RIP William Goldman, Screenwriter for the Ages
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”
It’s only a single line of movie dialogue, but there is no more ultimate tribute to a screenwriter than being able to recite that single line of dialogue to just about anyone, and they will immediately know from which movie it comes. The line, of course, is spoken by Mandy Patinkin, over and over and over again, in The Princess Bride (1987). The line was written by William Goldman.
William Goldman, who died at age 87 this week, had been the dean of American screenwriters for decades, writing primarily adaptations of his own novels and other novels by respected writers. His 1983 memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, was a best seller and has long been considered an industry classic. In a career that has spanned five decades, here are some highlights from this remarkable writer’s career.
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)
Rob Reiner’s 1987 film version of Goldman’s 1973 novel, a fairy tale about a swashbuckler named Westley, his true love Buttercup and the evil Prince Humperdinck ranked 41st in the box office that year, earning just under $31 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The top earning movie that year? Three Men and a Baby. Who remembers that movie? I don’t. It is probably accurate to say The Princess Bride has had more lasting power than the 40 movies ahead of it in the box office that year. Goldman originally wrote the novel when asking his young daughters what they’d like him to write about. One said, “A princess!” The other said, “A bride!”
Not long after he wrote the novel, he adapted it into a screenplay that was shopped around for well over a decade and just could not get greenlighted, with directors as varied as Robert Redford (who would have also starred as Westley) and Francois Truffaut attached to the project. When the film was finally made, Reiner was a perfect director for the material, providing a light touch which has elements of parody but is actually an affectionate tribute to the art and joy of storytelling, as Peter Falk’s grandfather reads the story to Fred Savage’s ill grandson.
The framing device is a perfect structure to tell this tale full of swordplay, vengeance, the terrors of the fire swamp, true love, miracles, the Pit of Despair, Rodents of Unusual Size, and The Machine. Goldman’s screenplay is rife with classic lines: “Have fun storming the castle!” “Inconceivable!” “I don’t think that means what you think it means.” “Drop. Your. Sword.” The screenplay, of course, isn’t all that makes a movie, but the foundation Goldman built, and the manner in which Reiner and his truly stellar cast interpret the material, makes it a classic for the ages.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Before The Princess Bride, this is the film that made Goldman’s reputation and won him a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. Produced in 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford was one of the last truly successful Westerns made before the genre pretty much burned itself out during the ‘70s. It made Redford a star and cemented William Goldman as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters.
Uniquely, it’s one of Goldman’s few original screenplays not adapted from another work. It is, however, based on real people. Butch Cassidy’s the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, was one of the last great Old West outlaw gangs of the 1890s. What separates Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from the traditional Western is that it’s really about the relationship between Butch and Sundance, who spend much of their time aimless. As Goldman himself observes in his memoir, out of the “first hundred minutes of the movie contain approximately one minute of standard Western action.” Newman and Redford are magnetic, but it’s Goldman’s screenplay makes us like these outlaws, and that’s what makes the movie work. It’s a nontraditional Western, and the way the audience gets to know these characters makes it stand out from what became at the time a very tired genre.
All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Based on the book by Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about their investigative reporting surrounding the Watergate break-in, All the President’s Men was likely Goldman’s finest work of adaptation. Bernstein and Woodward were the two journalists who broke the Watergate story wide open that eventually resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and while that notion is dramatic, the difficulty was how to turn the story of two journalists doing research and interviewing people for months and months into cinema that was both compelling, and a reasonable length. Goldman turned the book into a beautifully constructed screenplay that ends on Bernstein and Woodward making a crucial mistake in their quest to confirm the five names of men responsible for financing the break-in. The movie is presented as an expert whodunit as the two young reporters attempt to break the story and satisfy their editor Ben Bradlee that they’ve received confirmation of their suspicions from reliable sources. It’s truly journalism porn. I work in a newsroom by day, and several of my older co-workers have said All The President’s Men inspired them to become journalists.
Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)
William Goldman reunited with Rob Reiner to work on this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Misery about an author held captive by an obsessive fan. Here Reiner challenged himself to create something new after a string of hugely successful comedies from This is Spinal Tap to When Harry Met Sally, and his reuniting with Goldman, whose experience covered almost every genre imaginable – was the perfect move. Here, Goldman rises to a similar challenge that he faced in All the President’s Men, adapting a book that could have been difficult to adapt cinematically. After all, the author Paul Sheldon in Misery is pretty much just in bed the whole time. How to make that exciting? One of the great challenges for Goldman was an argument between Rob Reiner and him on Annie’s brutal crippling of Paul. In the original novel, and in Goldman’s first draft, she chops off one of his feet. Reiner insisted that was going too far and suggested breaking Paul’s ankles instead. Goldman later admitted that was the right move, writing that the amputation would have been too severe. William Goldman later revisited King’s novel in adapting Misery for a Broadway production starring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in 2015.
Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976)
Like The Princess Bride, this film is an adaptation of one of William Goldman’s own novels. There is where the similarities end. Starring Dustin Hoffman as an unwitting graduate student caught in the middle of a conspiracy involving a Nazi war criminal and stolen diamonds, this labyrinthine thriller is one of Goldman’s finest achievements. The film starts with an extremely strange road rage incident between an old German and an old Jewish man that ends in an explosion, and goes on to follow several different story threads whose connections remain a mystery nearly halfway through the film. While under a less steady screenwriter and director this would prove to be eminently frustrating, Goldman and Schlesinger keep everything anchored by the fascinating character of Babe played by Hoffman, a graduate student and marathon runner who stumbles into the conspiracy. It’s a very ‘70s twist on Hitchcock’s “wrong man” plots, more sophisticated and confident that the audience will be able to follow along. It features torture by dentistry and likely caused more than a few cancellations by viewers of upcoming teeth cleanings.
(Note: This was originally written for a now-defunct arts and culture website called Crixeo in August to mark William Goldman’s 87th birthday.)