immigrant and how it taught him to stand up for himself. “Maybe it's because I came to this country as a child and was the victim of a lot of bullying when I was an adolescent," he wrote. “But I always fought back; I was bloodied a lot, but I fought back."
The letter is now widely regarded as the catalyst for ending the despised agent's Hollywood career.
In 1995, Ovitz failed at negotiating a deal to run Universal Studios. He then had a disastrous one-year run as the president of the Walt Disney Company.
Eszterhas would go on to write “Sliver" (1993) and the cult hit “Showgirls" (1995).
Here's the letter that took Hollywood by storm (via Letters of Note):
Note: “Rand Holston" was also an agent, employed by Ovitz at CAA.
October 3, 1989
Two weeks ago I walked into your office and told you I was leaving CAA. Not for any reason that had to do with CAA's performance on my behalf, I said: I was leaving because Guy McElwaine was back in the agency business and Guy was my oldest friend in town. He was one of my first agents; he was responsible for the biggest breakthrough in my 13-year-career; he and I continued our relationship while he was at Rastar, Columbia and Weinstraub. My decision, I told you, had to do with loyalty and friendship and nothing else.
I knew when I walked in that you wouldn't be happy — no other writer at CAA makes $1.25 million a screenplay — but I was unprepared for the crudity and severity of your response. You told me that if I left — “my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out." You said that you would sue me. “I don't care if I win or lose," you said, “but I'm going to tie you up with depositions and court dates so that you won't be able to spend any time at your typewriter." You said: “If you make me eat shit, I'm going to make you eat shit." When I said to you that I had no interest in being involved in a public spectacle, you said: “I don't care if everybody in town knows. I want them to know. I'm not worried about the press. All those guys want to write screenplays for Robert Redford." You said: “If somebody came into the building and took my Lichtenstein off the wall, I'd go after them. I'm going to go after you the same way. You're one of this agency's biggest assets." You said: “This town is like a chess game. ICM isn't going after a pawn or a knight, they're going after a king. If the king goes, the knights and pawns will follow." You suggested facetiously that maybe you'd make a trade with ICM. You'd keep me and give ICM four or five clients. Almost as an aside, you threatened to damage my relationships with Irwin Winkler and Barry Hirsch. They are relationships you know I treasure: Irwin and I have done Betrayed and Music Box together and we are contracted to do four more movies; Barry has been my attorney for 13 years. “Those guys are friends of mine," you said. “Do you think they'll still be good friends of yours if you do this?"
You said all these things in a friendly, avuncular way. “I like you," you said. “I like your closeness to your family. I like how hard you work. I like your positive outlook. I like the fact that you have no directing or producing ambitions. You write original screenplays with star parts — your ideas are great and so are your scripts. I like everything about you," you said, “except your shirt." You said I reminded you of one of your children. The child would build these wooden blocks up-high and then would knock all the blocks down. “I'm not going to let you do this to yourself," you said.
That night at dinner at Jimmy's, Rand Holston was friendly, too, but he described the situation more specifically. Rand said you were the best friend anyone could have and the worst enemy. What would happen, I asked Rand, if I left CAA? “Mike's going to put you into the fucking ground," Rand said. Rand listed the particulars: If I left CAA, Rand said, no CAA star would play in any of my scripts. “You write star vehicles," Rand said, “not ensemble pieces. This would be particularly damaging to you." In addition, Rand said, no CAA director would direct one of my scripts.
But perhaps most important, Rand said, is that you would go out of your way with studio executives and company executives “like Martin Davis," to use Rand's example, to speak about me unfavorably. What would you say to them? I asked Rand. You'd say that while I was a pretty good writer, Rand said, I was difficult and hard to work with. You'd say that I wrote too many scripts. “There's no telling what Mike will say when he's angry," Rand said. “When I saw him after the meeting with you, the veins were bulging out of his neck." Even worse, Rand said, was that you would make sure the studio people knew that I was on “your shit list." And since most studio executives anxiously wanted to use CAA's stars in their pictures, these executives would avoid me “like the plague" to curry favor with you and your stars. Rand added that since I was late turning in my latest script to United Artists, I was technically in breach of contract with U.A. on my overall deal and said that if I left CAA, United Artists would sue me.
