‘Nobody knows anything’: farewell to William Goldman, Hollywood’s greatest script magus
16 November 2018 17:30
Never meet your heroes, they say. What a load of nonsense. At a dinner many years ago, I had the honour of sitting next to William Goldman, who died last night aged 87. He was reserved, wise, funny, and formidably clever without being even slightly pretentious. Somebody had got hold of the court papers related to Michael Jackson’s latest difficulties and read out selected sections, much to Goldman’s amusement. One was given a taste of the way in which his extraordinary imagination had spawned some of the greatest screenplays in history.
Best-known for the two movies that won him screenwriting Oscars – All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) – Goldman’s filmography was nothing short of formidable: The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz, 2004), A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977), Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992), Misery (Rob Reiner, 1991) and The Great Waldo Pepper (George Roy Hill, 1975) to name but a few. He was also an accomplished thriller-writer: Marathon Man, which became a celebrated film starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, redefined what it means to sit in a dentist’s chair, and gave the screen world one of its most famous and scariest one-liners (‘Is it safe?’) .
That said, the unlikely sequel to Marathon Man, entitled Brothers, was a seriously terrible book. Not that Goldman seemed deterred by its critical panning. That was the name of the game. The trick was to stay in the game – which he always did.
Like many geniuses, he was not remotely snobbish about doing fast, well-paid work to pay the bills and cross-subsidise his passions. Often, he was airlifted in work his magic as a script doctor – on, for instance, A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, 1992) and Indecent Proposal (Adrian Lyne, 1993).
Sometimes, his services were performed gratis: famously, he advised Jonathan Demme to remove a compelling but disruptive scene from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – what Goldman called ‘the third act launchpad exposition scene’. Because it was the maestro offering this advice, an initially-sceptical Demme gave it a try – and found that Goldman’s instincts were spot on.
He was also painstakingly honest about the scripts which he did not doctor. Here’s what he had to say in 2003 about Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1998):
I would love to say that I wrote [Good Will Hunting]. Here is the truth. In my obit it will say that I wrote it. People don’t want to think those two cute guys [Matt Damon and Ben Affleck] wrote it. What happened was, they had the script. It was their script. They gave it to Rob [Reiner] to read, and there was a great deal of stuff in the script dealing with the F.B.I. trying to use Matt Damon for spy work because he was so brilliant in math. Rob said, ‘Get rid of it.# They then sent them in to see me for a day – I met with them in New York – and all I said to them was, ‘Rob’s right. Get rid of the F.B.I. stuff. Go with the family, go with Boston, go with all that wonderful stuff.’ And they did. I think people refuse to admit it because their careers have been so far from writing, and I think it’s too bad.
Still, the myth that the movie was ghost-written by Goldman persists – as he knew it would. Among legends, he was unusual in understanding the nature of legend. His memoirs, Adventures In the Screen Trade (1983), are one of the classics of film literature – comparable in cultural significance to Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966), say, or Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema (1968). He may, indeed, be most widely remembered for his aphoristic judgment on Hollywood: ‘Nobody knows anything’. Today, that rule seems to apply to many spheres far beyond the world of showbusiness. Long before the digital babel, Goldman grasped that the screaming vortex of hype, rumour and misinformation would nurture public certainty masking private ignorance. Only the truly knowledgeable achieve such wisdom.