I remember the first time I saw a movie that was written by William Goldman, the great screenwriter and author who died last Friday.
It was the Thanksgiving weekend of my freshman year in college. My older brother, his fiancee and I were back home for the holiday and decided to go to the movies. There was only one that had opened that week. It was a western. In those days, I wasn't a fan of that kind of film but since it was our only option, off we went.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a revelation. From the opening titles, done in the style of a silent movie, set to a sad elegiac tune, all the way to the inevitable, bloody finish, this was what movies are supposed to be: entertaining, funny, poignant.
The dialogue was witty and fast and the story of these two bank and train robbers struggling to survive at the end of the frontier had a solid beginning, middle and end. Paul Newman and Robert Redford got top billing; Newman already was a star, the movie made Redford one, too.
"I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals," Butch declares to Sundance, as he lays out his latest get-rich-quick scheme. Sundance, the fastest gun in the West, replies, " You just keep thinkin', Butch. That's what you're good at."
As I got older, whenever I returned from a weekend to an office and a job where I wasn't especially happy, Butch's words always rang in my ears. As he rides back into Hole-in-the Wall, his outlaw gang's barren canyon lair, he tells Sundance, "Boy, you know every time I see Hole-in-the-Wall again, it's like seeing it fresh for the first time. And every time that happens, I keep asking myself the same question: how could I be so damn stupid to keep coming back here?"
Bill Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy, Harper, All the President's Men,Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, Maverick, Misery, Absolute Power and The Princess Bride, among others. He also worked as a script doctor on countless movies you've seen for which he was well paid but received no screen credit. And in honor of the holiday, he had his share of turkeys, too.
He was a master of his craft, although he said that Butch Cassidy and The Princess Bride were the only two of his films he could bear to look at and claimed that from childhood, "I showed no signs of talent and the fact that I've been a writer for half a century and more now is insane to me still."
While few of the films were overtly political, throughout Goldman's work runs a healthy strain of anti-establishment nose thumbing, a disdain for authority and the nonsensical excesses of wealth. When E.H. Harriman, multimillionaire head of the Union Pacific railroad, sends a super-posse to track down and kill Butch and Sundance, Cassidy is astonished: "If he'd just pay me what he's spending to make me stop robbing him, I'd stop robbing him!"
The malevolent Humperdinck in The Princess Bride is distinctly Nixonian. And there's a fine speech in All the President's Men after journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein make a major mistake in their Watergate reporting and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee warns them, "We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight."
Remember, too, that the now famous three words, "Follow the money," were pure Goldman; he made them up and gave them to Woodward and Bernstein's informant Deep Throat (who we now know was FBI associate director Mark Felt). Today, it's the catchphrase you inevitably hear when investigators are chasing down gross malfeasance in the worlds of Wall Street or campaign finance.
The obsession with money and what it buys and pays for is one of the things that Washington and Hollywood share and it's one of the many things William Goldman and I discussed when we sat down in 2010 for an in-depth conversation videotaped for the Writers Guild Foundation. You can see the whole thing here.
"The numbers are so terrifying the studios... are scared shitless because of the amount of money they're spending on movies," Goldman said to me. "I mean the first movie really that I did was Harper and it had Paul Newman, bless him, who was the biggest star in the world then and I think it cost 3 million dollars. You figure that was a long time ago, but still, you can't get a major star's gym teacher for three million dollars today.
"They're panicked, as I would be, too, if I were running a studio because they have no idea what's going to work, they've got to keep making their stuff and they just don't know. I mean it always was a crapshoot but now the numbers are so high."
Which brings us to another trait shared by the entertainment capital and the political capital, encapsulated in another, famous three-word Goldman adage from his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade: "Nobody knows anything." Is any given movie going to be "a phenomenal success or will it tank?" he asked. It's impossible to be sure.
We talked about the nature of luck in a writer's career, how chance favors the prepared mind. "It's all fluky," he said. "How it happens, God knows, but it's always for me a crap shoot...
"All I can say is you hustle. You have to not mind rejection. You have to send stuff off to an agent with a letter and pray that somebody in the office will read it and pray that whoever reads it likes it and gives it to somebody else in the office and this somebody says wait a minute, I think we can sell this...
"I think what we do is write what we hope will move us and we hope that you can translate that emotion to the reader whether it's a poem or whether it's a novel or an essay or a movie or a play. You want to move people. And you want to have people say, I didn't know that. And it's tricky. It's just tricky... Just try to tell your story or whatever they want you to do as skillfully as you can and hope. And hope."
If you have time over this holiday weekend, watch the interview and hear Bill Goldman's stories about his career, about Sir Laurence Olivier and Clint Eastwood, the real Butch and Sundance, why he thinks Gunga Din is the greatest movie ever made and the pirate movie Goldman wrote and loved that never got made. You'll come to the same conclusion to which he came:
"Movies are a very, very odd way to make a living."
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