The Greats: William Goldman

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a new biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

If you were asked to name one living screenwriter—not a writer-director, but a pure screenwriter—the chances are good that you might say William Goldman. This isn’t because he’s the greatest living screenwriter—although he has won two Oscars—but because he’s the most famous. In an industry in which the people who work on scripts are little-known, Goldman has managed to make himself into something of a celebrity. He’s written Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and adapted All the President’s Men, but perhaps the most memorable thing he’s even written were three words in the early 1980s.

Since he introduced the concept in his 1983 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Nobody knows anything” has become a mantra for an industry in which business decisions and creative decisions are equally fraught with peril and often interconnected. Goldman used the expression to suggest why studios release bad movies or pass on films that turn out to be generation-defining blockbusters for their competitors. Described by Goldman as “the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry,” “Nobody knows anything” spoke to the uncomfortable truth tormenting everyone involved in Hollywood. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work,” he wrote. “Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Born in 1931 outside of Chicago, Goldman loved movies from an early age, but he first pursued writing novels, including Soldier in the Rain, which was later adapted for film by (alongside others) Blake Edwards and starred Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. Soon, he was writing screenplays himself, such as doing rewrites on Masquerade, a 1965 James Bond spoof that starred Cliff Robertson. But it was his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made his name.

At first, he thought he might do it as a novel. But that presented some problems. “I’ve never been a great fan of Western novels,” he explained in Adventures in the Screen Trade, and “horses scare the hell out of me.” And because he was busy as a screenwriter, “to do the additional research required to make a novel authentic was out of the question.” But between the time that he started reading stories in the late ’50s about these buddy outlaws until the time he began working on the script in the mid-’60s, he figured out that what drew him to the material was the idea of Butch (played by Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) being so successful as Wild West bandits in America and then heading to South America in their later years and doing the same thing.

“Butch and Sundance did what Gatsby only dreamed of doing: They repeated the past,” Goldman wrote. “And probably that fact—repeating the past—is what I found so moving about the narrative. We all wish for it; they made it happen.”

But Goldman also responded to the idea of them dying “in a country where no one knew their names … it seemed a wonderful vehicle to say something about our lack of knowledge, about our hopeless and terrible and, alas, enduring, permanent loneliness.”

That wistful quality helped make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a huge hit in 1969, and it went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film won three prizes, including Goldman’s Oscar for the screenplay.

After that, Goldman worked steadily, but his next major achievement turned out to be his novel of The Princess Bride in 1973, which become a film 14 years later that Goldman scripted for director Rob Reiner. The movie was not a huge commercial success—it was 1987’s 41st-highest-grossing film—but its legacy has since been cemented. (As an indication of The Princess Bride’s cultural hold, the cast and crew were even reunited for a popular 25th-anniversary screening as part of the 2012 New York Film Festival.)

Goldman’s ability to write for both the page and the screen continued with his 1974 thriller novel, Marathon Man, which was quickly turned into a film (for which he wrote the screenplay) starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. From the way he talks about the movie, it’s clear that Goldman isn’t terribly pleased with how Marathon Man ended up. After seeing the film, he writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade, he felt divorced from it, even though he had written the book and the screenplay. “The movie was no longer mine,” he wrote, “and many others knew much more about the film than I did. But no one knew more about the structure of the film. No one ever does or ever will. You keep that inside you.”

He had what seemed like a more satisfying experience adapting reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s account of their investigation into the Watergate break-in, All the President’s Men. It won him his second Oscar. When asked what drew him to the story, Goldman replied, “Many movies that get made are not long on art and are long on commerce. This was a project that seemed it might be both. You don’t get many, and you can’t turn them down.”

But despite its acclaim, All the President’s Men was hell for Goldman to write. He spent about 15 months on the script, trying to satisfy his producer, star Redford (who played Woodward), and director Alan J. Pakula. And in recent years, there’s been some dispute about who’s most responsible for the final script, with Redford claiming that he and Pakula substantially rewrote Goldman’s screenplay. That accusation was later refuted by Written By’s Richard Stayton, who in 2011 dug into different drafts of the screenplay and states unequivocally, “William Goldman was the sole author of All the President’s Men. Period.” But when Goldman looked back on that period in Adventures in the Screen Trade, he confessed, “[I]f you were to ask me ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

Goldman continued to have hits and flops, as any working screenwriter does. His work on Stephen King’s Misery was lauded. Films like Maverick and The Ghost and the Darkness are better left forgotten. But in the last 20 years, his prominence has been less about his onscreen credits than it is his opinions of Hollywood. Writing essays for Premiere, publishing gossipy, insightful collections like Adventures in the Screen Trade, Which Lie Did I Tell? and The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? , Goldman has positioned himself as a truth-teller, an industry icon unafraid to speak his mind. For instance, his take on Steven Spielberg after being disappointed by Saving Private Ryan: “I have never met him, never been in a room with him, but no person can come so far in such a killingly competitive business without having a reservoir of anger and rage and darkness hiding in there somewhere. I just wish once he would let it show.” Goldman has gone through his share of battles as a scribe, and now he doesn’t seem so worried about burning a bridge or two.

Most screenwriters will be forgotten because they’re at the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole. They don’t get invited to talk shows; they don’t do a lot of on-camera junket interviews. But in his screenplays and especially in his industry books, Goldman has made the case for writers’ importance, no matter their inherent disposability. “We are not held in much esteem,” he writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade. “Few of the powers out there know what a cameraman does, but they know they can’t do it. … They don’t know what we do, either, but they do know the alphabet, and they also have lists of dozens of other writers who can change what we’ve done.”

Such is the fate of the lowly in the screen trade. But at least Goldman has given the industry a slogan that will long outlive the man who coined it.

“In my obituary you will read the line, ‘Nobody knows anything,’” he told an interviewer in 2003. “Certainly I do not know what I am doing. If I did know, all the screenplays I wrote and all the movies I have been involved with would be wonderful, and that is clearly not the case.”

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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