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R.I.P., William Goldman

November 18, 2018


My senior year in high school, I took a junior college-level course about the philosophies of the world. Since it met only three times a week, and I had classes before and after, I would spend Tuesdays and Thursdays in the library. One of those days, I found a novel with Dustin Hoffman on the cover. Having seen The Graduate and Tootsie, I knew who Hoffman was, and I liked what I had seen, so I was intrigued. Also, having been a cross-country runner my first two years, as well as running track-and-field my freshman year, I admit I was intrigued by the title. That title was Marathon Man, by William Goldman, who died Friday at the age of 87. In his book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, Goldman describes becoming a fan of Willie Mays after seeing a spectacular catch he made in center field (as well as the throw he made immediately afterward), and “never wavering since”. Though I went on to disagree with Goldman on a lot of things, and disliked some of his work – which I’ll discuss below – I similarly have not wavered in being a fan of his since finding Marathon Man in the high school library that Tuesday or Thursday morning.

Goldman, of course, was probably best known as a screenwriter, one of the few members of that profession to attain status (barring those, like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and the Coen Brothers, who either went on to direct their own scripts, or always served as writer/director on their films), winning two Oscars for screenwriting (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an original, and All the President’s Men, adapted from the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, though as I wrote in a previous post, how much of it he actually wrote has been disputed). and writing other films (The Princess Bride, based on his own novel) that have become classics. He was also known for what he wrote about Hollywood, particularly his famous saying, “Nobody knows anything”, from his seminal book Adventures in the Screen Trade, to illustrate that no one in Hollywood – not studio executive, director, producer, writer, star, and so on – knew what movies will work and what won’t. But it’s important to remember him as a novelist as well (and I’m not just saying that because that’s how I first knew of his work, though I had dimly remember reading an excerpt of Adventures in the Screen Trade in an old issue of American Film that my father had), not just because he started out that way (he had written five novels before he started his first screenplay, which I’ll also get to below), but also because he always considered himself a novelist first and a screenwriter second, even though his last novel (Brothers, a sequel to Marathon Man) was published in 1986.

Goldman’s first novel, The Temple of Gold (taken from his favorite film of all time, Gunga Din), is a coming-of-age story about Ray, a young man whose friendship with Zachary (nicknamed Zock) becomes a formative part of his life, especially when it turns to tragedy. In the book Which Lie Did I Tell? (a follow-up to Adventures in the Screen Trade), Goldman admitted he started writing out of revenge (he had an alcoholic father and a mother who was deaf (according to Goldman, she lied blamed him for going deaf, and only admitted the truth when she was dying), but though, as i hinted above, the story is not ultimately a happy one, it feels honest and earned. As would be a trademark in his novels, Goldman packed it with autobiographical details (like Ray, Goldman served in the Army, on a base instead of in combat), and while I am wary of the idea that a work being personal on the maker’s part automatically making it good, it certainly helped here. His second novel, Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow – Goldman’s favorite book title of his own work – is his one love story, telling a tale of young love. Soldier in the Rain, inspired by Goldman’s time on an army base, is a tragicomic story of a friendship between Eustis and Maxwell, two soldiers on the base, and what happens to them when the base they’re on is going to close and Eustis tries to convince Maxwell, a lifer, they’ll be better off as civilians (it was made into a movie in 1964, directed by Ralph Nelson, with Steve McQueen as Eustis, Jackie Gleason as Maxwell, and co-starring Tuesday Weld, Tony Bill, and Adam West, but Goldman had no involvement; despite the performances, it’s more glib and less deeply felt than the novel). All three of the novels were short, and Goldman, who by that time had moved from his hometown of Chicago to New York City, decided to write a long novel, inspired by the fact many of his friends in New York were trying but failing.

The result, Boys and Girls Together (which is taken from a lyric in the song “The Sidewalks of New York”, by Charles B. Lawlor and James A. Blake – “Boys and girls together, me and Mamie Rorke/Tripped the lights fantastic on the sidewalks of New York”), was a sprawling and involving novel about several characters who come to the city and get involved in making of a play that one of them writes, one directs, and others appear in (as it happens, while writing the novel, Goldman and his brother James – The Lion in Winter – doctored a play, and wrote two other plays – Blood, Sweat & Stanley Poole and A Family Affair – that both flopped on Broadway). While it got mixed-to-bad reviews, Goldman received a huge advance sale, and it became a best-seller in paperback.

