William Goldman has died. Born in 1931, he was one of the last greats of 1970s Hollywood, a strange time when all the directing and writing talent seemed to be in New York. Goldman himself was a strange man. For a writer with two Oscars, he started penning fairly successful novels and ended with one of the more hilarious and daring things to come out of Hollywood: Written 35 years ago, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” his memoir, revealed and mocked all the insane things that we suspect happen there.
This did not endear Goldman to Hollywood, but he followed it up in 2000 with a kind of sequel: “Which Lie Did I Tell?” If you want to learn about Hollywood, writing, and movies, it’s hard to find a finer or a funnier teacher. And the books offer a lesson needed especially in our time, when Hollywood journalism (and just about everything else in the entertainment industry) has turned into celebrity worship— the press doing slavish PR work, putting as much polish on mediocrity as is needed to produce this thing we call glamour.
The two movies that won Goldman Oscars, “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” (1969) and “All The President’s Men” (1976) showcase all the fun of that generation, and all the damnable political sanctimony. Goldman used to say that he had it on authority from Ronald Reagan that “All The President’s Men,” a silly Watergate movie, cost Gerald Ford the presidential election of 1976 and led to the Jimmy Carter presidency. Now, that’s more myth than fact, but I ask you: Was it worth it? Was it wise? Liberals’ holier-than-thou anti-Nixon moralism ended with Carter. That’s pretty damning criticism.
However crazy the politics, there was something touching on greatness in his stories. Goldman wrote five movies starring Robert Redford, three for Dustin Hoffman, and two each for Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. When you see these guys act together, you see Goldman at his best, writing about male friendship, something almost entirely absent in our movies today. He had great sympathy for non-conformist losers and became in effect a godfather to the later writers who gave us all the fun action-comedy movies of the ’80s and ’90s, which were also about male friendship.
Unfortunately, I cannot give you any examples of famous liberals in Hollywood or elsewhere who have anything interesting to say about men and male friendship. We have to go back a couple of decades to find anyone who understands that in times of crisis, Americans turn to portraits of resilient, confident men who are not terrified of failure and might even thrive on insecurity.
Beyond that, Goldman also wrote the movie that made Robert Downey Jr. a star: “Chaplin,” the much-applauded, Oscar-nominated 1992 drama. He also wrote “Maverick,” the hilarious and extravagant 1994 Mel Gibson remake of the old Western television show. Lesser writers would have earned Oscar nominations for such movies. Goldman was only nominated twice, in the early part of his career. But he won both, so he’s probably not too upset that he never received Academy recognition again.
There’s a reason for this. He wrote not writers’ movies, but audience movies— he wrote for the screen, in full knowledge that a movie has to be what you love to see in the theater, that he has to captivate you, to mesmerize you, and then to reward that attention. Goldman was a big believer in the old Hollywood social contract: We watch the movies and the movies amaze us in return.
He loved discrete touches of characterization, to give actors the fundamentals of their performance then let them try their hardest to create a memorable one. That’s the stuff of which stars are made and it’s something we will need to learn again if we are to make movies for adults too, not just teenagers. Goldman’s work should be a guide for future screenwriters.
Yes, he also wrote at least one beloved movie that’s out and out hilarious, with no connection to politics or really anything else except fun story-telling— “The Princess Bride.” Released in 1987, the film has since become a cult movie, so it’s safe to say it will endure.
Come to think of it, “The Princess Bride” is also relevant to our times, since it’s a lesson in how to tell willful, restless, bored boys the kinds of stories that mesmerize and electrify them. In the guise of mocking the old knight errant romances, Goldman, who wrote the screenplay from his own book, suckers modern, too-cool-for-romance kids into learning about their own hearts through adventure. It’s an impressive trick.