To say that I was in shock after my meetings with you and Rand would be putting it mildly. What you were threatening me with was a twisted new version of the old-fashioned blacklist. I felt like the character in Irwin's new script whose career was destroyed because he refused to inform on his friends. You were threatening to destroy my career because I was refusing to turn my back on a friend.
I live in Marin County; I spend my time with my family and with my work; I've avoided industry power entanglements for thirteen years. Now I felt, as I told my wife when I came home to think all this over, like an infant who wakes up in his crib with a thousand-pound gorilla screeching in his face.
In the two weeks that have gone by, I have thought about little else than the things you and Rand said to me. Plain and simple, cutting out all the smiles and friendliness, it's blackmail. It's extortion, the street-hood protection racket we've seen too many times in bad gangster movies. If you don's pay us the money, we'll burn your store down. Never mind that in this case it wasn's even about money — not for a while, anyway: I told you that ICM didn's even want to split the commissions with you on any of my existing deals — “Fuck the commissions," you said, “I don't care about the commissions." Even the dialogue, I reflected, was out of a bad gangster movie: “If you make me eat shit, I'm going to make you eat shit."
As I thought about what happened, I continued, increasingly, to be horrified by it. You are agents. Your role is to help and encourage my career and my creativity. Your role is not to place me in personal emotional turmoil. Your role is not to threaten to destroy my family's livelihood if I don't do your bidding. I am not an asset; I am a human being. I am not a painting hung on a wall; I am not a part of a chess set. I am not a piece of meat to be “traded" for other pieces of meat. I am not a child playing with blocks. This isn't a game. It's my life.
What I have decided, simply, after this period of time, is that I cannot live with myself and continue to be represented by you. I find the threats you and Rand made to be morally repugnant. I simply can't function on a day-to-day business basis with you and Rand without feeling myself dirtied. Maybe you can beat the hell out of some people and they will smile at you afterward and make nice, but I can't do that. I have always believed, both personally and in my scripts, in the triumph of the human spirit. I have abhorred bullying of all kinds — by government, by police, by political extremism of the Left and the Right, by the rich — maybe it's because I came to this country as a child and was the victim of a lot of bullying when I was an adolescent. But I always fought back; I was bloodied a lot, but I fought back.
I know the risks I am taking: I am not doing this blithely. Yes, you might very well be able to hurt me with your stars, your directors, and your friends on the executive level. Yes, Irwin and Barry are friends of yours and maybe you will be able to damage my relationships with them — but as much as I treasure those relationships with them, if my decision to leave CAA affects them, then they're not worth it anyway. Yes, you might sue me and convince UA and God knows who else to sue me. And yes, I know that you can play dirty — the things you said about Guy in your meeting with me are nothing less than character assassination. But I will risk all that. Rich or poor, successful or not, I have always been able to look myself in the mirror.
I am not saying that I don't take your threats seriously; I take your threats very seriously indeed. But I have discussed all of this with my wife, with my fifteen-year-old boy and my thirteen-year-old girl, and they support my decision. After three years of searching, we bought a bigger and much more expensive house recently. We have decided, because of your threats and the uncertainty they cast on my future, to put the new house up for sale and stay in our old one. You told me of your feeling for your own family; do you have any idea how much pain and turmoil you've caused mine?
I think the biggest reason I can't stay with you has to do with my children. I have taught them to fight for what's right. What you did is wrong. I can't teach my children one thing and then, on the most elemental level, do another. I am not that kind of man.
So do whatever you want to do, Mike, and fuck you. I have my family and I have my old manual imperfect typewriter and they have always been the things I've treasured the most.
Barry Hirsch will officially notify you that I have left CAA and from this date on Guy McElwaine will represent me.
Joe Eszterhas, August 2000. Photo by Lucy Nicholson / Getty Images