This was also the novel that inadvertently led to his movie career. At one point in the writing (it took several years), Goldman became blocked, and had no idea how to continue, only to one day come across a news story that speculated there might be two Boston Stranglers killing people (this was the big real-life crime story of the time), and as he put it, an entire novel dropped in his head. That novel eventually became No Way to Treat a Lady, which Goldman published under a pseudonym (Harry Longbaugh, the real name of the Sundance Kid), and wrote in an unusual format, with a lot of chapters (one as short as one word). Cliff Robertson, best known now for playing Uncle Ben in the 2002 Spiderman movie, but who at the time was a TV and Hollywood actor, read a galley of the novel, liked it (though he thought it was a film treatment rather than a novel, possibly because of its unusual format), and approached Goldman to adapt the Daniel Keyes story “Flowers for Algernon” for him to star in. While Goldman ended up getting fired from that project (which later became the movie Charly, and earned Robertson a Best Actor Oscar), Goldman was called in to work on the dialogue for Masquerade, a spy spoof directed by Basil Dearden (The League of Gentlemen, Victim) and starring Robertson, and became a screenwriter after that.

Though Goldman’s next screenplay, Harper (adapted from the Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target, the first of his Lew Archer detective novels), starring Paul Newman, was a hit, it wasn’t until Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that Goldman became a name in Hollywood. Goldman received a huge advance sale for the screenplay ($400,000), the movie, despite bad reviews (Richard Schickel, at the time, called it “The Wild Bunch for people who couldn’t stand The Wild Bunch” – a film Schickel loved – though Schickel would later reverse his opinion on Butch, and Pauline Kael called it “a facetious Western”, and “all posh and josh, without any redeeming energy”), became a big hit, and it was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including a Best Original Screenplay award for Goldman. Parts of the movie don’t hold up very well – the Oscar-winning score by Burt Bacharach and theme “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” (performed by B.J. Thomas) feel awfully glib for a movie that’s supposed to be about people who, despite being “buddies”, don’t know each other as well as they think they do, and are behind the times in ways; in addition, some of the cinematography by Conrad Hall comes off as self-conscious, and Katherine Ross’ role as Etta, the woman shared by Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford, in his breakout role), is ill-defined at best and problematic at worst. Still, it’s a good movie about male friendship, and in my opinion, it doesn’t get enough credit for the way it turns certain Western tropes on their head, with Butch, most of the time, getting by on his wits and charm rather than shooting a gun (it feels appropriate that Goldman’s only other Western penned for the screen – Mr. Horn was made for TV – Maverick, was also about a character who survived on his wits and charm, though unlike the TV character played by James Garner, Mel Gibson’s incarnation also knew how to handle a gun).

Despite the Oscar, and despite more screenplay work – more about that below – Goldman continued to occupy himself otherwise. His first non-fiction work, The Season (which he was able to write thanks to the advance sale for Butch), took a look at the 1967-68 Broadway season (probably best known today for James Rado and Gerome Ragni’s Hair, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). While profiling all of the plays that opened on Broadway that year (as well as covering their early out-of-town tryouts in most, if not all, cases), Goldman also took on what he saw as the problems of Broadway at the time – the over-reliance on plays from abroad (particularly Britain) rather than trying to cultivate homegrown talent, the shoddy business practices, and the way Broadway, in general, avoided contemporary concerns, or treated those concerns superficially. Again, parts of this don’t hold up well – his attack on critics (he calls them putrescent in general) is, to say the least, overblown, his chapter on “critics’ darlings (which he described as actresses who let their tics do their acting for them) is pretty sexist, and while his chapter on homosexuals in the theater is well-meaning (he wanted more plays like The Boys in the Band – which had recently opened off-Broadway – where homosexuals could write honestly about their experiences and feelings instead of having to “code” their work) it comes off as problematic. Still, much of it still rings true today, and comes off less as a diatribe than as a fan who wants Broadway to right itself.

