Fade Out: William Goldman
Taking a Moment to remember William Goldman
William Goldman is dead?
If you look William Goldman up on IMDb, the first five words of his mini bio are, “Screenwriter, novelist, playwright, non-fiction author.” I think they could have just gone with one word: storyteller.
William Goldman was the consummate writer. If you don’t know his name offhand, you definitely know his movies. I can say that is true for any generation: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Z, Millennials…
Here is a partial list of his work: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, The Great Waldo Pepper, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, Heat (the version set in Las Vegas and starring Burt Reynolds), The Princess Bride, Misery, Maverick, Chaplin, The Ghost and the Darkness, Hearts In Atlantis…
How many titles did you recognize? (Probably more than one.) Looking at that list, you realize his talent knew no bounds: Western, action, horror, and fantasy. He could do it all because he knew it wasn’t the genre that mattered, but the story being told within the genre.
During that time he wrote all those movies, he also wrote his own book that was part memoir, part screenwriting guide called Adventures In the Screen Trade (published in 1983), and if you’ve never read it and you aspire to be a screenwriter, well, you know what you have to do now. “No one knows anything,” he famously said about the craft of screenwriting, suggesting there was no real way to predict a hit—that it was all just lightning in a bottle. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out, it’s a guess, and if you’re lucky, an educated one.” He wrote a follow-up book titled Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures In the Screen Trade that was released in 2000.
Initially, Goldman had no desire to become a screenwriter. His interests were short stories, poetry, and novels. Born in Chicago in 1931, he got a BA in 1952, and then he joined the Army. Because he knew how to type, he was sent to the Pentagon where he worked as a clerk, achieving the rank of corporal until he was discharged in 1954. Then, he enrolled in Columbia University where he earned his MA in 1956.
He was recommended by an actor he knew to do some rewriting on a spy spoof movie called Masquerade, but was ultimately fired. After writing another novel, Goldman decided to write his first original screenplay based on an idea he had been researching for eight years. The screenplay was about a pair of bank robbers in the Old West who were beginning to come to terms with the fact that perhaps the world was moving on, and if they weren’t careful, it would move on without them. The screenplay was called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and he sold it for almost half a million dollars (a huge sum in those days, especially for a first time writer). He also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for it. Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, it would pave the way for Goldman.
I could spend the rest of his article writing about the sheer brilliance that is that movie, but instead, I’ll simply let you watch a couple scenes. There is no way my words could do justice to the final product of what he wrote.
In 1976, he wrote a famous movie about a pair of reporters who are told to “Follow the money,” while investigating the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Watergate Building in Washington, DC. (It is a tribute to Goldman’s storytelling skills that Deep Throat, the character in the movie who speaks those words, never actually said them; those words are a an element of Goldman’s mastery of writing.) The movie, All the President’s Men, chronicles the real life reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigated the break-in at the Watergate Building. It was an investigation that would ultimately bring down President Richard M. Nixon, and the movie would win Goldman his second Oscar—this time for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Watching this movie today, as our current President continually attacks the media and journalists, calling them “the enemy of the people,” it is strangely prescient. Trump no doubt knows the power journalists wield when they report factually and responsibly. It is without a doubt that Trump wants to discredit them.
It’s Goldman’s 1987 movie that most readers will recognize though, and for good reason. It is truly a movie for all ages, and you know already know the movie I’m talking about. Want the title? “As you wish.”
The Princess Bride was a quirky fantasy romantic comedy that delighted audiences as soon as it was released. It was based on his 1973 novel of the same name, a novel written under the pen name S. Morgenstern. There isn’t any need to recap the movie, because you already know what it is about. The movie was a modest success upon its release, but it was the home video market where it truly found its niche. The fact that there is a day on social media set aside for this movie (“Princess Bride Quote Day”) is enough to tell you how endearing this movie is, and there are plenty of wonderful quotes in it.
Of all his movies, Goldman claimed to be proud of only two: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride. With the others, he could only see his mistakes when he watched them.
Goldman’s death leaves behind a giant hole in the storytelling universe. He wasn’t just a screenwriter or a novelist, he was, in the grandest scope of the world, a storyteller, Now that his story is finished, we are all a bit sadder, but perhaps if what they say is true: there is truth in art, and Goldman contained some of those truths in his art, then maybe we’ll be a bit wiser, too.
Rest in peace, William Goldman. There is no doubt there will be many of the movies you penned watched in remembrance.