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Hollywood's Hold on Politics
Bridget Kinsella -- 6/26/00
American Rhapsody uses Clinton's presidency as a cultural barometer

Knopf hopes these
embossed lips smack
of success.
Since Knopf introduced American Rhapsody by J Eszterhas, the screenwriter whose credits include Music Box, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, as a late addition to its summer list, prepub interest has taken off. While Eszterhas's name may or may not be easily recognized, his work, for better or worse, is. So, as word got around that this particular screenwriter had written a book that uses the Clinton presidency (and scandals) to examine the shift in America's cultural climate within that last half century, it was no surprise when the press clamored for more details.
So far Knopf has been stingy with information. Part of the reason for the hush is that Knopf, which acquired the book within 36 hours of first seeing it in March, just recently finished the editing process. Of course, keeping a title the house expects to be so controversial under wraps is not a bad publicity ploy, either, but some of the secrecy around American Rhapsody is due to an exclusive excerpt agreement with Talk magazine. With the exception of PW, Eszterhas is not even allowed to speak with the press until the excerpt appears in the August issue, due on newsstands in New York and L.A. on Wednesday.

Even with little to go on, media as varied as the Washington Post and the National Enquirer have picked up on the story both here and in the U.K., and most have pigeonholed American Rhapsody as a Hollywood roman a clef or tell-all, or as a Clinton book. "One of the things I'm loving about this book is how misunderstood it is," said Eszterhas's agent, Ed Victor. "The British press insists on calling it fiction."

Victor didn't actually pitch American Rhapsody --he simply asked Knopf president Sonny Mehta to take a look at the manuscript. "I didn't have anything to do that evening, so I started reading it, and the next thing I knew, it was some unearthly hour and I was laughing," said Mehta. "Yes, it occurred to me that it would probably outrage people, but part of its appeal is that it makes people sit up."

Less than two days later, Mehta bought American Rhapsody for what Victor described as "plenty of money." Due to early interest in the title, Knopf plans to ship 170,000 copies of the 200,000 first printing for the July 18 lay-down. "A lot of manuscripts come in and out," Mehta said. "This one made me ask, 'What is he doing?' "

It is a hard book to get a handle on. (See Forecasts, July 17.) Basically, Eszterhas, a former newspaper reporter and Rolling Stone writer, spent two years reading everything he could find on Clinton, paying close attention to the Starr Report. "I began to view him and understand him as the first rock 'n' roll president of the United States," Eszterhas told PW. "All of that led me back to the '60s, and our generation and our values, and especially what happened to our values as those of us of the '60s approached 60."

Mehta emphasized that American Rhapsody is not simply a Clinton book. "If it was just about Clinton, we wouldn't be publishing it," he said. "It is one account of America's recent past, occasioned, perhaps, on the presidency that is coming to a close."

What Eszterhas has created is best described as a hybrid, listed as nonfiction but with clearly identifiable fictional elements. "It is, for the most part, analysis and observation combined with a personal memoir coming out of my experience, especially what I see as the linkage between politics and Hollywood," Eszterhas explained. In his no-holds-barred style, the author paints the backdrop for Clinton's presidency, beginning with the Cold War and encompassing McCarthyism, Vietnam, the anti-war protests, civil rights, the assassinations, the feminist movement, Hustler magazine, gay rights, Nixon's resignation, abortion, Murphy Brown and much more. The result is a portrait of a leader spawned from, and part of, all of that. The author spares no one, not even himself, naming names along the way as he takes a close look at the hedonistic and deceitful actions of the "actors" in Washington and Hollywood. Then, taking things a step further, Eszterhas offers fictional monologues from some of the key players involved. What d s Hillary think of all of this? And be warned, there is a final chapter from the point of view of the presidential penis.

One of the first things Knopf did with American Rhapsody was give it a rigorous legal read. "We could publish the legal notes on the book and they'd sell really well," joked Paul Bogaards, Knopf's executive director of publicity. He said he was already busy fielding calls from celebrity camps wanting to know who or how people are mentioned in the book. Eszterhas passed the legal test for both Random House and Talk lawyers, but so far, four British publishers have stepped away from his book. With worldwide interest in anything both Hollywood and Clinton, Eszterhas's agent said he will aggressively pursue foreign rights after the book is published here.

To use a movie term, Bogaards said Knopf is aiming to have the book "open big on July 18th." Posters of the cover, featuring a set of bright-red lips, will start appearing in bookstores on July 1. Come publication week, Bogaards said he expects Eszterhas to be all over the media.

"One of the best reactions I've gotten so far came from my copy editor at Knopf," Eszterhas told PW. Apparently the woman did not relish the thought of reading, much less editing, a book about Clinton--especially one by this controversial screenwriter. "Then," Eszterhas continued, "she called me and laughed and said, 'prepare for the onslaught.'" He told PW that he knew his work might outrage people. "You always wonder how people are going to respond. But when Sonny and Knopf responded to it the way they did, I was really thrilled."

American Rhapsody is Eszterhas's second book. He was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973 for Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse (Random House). While uncertain about his next project and ready to head out on tour, Eszterhas said writing his latest book was the "most creative fun" he's had in a long time.
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