William Goldman wrote the way Joe DiMaggio played ball: with such deft and consummate skill that the impossible seemed easy. (It wasn’t. And isn’t.) Reading a Goldman screenplay, you never see the armature, the scaffolding. You see people, real people, just a bit more vivid than they might be were they not in a Goldman movie.
Perhaps because he was a novelist long before he was a screenwriter, his screenplays are writerly. They’re literate without ever being literary. And though Goldman’s dialogue was ferociously memorable – is there a more iconic line in all of cinema than the one in which Inigo Montoya announces his name, his motivation, his intention? — Goldman knew that image creates character creates story. The very first words of Goldman’s very first original screenplay:
He was introducing his protagonist; but he might as well have been describing himself.
Goldman was also a master of exposition. You want to know how to cram an insufferably large number of names, places, chronology, events into the brainpan of a moviegoer so nimbly that we never even realize we’ve being schooled? Watch the first half hour of “All The President’s Men.” You can watch it over and over again — and I do, regularly — and still not be able to reverse-engineer his sleights. As with the best practitioners of legerdemain, you see the magic, not the work.
Some of us, if the stars align, will write one good screenplay. In a good career: maybe two. “Butch Cassidy” and the “Sundance Kid” is damn near perfect, as is “All the President’s Men,” as is “The Princess Bride,” as is “Misery,” as is “Marathon Man”… When he was on his game — and he was on his game most all of the time — no one wrote more impeccably.
He could write comedy and drama. He could adapt the fiction of others with faith and transparency (Donald E. Westlake’s “The Hot Rock;” Ross Macdonald’s “Harper;” Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives”), and do the same for his own (“Marathon Man;” “The Princess Bride”). When he wanted you to laugh, you laughed out loud; when he wanted you to be scared, you were terrified. He was, I would argue, our most complete screenwriter since Samson Raphaelson.
Perhaps Goldman’s most oft-quoted sentence, from “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” is “Nobody knows anything,” followed by, “not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” And it’s a succinct, stunning indictment of the kinds of movies the studios make 10 months a year, movies engineered for certain success, their final half hours filled again and again with hurtling CGI.
But there’s another Goldman quote that speaks to me more loudly (and, in early morning hours, more quietly): “Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before.” William Goldman did that, did it well and truly, and by doing so, lent his own dignity to our entire craft.
Howard A. Rodman is the past president of the Writers Guild of America West.