Goldman also continued to write novels. The Thing of It Is…, about a songwriter who hates the song that’s become a hit, and who is forced to confront his failing marriage and his Jewish identity (Goldman was inspired to write this after a trip to Europe where he himself confronted his own Jewish identity after visiting a Jewish ghetto in Venice). While No Way to Treat a Lady had been adapted into a film (with Harper director Jack Smight as director, and starring Rod Steiger and George Segal) without his involvement, Goldman was involved in two unsuccessful attempts to film The Thing of it Is…, one with Elliot Gould (after Goldman’s original choice, Redford, backed out) and Dyan Cannon (which ended when director Mark Rydell – who replaced Ulu Grossbard after he backed out – insisted on bringing in another writer and Goldman insisted on getting paid, which torpedoed the project), and the other with director Stanley Donen and producer Robert Evans, which ended when Evans vetoed the male lead choices (James Caan and Alan Alda) and Ali McGraw, who originally wanted the female lead, did The Getaway instead. Goldman did write a sequel to the novel, Father’s Day (about the main character’s relationship with his daughter), and planned to turn the story into a trilogy (with The Settle for Less Club being the proposed title of the third and final entry), but that never happened. Instead, Goldman ended up writing what became his most beloved work, and, along with Butch, his favorite of his own work, The Princess Bride.

As much as I like the movie version of The Princess Bride – it was my fourth favorite film of 1987 – I love the novel even more. Originally inspired by stories he had told his daughters, Jenny and Susanna (one wanted a story about princesses, while the other wanted a story about brides), Goldman, after getting writer’s block, decided to pretend he was “abridging” a long-lost masterwork by S. Morgenstern, which Goldman claimed his father would read to him (Goldman continued the joke years later with another Morgenstern “story”, The Silent Gondoliers), but which, despite having a good story of “true love and high adventure”, as the tagline put it, turned out to be “unreadable” because of chapters dealing with material “irrelevant” to the tale of “true love and high adventure”. Though you could use this as another example of Goldman not writing women particularly well – the title character, well-played in the film by Robin Wright in her film debut, is still a bit of a cipher – it manages the difficult task of sending up adventure stories and love stories while also being a brilliant example of both. And while it ends on a more hopeful note than Goldman’s other work – if still ambiguous (the movie is more sunny) – it still goes into Goldman’s usual dark places, including one character’s difficult relationship with their father, not to mention the torture of the hero.

It was around this time Goldman’s editor since Soldier in the Rain, Hiram Haydn, died (in an introduction to a later edition of Marathon Man, Goldman calls him a father figure), that Goldman’s novels became more genre and more commercial. Marathon Man, which is about a grad student in history who becomes the target of an ex-Nazi, was a thriller. Magic, with a plot similar to a segment of the anthology film Dead of Night (a ventriloquist is suffering from a split personality and is also a murderer), is a horror novel, Tinsel, about a producer planning to make a film about Marilyn Monroe’s final days, and the three women desperate to play the part, was of course a Hollywood novel. Control, which brought together a disparate group of characters and a plot to kill Alexander Graham Bell, was science fiction. Heat (not to be confused with the Michael Mann film) was  a combination of a crime novel and an action story, and Brothers was a sequel to Marathon Man. Only The Color of Light was of a piece with his earlier, literary work, about a writer struggling with his life and his writing. Still, even though he may have gone in a different direction in his writing, Goldman still, at his best, writing characters that you could get emotionally involved in, as well as stories that you could get involved in as well. For example, Marathon Man – which, along with The Princess Bride and The Color of Light, is my favorite of his novels – has both Babe, that grad student in history, and Doc, his brother (unbeknownst to Babe, Doc is a lot more than he seems) both affected by the suicide of their father, a former professor who lost his job during the McCarthy era, and killed himself because of that. It was also a novel where Goldman inserted a lot of his tastes in what he liked of movies (Babe takes his girlfriend to a double bill of movies directed by Ingmar Bergman, Goldman’s favorite filmmaker), sports (Scylla, an assassin, manages to overcome someone trying to kill him by using a move he saw Earl Monroe pull on Walt Frazier once on the basketball court) and wine (Doc bores Babe in talking about wine, but also uses his knowledge to soften up Babe’s girlfriend Elsa before he interrogates her about her real motives), among other things.

