Critic's Notebook: William Goldman's Love-Hate Relationship With Screenwriting Was His Greatest Gift to Cinema

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William Goldman

For all his catty, conspiratorial barbs, Goldman's writing both on and off screen is full of affection for the crazy dreamers, big personalities and madcap schemes that get films made.

It is a testament to the storytelling genius of William Goldman, who died Friday at the age of 87, that he managed to forge a prolific five-decade career as the most famous screenwriter of his generation whilst also earning a reputation as an outspoken critic of the screenwriting trade.

"Screenplay writing is not an art form," Goldman told Publishers Weekly in 1983. "If you only write screenplays, it is ultimately denigrating to the soul. You may get lucky and get rich, but you sure won't get happy."

Goldman certainly got lucky and rich during his long screenwriting career, enjoying a meteoric streak in the early 1970s by forging fruitful partnerships with Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and others. His first original screenplay, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, grew from years of research for a shelved novel. Based on the true story of two legendary Wild West outlaws, the script earned Goldman a record-breaking $400,000 and became a classic revisionist Western starring Redford and Newman. It won four Oscars, including one for Goldman. 

Another Academy Award followed for Goldman's dense, intelligent, forensic distillation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate memoir, All the President's Men (1976). Director Alan J. Pakula's film reunited Goldman with Redford, though tension flared between writer and producer-star, who demanded multiple rewrites and an added romantic subplot. Despite the film's huge critical and commercial acclaim, Goldman later said it was the project he most regretted. That same year, he picked up another record-breaking $500,000 paycheck for adapting his own novel into John Schlesinger's tense Nazi-hunting hit thriller Marathon Man (1976), which co-starred Hoffman and Laurence Olivier.

But even at his critical and commercial peak, Goldman was never entirely comfortable with the push and pull of the movie business, typically describing himself as a novelist first and film writer second. His best screenplays are marbled with a bittersweet, novelistic texture that draws on this literary hinterland. Almost all his characters in this early imperial phase are sardonic and self-aware, as if already conscious of their pre-scripted roles in time-honored plots, and pushing gently against the cinematic impulse to sentimentalize and simplify.

When his meteoric first act faltered in the late 1970s, largely due to studio politics, Goldman's lifelong insistence on shunning the L.A. sunshine to remain in New York probably saved his sanity. "I think one of the reasons that I've survived is that I've lived in New York," Goldman told Creative Screenwriting in 2015. "No one gives a shit in New York. In L.A., it's such an obsessive place in terms of who's in and who's out."

Goldman later described the late 1970s and early 1980s as his "leper" period, banished from the kingdom for spilling too many insider secrets and clashing with too many powerful stars. But he would enjoy a resurgent second act just a a few years later when Rob Reiner invited him to adapt the all-star fairy-tale rom-com The Princess Bride (1987) from his own 1973 novel, retaining the book's arch tone without sacrificing its essential sweetness. He worked with Reiner again on numerous further projects including his classy, darkly funny adaptation of Stephen King's Misery (1990) and the starry military drama A Few Good Men (1992). Both are peppered with crisp, punchy, memorably witty lines. Vintage Goldman.

In his later years, between uncredited script doctor work and occasional co-writing credits, Goldman also scripted Stephen Hopkins' historical big game drama The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) and Clint Eastwood's political murder thriller Absolute Power (1997). Hardly his finest work, but the money was good. "I look at every project with two hats," Goldman quipped on CNN in 2001. "My artist's hat, and my hooker's hat."

In some ways, Goldman's cynical public persona was his own most enduring fictional character, an appealingly sour and endlessly quotable dissident voice. His two gossipy screenwriting memoirs, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1982) and Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000), are full of delicious barbs about the idiocy and ego of the film business. But he was always just diplomatic enough, and a sufficiently gifted writer, not to exile himself completely from Hollywood.

Goldman remained a sparkling non-fiction author even during his autumn years as a screenwriter. On the surface, his 1990 memoir Hype and Glory is a glitzy, goofy account of serving on the juries of both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant in quick succession. But between the lines, the book emerges as a somber reflection on impending divorce and midlife crisis.

For all his catty, conspiratorial barbs, Goldman's writing both on and off screen is full of affection for the crazy dreamers, big personalities and madcap schemes that get films made. No wonder Hollywood kept hiring him, and always forgave him. Perhaps this was William Goldman's guilty secret: However much he hated the movie business, he loved the business of making movies.