William Goldman liked to call himself a "storyteller", and he told them in almost every form: he wrote films and plays and musicals and novels and children's books and non-fiction; he wrote a very good insider's view of Hollywood (Adventures in the Screen Trade) and an even better one of Broadway (The Season). He was not equally partial to all these outlets. Goldman would have liked to have been a "great novelist", but seemed to intuit early on that it was not for him. He told me long ago in London, during a West End season that was an embarrassment of riches, that he steered clear of theatre because he strongly disliked theatre people - which is one reason his Broadway book is a better read than his Hollywood book. In return, theatre people disliked him back - for example, Adam Guettel, composer and lyricist of a planned Broadway version of The Princess Bride, quit the project a decade or so back after Goldman demanded 75 per cent of the authors' royalties for himself.
So he wrote films, and there must surely be few people in the western world who haven't seen one of them - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, Misery... Over eighty years ago, MGM's peerless producer Irving Thalberg observed that "the most important person in the motion picture process is the writer, and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from realizing it." So Hollywood invited writer jokes: Did you hear about the actress who was so dumb she slept with the writer? And so on and so forth. "Screenwriting is what feminists call 'sh*t-work'," said Bill Goldman. "If it's well done, it's ignored. If it's badly done, people call attention to it." A screenwriter who does it well doesn't become famous and powerful unless he graduates to directing, which Goldman had no urge to do. He disdained the "auteur theory" of film-making as applied to Hitchcock or Spielberg, and declared that in America the only real auteur - a man who cooked up his stories, produced and directed them, and served as his own cinematographer and editor, all yoked to an "intensely personal and unique" vision - was Russ Meyer, creator of Wild Gals of the Naked West, Eroticom, Common Law Cabin, Vixen, The Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and other paeans to the great American breast.
So the screenwriter never became a famous director. Instead, the screenwriter became famous for writing about screenwriting - which, when you think of it, would have been even more head-spinning to Irving Thalberg. But the likes of the above aperçu brought him a huge audience, and the most all-encompassing and universally retailed of his bons mots is surely the pithiest distillation of industry cynicism - "Nobody knows anything" - even if I did hear it first as "No one knows nothin'" from Irving Caesar, lyricist of No, No, Nanette and a chap who'd apparently been using the line since before William Goldman was in high school.
He grew up in Depression-era Chicago. His dad was a successful businessman who took to the bottle, killed his career, and then killed himself. His mom was deaf. Bill and his older brother James went to Oberlin, where the young 'un wanted to write poetry. But they befriended a composer called John Kander who planned to write a musical for his dissertation and needed someone to provide him with a libretto. So Bill and Jim pitched in, and wound up sharing a flat with Kander in New York, where they wrote another musical, and it got produced with Shelley Berman and Eileen Heckart, and Hal Prince directing. John Kander went on to compose Cabaret and Chicago and "New York, New York", and James Goldman remained a man about Broadway and wrote hit plays like The Lion in Winter and musicals such as (with Stephen Sondheim) Follies. The kid brother Bill, meanwhile, was working on a big, long novel, Boys and Girls Together, and kept getting writer's block. So, during the block, he'd slough off a play or a musical or a film - or even a novel he was less invested in and managed to rattle off in a fortnight. And he found that he had a certain facility for that kind of writing - quick, functional, unencumbered by personal commitment.
You can see that in Butch Cassidy (1969), in its canny poise between conventional western and contemporary sensibility. But it's also tender and touching, rueful and real: it transcends the functional hack-work it sounds like when film-school classes are explaining why it "works". Same with All the President's Men (1976), in which just telling the story in a clear, comprehensible, engaging way was a major challenge: For good or ill, the reason why journalists four decades on think of themselves as heroes speaking truth to power has less to do with Watergate itself or with Woodward and Bernstein's reporting than with William Goldman's script.
