William Goldman - Adventures in Screen Writing: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

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Adventures of a Geezer Who Still Writes Better Than You

Dec 26, 2004 (Updated Dec 28, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Funny, witty, charming stuff from a screenwriting legend who doesn't have to pretend.

Cons:Ancient history to many readers. Only the serious should apply.

The Bottom Line: This is a great addition to any screenwriting library, a possible "must have" for anyone interested in writing.


William Goldman is the grand-daddy of screenwriters. He's old school, from the last days of the studio system. Except for a period of wandering in the wilderness (when nobody would buy him lunch), Goldman has been there, through the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties - watching this business evolve - and not evolve.

He could utter Pacino's famous line in The Devil's Advocate: "Man, I was there, on the ground floor, from the very beginning!"

Except Goldman is not the devil. He's just a very nice guy who knows so much about screenwriting he doesn't have to pretend. He never calls himself a "guru." He doesn't write pretentious babble about plot points, reversals or the like. He's a very open, accessible, writer - whose memoirs are like reading a movie.

I'm not kidding. They should make a movie ABOUT this guy.

Adventures in Screenwriting (the part I of his autobiography) tells how he got into the business and what the new screenwriter can expect, assuming things haven't changed. Comparing Goldman's notes with those of others, it's obvious that the more they do, the more they don't.

Goldman isn't a blowhard. He doesn't have to be. When he talks about his career, these are the films he's talking about:

Soldier in the Rain (1963) - Script and novel.
Masquerade (1965) - Script
Harper (1966)
No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) - Script and novel.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Hot Rock (1972)
When Legends Die (1972) - He wrote the lyrics.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
All The President's Men (1976)
Marathon Man (1976)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Magic (1978) - Script and novel.
Mr. Horn (1979)
********** Wandering in the Wilderness ************
Heat (1986)
The Princess Bride (1987) - Script and novel.
Misery (1990)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Year of the Comet (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
A Few Good Men (1992) - Called in as a script doctor.
Last Action Hero (1993) - Called in to rewrite the script.
Malice (1993) - Script doctor.
Maverick (1994)
Dolores Claiborne (1995) - Script doctor.
Extreme Measures (1996) - Script doctor.
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
The Chamber (1997)
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Absolute Power (1997)
Good Will Hunting (1997) - Called in as a script doctor.
The General's Daughter (1999)
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Dreamcatcher (2003)

I don't know about you, but if I'd had my fingers in that many pots, there'd be no living with me. There are people out there who don't have a tenth of Goldman's experience who are, in fact, humongous jerks. This is a guy who can't tell his life story in one book because the publisher knows nobody will be able to afford - or lift - the resulting brick.

Adventures in the Screen Trade went back to the early days and stopped before Goldman ended up wandering in the wilderness.

Ironically, it was Goldman's early success that doomed him in the 80s. At a time when the country was going retro, with a president who belonged in a fifties movie (with a chimp), Goldman was cast aside as being "too old." He's the proof that ageism does exist. Suddenly, nobody wanted to return the calls of the writer whose credits sound like something out of a young writer's wet dreams.

Guess how Goldman solved his problem.

He wrote The Princess Bride - as a novel. That story, which spoofed the fairy tale genre long before Shrek, caught the eye of Rob Reiner and became Goldman's meal ticket back. To get the rights to the novel, they had to give the script to Goldman, who knew how to turn his book into light, easy, comedy.

Billy Crystal, who played the bit part of Miracle Max (and whose credits up to this point where either bit parts or the horrible Rabbit Test) - turned in the performance that made a career. His next five films were Throw Momma from the Train, Memories of Me, When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers and Mr. Saturday Night.

Crystal wouldn't have been the premiere standup-turned-comedy-star of the late 80s were he not so gifted. But he wouldn't have caught the right sets of eye were it not for an opportunity he got in a Rob Reiner film written by William Goldman.

Adventures of the Screen Trade tells the first part of the story. It takes us back to the sixties, before Goldman became the legend whose line "Nobody knows anything" became the scriptural utterance in screenwriting classes, film festivals and studio boardrooms. It shows us Goldman struggling to prove he can write. He has to deal with Hollywood's crazies - the producers, the directors and the money men. Yet, Goldman, true to the "old school" charm that is often lost in today's "get it while it's hot" culture of tell-all books, is amazingly respectful of the masters of a previous generation.

Edward Norton, in the commentary for the Fight Club dvd, made a disparaging remark about Goldman, to the effect that he and others were "out of touch." It's not the first time someone has written Goldman off as "too old." His line of credits going back to the sixties certainly gives the impression of a man who belongs in a time so far distant (Hollywood is a place where everything has to be now, now, now) Goldman might as well have written his memoirs on clay tablets. Adventures in the Screen Trade tells stories of films so far back, there are huge numbers of young people today who have either never heard of these films, or who won't know anything about them until they're remade five years from now. (In the case of The Stepford Wives, that's already been done.)

You'd think Goldman were an old-timer whose best days are behind him, till you read his follow-up book, Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. That book, which picks things up from the 80s on, shows that Goldman is still writing movies we want to see (though the General's Daughter is a movie I wish I'd never seen).

Like many an old movie ripe for a remake, Goldman's memoirs take us into a world that feels old-fashioned and folksie - until you get your bearings. That's when you realize that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."


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