Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously declared about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Well, we do know this. The Chicago-born screenwriter, who died Friday at 87, wrote some of the best mainstream Hollywood movies at the tail end of the 20th century.
Here are a magnificent seven you must see…
1 ‘All the President’s Men’
On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal and exited the White House in shame. Less than two years later, on April 4, 1976, this dramatization of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s scoop, published in the Washington Post, premiered in D.C.
Goldman spent 15 months working on the script, but in his 1984 Hollywood tell-all “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” he confessed to wishing he had never gotten involved in the movie.
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It proved a difficult project due to his tense relationship with producer-star Robert Redford (who kept asking for more love scenes for his character, Woodward, to match the ones being given to Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein); and his nonexistent relationship with Bernstein, who wrote his own competing version of the script with then-wife Nora Ephron, handing it over to Redford. The move was not appreciated by Goldman.
However, despite his frustrations with the production, the film went on to earn Goldman one of two Academy Awards for best screenplay and is today seen as a vital document of America’s biggest ever political scandal (to date). He also came up with an ingenious way of confounding audience expectations of how the film would end.
2 ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’
Goldman’s other Academy Award was for this evergreen comedy-Western, which again starred Redford, and Paul Newman – whom Goldman had worked with three years previously on the private eye thriller “Harper.”
Clocking in at under two hours, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is the ultimate buddy movie, as our two heroes outrun the law in early 1900s Wyoming, making it all the way to Bolivia. The film has so many great moments – exploding trains, raindrops falling on heads, the definitive freeze-frame ending – yet it received, as Goldman put it, “what might optimistically be described as ‘mixed’ reviews” when it opened in October 1969.
This was also the film that inspired David Fincher to be a director.
3 ‘The Princess Bride’
It would be inconceivable to have a list of great Goldman films without including his 1987 collaboration with director Rob Reiner, which Goldman adapted from his own novel (which itself should be on any self-respecting parent’s bookshelf).
This rip-roaring adventure story predated Pixar by showing that a children’s film didn’t have to just be aimed at kids to succeed (even if it only really became a hit thanks to video rentals in subsequent years). A film about the joys of storytelling, “The Princess Bride” never grows old – thanks to Goldman’s ridiculously quote-worthy script (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”), warm characters and endlessly inventive storyline. And any film that features Billy Crystal, Wallace Shawn, Carol Kane, Mandy Patinkin and Peter Cook has got to be worth 100 minutes of anyone’s time.
Goldman adapted several Stephen King stories over the years, but this 1990 thriller – another collaboration with Reiner – is arguably one of the top King adaptations committed to celluloid (we’ll let you decide where it stands alongside the likes of “Shawshank Redemption,” “It,” Carrie,” “The Shining” and “The Mist”).
Kathy Bates earned an Oscar for her performance as Annie Wilkes – writer Paul Sheldon’s “biggest fan.” But it was Goldman’s script that kept audiences gripped, in what is basically a taut two-hander between Bates and James Caan’s bedridden novelist following a car crash in a blizzard.
Ironically, the scene everyone talks about isn’t scripted by Goldman: The ankle-breaking scene may be iconic, but Goldman’s original version mirrored King’s story, which involved Annie chopping Sheldon’s left leg off with an ax. Although Goldman was originally annoyed by the decision to tone down the violence, he later conceded that Reiner was right. “If we had gone the way I wanted, it would have been too much. The audience would have hated Annie and, in time, hated us,” he later wrote in “Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade.”
5 ‘Marathon Man’
Goldman’s 1976 thriller is best-known nowadays for two things: The torture scene in a dental surgery when Laurence Olivier’s Nazi war criminal literally drills Dustin Hoffman for information while repeating the words “Is it safe?”; and Olivier’s advice to his Method acting co-star after Hoffman had confessed to not sleeping for 72 hours to match his character’s predicament: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
Based on Goldman’s own novel, “Marathon Man” – named for Hoffman’s character’s running obsession – was one of a number of Nazi thrillers in the 1970s (“The Odessa File” preceded it in 1974; an adaptation of Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil” followed in 1978). But this is a delightfully malicious thriller (the café scene featuring Roy Scheider is still shocking every single time).
Goldman himself called working with Olivier one of the highlights of his career. As he wrote in “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” the moment on set when the venerable British actor “asked me would I mind if he switched six words around is the most memorable incident of my movie career.”
6 ‘The Hot Rock’
Goldman wrote a lot of solid scripts in his 40s – the Ira Levin adaptation “The Stepford Wives” (to which “Get Out” owes a large debt); bi-plane stunt caper movie “The Great Waldo Pepper” (another film with Redford); and the wonderfully campy ventriloquist-and-dummy horror pic “Magic.”
But for me the one to seek out above all these is the 1972 heist movie “The Hot Rock,” which features Redford and George Segal as jewel thieves trying to steal a large diamond from a New York museum.
Despite the presence of Redford in the lead, it’s one of the most Jewish of Goldman’s films: In addition to Segal’s character, there is also a great turn from Zero Mostel as the duplicitous Abe Greenberg – as the hapless jewel thieves pursue their quarry across the city. If nothing else, it will have you reciting the words “Afghanistan banana stand” for days afterward.
7 ‘The Right Stuff’
OK, this one's a bit of a cheat. Even though he was Hollywood royalty for many decades, Goldman had his own horror stories to tell about working in Tinseltown. Prime among these were his efforts to adapt Tom Wolfe’s book about the space program in the 1960s.
Wolfe’s book would eventually be brought to the big screen in 1983, written and adapted by Phil Kaufman – but not before Goldman had spent precious months working on his own adaptation. In “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” he recounts how he presented his 148-page script to the Hollywood studio United Artists. “Do you know how many pages remained in the version Kaufman wanted to make?” he asks. “Six” is his dispiriting answer.
Indeed, it was this forthrightness about the profession that helped turn “Adventures in the Screen Trade” into the book for all budding screenwriters to read after it was published in 1984. As Goldman himself observed at the end of his “Right Stuff” chapter, “Whenever anyone asks, ‘How much power does a screenwriter have?’ my mind now goes only to those terrible days in Los Angeles. The answer, now and forever: in the crunch, none.”