Brothers turned out to be Goldman’s last novel (though he had planned a sequel to The Princess Bride, called Buttercup’s Baby, it never panned out). By that time, he had written Adventures in the Screen Trade, which, 35 years later, still remains the best book ever written about Hollywood. Of course, it is known today for his famous line “Nobody knows anything”, which demonstrated that while people in Hollywood knew what worked in the past, they did not, could not, and would not, know what would work in the future (as an example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first team-up of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was turned down by every studio except for Paramount). But it’s a lot more than that. Though I don’t share Goldman’s contempt for directors (he wrote they are not artists and get too much credit for the films they do) or stars (he wrote they were too often concerned with how to make the material work for them, rather than how to make the material work), he, along with Pauline Kael, were my major influences in being skeptical of the auteur theory (ironic, since Goldman was not a fan of Kael’s, and vice versa), and giving me awareness of how movies were often based on accommodating the stars, and not to the benefit of the movie. As I am pre-disposed to not see studio executives in a good light, I think Goldman is often too easy on them, perhaps due to his close relationship to some of them, but he does point out how the executives’ reluctance to believe the story is the real star of a film has led to some questionable decisions, to say the least. I also think there are good movies that are more character-driven than story-driven – and often prefer the former – but Goldman’s insistence that “screenplays are structure” (which he meant as his other big theme of the book, along with “nobody knows anything”) is a useful guide. Goldman was also honest about his own failings, included perspectives from other people involved in making a film (in a section where he asks such people as cinematographer Gordon Willis, editor Dede Allen, and composer David Gruisin about hypothetically adapting one of Goldman’s short stories, “Da Vinci”, to the screen), and gave insight about the craft and the process of making a film.

More importantly, Goldman’s book taught me to respect screenwriters and screenwriting, and to shy away from the easy assumption often made by most critics that if a film doesn’t work, it’s always the screenwriter’s fault (even though it is pointing out the script is the most important part of the film). Though he disparaged any idea of screenwriting being an art, and insisted it was just a craft (albeit an important one), Goldman’s book was an important influence for me in viewing screenwriting as an art (along with Richard Corliss’ book Talking Pictures). So it’s sort of sadly ironic that while I revere Goldman as a fiction writer as well as a non-fiction writer – in addition to The Season and Adventures, he also co-wrote (with sportswriter/novelist Mike Lupica) a great book about a year in the life of New York sports teams (Wait Till Next Year), and he wrote an entertaining book about the year he was a judge at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America contest (Hype & Glory), and I liked his follow-up to Adventures (Which Lie Did I Tell?) even if I disagreed with some of it (I don’t share his contempt for Saving Private Ryan, for example) – I am not necessarily a fan of many of the movies where he’s listed as screenwriter.

Of the films in which he’s credited on, only All the President’s Men and The Princess Bride are films I like without reservations. I’ve mentioned my slight reservations about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; I also like, with reservations, Harper, The Hot Rock, The Great Waldo Pepper, Marathon Man, Maverick, and Absolute Power. The Stepford Wives didn’t work for me (though given the fact I have not been a fan of Bryan Forbes’ previous work, that’s where the fault may lie, especially with Goldman’s assertions that Forbes re-wrote much of the film), nor did A Bridge Too Far (I don’t agree with Francois Truffaut’s assertion that there’s no such thing as a truly anti-war film, but if I did, this film would be the first one I’d present as evidence), Magic (though, admittedly, it’s a tough novel to adapt), Misery (the novel scared the shit out of me, and unfortunately, the movie didn’t), Year of the Comet (I don’t dislike this as much as critics and audiences at the time, did, but it’s too arch to be the light entertainment it wants to be), The Chamber (though, admittedly, the source material wasn’t great either), The Ghost and the Darkness (as with Year of the Comet, I didn’t hate this, but while the lion sequences are scary, the humans aren’t as interesting), The General’s Daughter (a thoroughly detestable movie, though since Goldman’s not the only credited writer, and Simon West is a hack director, it’s hard to know who to blame), and two more Stephen King adaptations, Hearts in Atlantis and Dreamcatcher (admittedly, not a fan of either source).* As with his novels, Goldman has a good ear for dialogue, and he puts his personal obsessions into the movies in interesting ways (even in Hearts of Atlantis, one of his less successful movies, there’s a nice scene where the main character, played by Anthony Hopkins, reminisces about seeing Bronko Nagurski during the game he came out of retirement, which Goldman actually saw), but the emotions and characters he brings to life in his novels do not come to life in the movies he’s written or co-written.

Still, this should not diminish Goldman’s accomplishments. In an age when writers and creativity continue to be devalued, he has consistently advocated the idea writers and their work should be treated with respect, not the contempt they so often are. While he was often disparaging about his own work as a writer, he wrote two of my favorite movies of all time, three of my favorite novels of all time, and the arguably the most important book about Hollywood ever written. That’s a good enough legacy for anyone.

*-Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Chaplin I didn’t include, even though he’s credited on both, because on the former, while he was the original writer, he was re-written after he quit and a new director came on board, while on the latter, he was one of many writers as well.

From → Books, Movies

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