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Joe Eszterhas: Plagiarist?

Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press (left), Random House (right)

A section of Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s 2006 book, The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, offers advice on how to keep from being ripped off by Hollywood sharks. He cheekily defines the term “parallel creativity” as “the phrase that will be used by someone who has plagiarized you.” Eszterhas, the legendarily outrageous and well-paid screenwriter of Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Flashdance, may be pleading “parallel creativity” right now, as questions about plagiarism have been raised regarding Eszterhas’s book. Specifically, a number of quotations in The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, published by St. Martin’s Press, seem to be lifted, without attribution, from writer Shaun Considine’s 1994 biography of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, Mad as Hell.

Now, Eszterhas doesn’t attempt to pass off the words in question as his own; he credits them to their originators, in many cases Chayefsky himself. But The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is peppered with saucy quotes about Chayefsky’s life, many of which appear verbatim in Considine’s biography; it seems pretty suspicious to us that all these quotes appear in both books and aren’t attributed at all in The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood.

If it’s true that Eszterhas simply lifted quotes from Considine’s biography, is that plagiarism? Well, certainly it doesn’t rise to the level of, say, stealing lines from someone else’s novel and claiming them as your own, as Kaavya Viswanathan seemed to do. But by the generally accepted rules of attribution in book publishing, most writers and editors would agree that Considine deserves credit for the years of research and interviews he conducted with Chayefsky, his family, and dozens of colleagues.

Joe EszterhasPhoto: Getty Images

And if true, there’s something particularly unseemly about the idea of a wealthy screenwriter and movie-biz hotshot benefiting from the hard work of a literary biographer whose book at one time fell out of print and is now only available in a print-on-demand edition. After all, The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is explicitly presented as the product of Eszterhas’s years in the Hollywood trenches; as he puts it in his preface:

The lessons that I am about to pass on to you were learned in many and varied places: in so-called (and oxymoronic) studio creative meetings; on tension-laden sets; on luxurious Learjets headed for European locations; in limos moving like bulletproof armored vehicles down Sunset Boulevard in the L.A. night …

And so on, for nearly half a page, including a list of 39 individually named restaurants where Eszterhas has gleaned those Hollywood lessons. And so, absent any attribution for the quotations in the book, it would not be absurd for a reader to believe that the salty quotes from Paddy Chayefsky in Eszterhas’s book came in one of those creative meetings, or in a limo, or on the set of Chayefsky’s masterpiece, Network. But did they? Our evaluation of the books found a number of passages that appear verbatim in both, without attribution in Eszterhas’s book.

On page 176 of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, Eszterhas quotes Chayefsky on dialogue:

I’d like to find a tape recorder as clever as I am in dialogue. The whole labor of writing is to make it look like it just came off the top of your head.

The quote appears on page 122 of Mad as Hell.

On page 90 of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, Eszterhas quotes the writer J.P. Miller on Chayefsky:

Paddy was an extraordinarily good human manipulator. He knew his way around a scrap as very few writers do. Most writers, if they get into a fight or a bad situation on a movie, call their agents. But Paddy knew Hollywood and he wouldn’t back down. He would go head to head with anybody – and at the same time he had this incredible writer’s sensitivity. That’s a rare combination which many of us don’t have. He was that rare breed of talent and fighter.

The same passage appears on page 105 of Mad as Hell.

There are other examples: A quote about Chayefsky’s craziness from writer Garson Kanin. A story and quote from Chayefsky about learning to write plays by studying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Several exceptional screaming matches between Altered States director Ken Russell and Chayefsky.

So is Considine the only writer from whom Eszterhas may have used material without acknowledgment? We’ll leave it to others to dig that up, but given that the entire book is almost nothing but quotations, it seems unlikely every single one of them came from personal experience. Eszterhas does glancingly address this issue in the last sentence of his acknowledgments, thanking as a group those who spoke with him and those who didn’t, and thanking one — only one — source by name. Hint: It’s not Considine.

Finally, no Devil’s Guide to Hollywood would be complete without the diabolical wit and wisdom of the players quoted in this book, some captured by me and some by others. I thank all of those people and especially the insights of my fellow Hungarian, my secret adolescent crush, dahling, the magnificent, the regal, Zsa Zsa Gabor.

We spoke to the agent for Mad as Hell, Kris Dahl of ICM, who told us that Considine had sent her an e-mail telling her about the situation but that she hadn’t spoken to him about it yet. A representative for Eszterhas’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, has not yet responded to a telephone call or an e-mail for comment. We’ll update when we hear more.

Joe Eszterhas: Plagiarist?