It's a film, of course, and there are things therefore that no script can overcome. The Stepford Wives was Goldman's adaptation of a great Ira Levin novella, and it should have been a great film. Everyone knows the title: It's passed into the language. And at the dawn of the Women's Lib movement Goldman thought it was a terrific premise: suburban men willing to kill their spouses' humanity and individuality in order to maintain them as happy homemakers cum sexbots. As Goldman saw it, there was only one problem: Stepford had been given to the English director Bryan Forbes, and Forbes decided to cast Nanette Newman, who is a fine-looking woman of the English-rose type but, pronounced Goldman, "a sex bomb she isn't". So putting Nanette Newman in The Stepford Wives upends the entire conceit of the tale - because "if you are so insanely desperate, so obsessed with women being nothing but subordinate sex objects, if you are willing to spend the rest of your days humping a piece of plastic", then you don't build a fake woman, in Goldman's words, "to have it look like Nanette Newman".
I'm not entirely persuaded Goldman is right about this: For one thing, the enduring idea of a "Stepford wife" as an anodyne, insipid suburban hostess is more greatly facilitated by Miss Newman than it would be by, say, Stormy Daniels or one of Russ Meyer's ultra-vixens. Nevertheless, Goldman is correct that, because of Miss Newman's casting, the entire look of the film had to change: Out with the tennis shorts and bikinis and bare arms and bare legs and in with all those very English, very demure floor-length Laura Ashley dresses and broad-brimmed hats that look weirdly out of place in suburban Connecticut. When Bryan Forbes first proposed it to him out and about in the car one day, Goldman intuited that this single casting decision would doom the movie. So why didn't he object and say "that she wasn't sexy enough, that casting her would possibly kill the picture right there. Why couldn't I say that?
"Because Nanette Newman was his wife."
And that's just how it is when you're a writer in Hollywood.
So Goldman kept going back to Manhattan and to books, and, just as inevitably, kept going back to Los Angeles and to "projects" - as consultant, as fixer, as rewrite man, on Twins, on A Few Good Men, on Indecent Proposal, Last Action Hero, Good Will Hunting... The man who said "Nobody knows anything" was presumed to know everything - notwithstanding that, as David Thomson noted somewhat cattily in the 2002 edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, "it's too long since Goldman worked on a good film. If he means to go on writing very smart books about his trade, he needs smarter credentials than" ...and here Thomson listed Goldman's recent work, including the ghastly Fish Called Wanda sequel Fierce Creatures, "where his work is uncredited", and Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power, "where you might want it to be uncredited". His last full hit screenplay was an undemanding big-screen version of the ancient telly western Maverick, with the original star James Garner breezing through to offer his effortless lazy charm as a sharp rebuke to Mel Gibson's cartoon mugging. His final success found him belatedly back on Broadway for the 2015 stage adaptation of his 1990 film Misery, with Bruce Willis and "Roseanne"'s Laurie Metcalf in the roles made famous by James Caan and a then unknown Kathy Bates.
The story, by Stephen King, is about a bestselling author and his "biggest fan": The former winds up kidnapped by the latter, and held prisoner in her isolated house deep in the woods. On Broadway, we had very good seats, and my kids were thrilled to find Bruce Willis about eighteen inches off the end of their noses. Goldman's adaptation, on stage and screen, is very well plotted as a chess match between writer and fan. But the project surely appealed to him as a meditation on the eternal conflict between writing what you want to write and writing to order. James Caan's character, after a series of crowd-pleasing romances, desires to do something more serious and challenging. Then Kathy Bates shatters his bones, and he's trapped in an upstairs room and forced to write what she wants. You don't have to work too hard to see this as a metaphor for Bill Goldman's career, the frustrated would-be author of the Great American Novel and the lavishly remunerated screenwriter of Maverick. Of course, no studio executive has to call in Kathy Bates to break a screenwriter's legs: There's no end of volunteers.
Still, a screenwriter needs something else - even if it's writing books about screenwriting. "If all you do is write screenplays," said William Goldman, "it becomes denigrating to the soul." His soul survived it better than most, and his body got off lighter than James Caan's in Misery.
~Mark will be back later this evening with Part Nine of our latest Tale for Our Time - The Scarlet Pimpernel.
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