“Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.” —William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)
William Goldman—born on this day 85 years ago in Highland Park, Ill.—is indelibly associated with the film industry. The above remark, endlessly—and rightly—quoted about Hollywood, illustrates the wry perspective he brought both to Adventures in the Screen Trade and to Hype and Glory (1990), the latter about two of the most disparate—and, for a number of male minds, enviable—judging assignments anyone has ever held in a single year—at the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant. (In the early to mid-1990s, he also wrote a highly entertaining column on the film industry for New York Magazine.)
These wry observations are the fruit of a screenwriting career that began in the 1960s. Two of his works won him Oscar gold—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. (Though the first of the two consumed eight years of his life, he has far fonder memories of that than the adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of their work on Watergate, which evidently involved more rewrites than he cares to think about).
In a sense, the comic western Butch Cassidy and his amusing take on fairy tales, The Princess Bride, are outliers in Goldman’s career: he has been far more involved with the detective/suspense genre, including Marathon Man and Magic.
But for my money, two of his best works in this genre came from early in his career: Harper (1966), starring Paul Newman, an adaptation of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novel The Moving Target, and No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), his novel (later adapted by John Gay) about a serial killer. His agent at the time, unsure about its commercial prospects and with what he considered a better novel by Goldman in hand, urged him to issue it under a pseudonym. Goldman obliged with “Harry Longabaugh” (a.k.a., The Sundance Kid).
Ironically, the novel netted Goldman the best reviews of his career to that time—proving perhaps that in publishing, as in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.”
(The image accompanying this post, of William Goldman at the Screenwriting Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Nov. 16, 2008, was taken by “TheDemonHog” and is posted on Wikimedia Commons.)