With One Line, William Goldman Taught Hollywood Everything It Needed to Know

By writing scripts he believed in, rather than the flavor of the day, the late, great William Goldman left a legacy that will endure for decades to come.

William Goldman
AP Photo

William Goldman, the Oscar-winning writer of screenplays for “All the President’s Men” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidwho died on Friday, coined the best line in the history of Hollywood, and it wasn’t even for one of his movies.

“Nobody knows anything.”

If you work in this business — and Goldman was clear-eyed about the fact that the film industry is an industry first, where art and ideas must serve the bottom line, or perish — it’s worth getting those three words tattooed on your forearm. Or cross-stitched onto a throw pillow for your agent’s couch.

They serve as a reminder to every writer in town to stand by your ideas, because you can never predict what will be a hit — “not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work” — and every time you compromise your vision because someone pretends to know better, you’re sacrificing the chance to prove them wrong.

Goldman wrote a lot of movies that made a lot of money, but my favorite will always be the one that bombed: “The Princess Bride” is my desert-island movie. If forced to choose a single film to watch for the rest of time, to the exclusion of “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” and all the classics, it would be Goldman’s post-modern riff on the fairy-tale genre, adapted from his own 1973 novel. Originally conceived as an abridged bedtime story for his daughters — a device that carries over into the film, as kindly old Peter Falk skips around, reading just the “best parts” to his laid-up grandson (Fred Savage) — “The Princess Bride” is comprised of superlatives that would be a challenge for any director to pull off.

For example, Goldman described actors of impossible good looks (of Buttercup, “she isn’t as attractive as she might be, but she’s still probably the most beautiful woman in the world”), and action scenes the likes of which audiences had never seen (“What we are starting now is one of the two greatest sword fights in modern movies”). Long before Quentin Tarantino elevated the act of talking around a thing into being more pleasurable than the thing itself, Goldman had perfected the art of banter.

The proof is in the lead-up to said sword fight, where the verbal back-and-forth is as nimble and satisfying as the fencing. Or the battle of wits between the Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) and the cunning Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), who finds everything “inconceivable.” Or Goldman’s wink-wink way of delivering exposition in the Fire Swamp, juggling Westley’s backstory with a flip description of the forest’s “three terrors,” among them the ridiculously — and yet aptly — named “Rodents of Unusual Size.”

There’s also the line I repeated for weeks after seeing “The Princess Bride” for the first time, a mantra that makes for the film’s sweetest payoff: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” It all builds to a kiss — not just any kiss, but, in Goldman’s own words, “Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”

The studio (Fox) had no idea what they had. The marketing folks were at a loss on how to position “The Princess Bride.” Go back and watch the trailer, and you’ll see just how little they understood of the movie’s charms. But the movie found its audience, going on to become one of the most successful home-video titles, issued and re-issued countless times in ever-more-definitive versions. In fact, Goldman’s script is so vivid, it holds up even without the movie, as proven by Jason Reitman in his LACMA series of live readings.

It’s entirely possible that my love of “The Princess Bride” is a generational thing — that the movie hit me at the right age (just shy of 10) and became one of a small handful of movies I can practically recite by heart. But I am clearly not alone. “The Princess Bride” pops up in the strangest places: About six months back, it was featured alongside “Goonies” in a pirate-movie double bill at something called “Slumbersexual” in San Francisco (basically, an X-rated/Gen X movie night). And more recently, the film was released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” which had issued this modern masterpiece on LaserDisc several decades earlier. And yet, here is a movie that was considered a disappointment when it opened, still going strong three decades later.

See? “Nobody knows anything.”

To illustrate his point, Goldman liked to tell a story about “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a script he wrote on spec, released in late 1969. Goldman had previously penned “Harper” for Paul Newman, who was set to star opposite then-relative unknown Robert Redford, who’d done “The Chase,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and a bunch of TV. Conventional wisdom said the movie wouldn’t work. Warner Bros. rushed “The Wild Bunch” into production to get ahead of it (both movies end in a blaze-of-glory shootout, one bloody, the other immortalized in a freeze-frame), and MGM was more excited about an adaptation of the book “The Ballad of Dingus Magee” starring Frank Sinatra and barely paid his movie any mind. “Butch Cassidy” was unconventional. Instead of having three clear acts and turning points on certain pages, the way Robert McKee insists screenwriters should, Goldman’s script is divided down the middle. Half the movie takes place in the American West, the rest on the run from the Super-posse. They wind up in Bolivia, of all places.

Goldman’s point: Today, hardly anyone remembers “Dirty Dingus Magee.” But “Butch Cassidy” is a classic. Goldman went on to write four more movies starring Redford over the next decade, the best being “All the President’s Men” about the Watergate break-in. For some, the film is about journalists crusading to save the republic. Or the little man toppling dirty Dick Nixon. But it’s also about the business of being first. The movie is all about the scoop, offering a somewhat cynical motive for Woodward and Bernstein’s heroism: These two Washington Post reporters wanted to beat the New York Times. They did, and politics would never be the same again.

A movie like “All the President’s Men” shouldn’t have worked either. It’s so much about process: knocking on doors, talking on phones, pounding away at typewriters. Goldman spiced it up by staging cloak-and-dagger meetings in shadowy parking garages, but when you get down to it, breaking news does not an action movie make. And yet, four decades later, people still watch the movie. They still imitate it. There are echoes of “All the President’s Men” in last year’s “The Post” and this year’s “The Front Runner.”

Also in 1976, Goldman wrote “Marathon Man,” adapted from his own novel. He was on top of his game. (It was a good year for Hollywood. Go back and look: “Network,” “Taxi Driver,” “Rocky,” “The Shootist.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.) And then, from one day to the next, he wasn’t. Although Goldman enjoyed years as one of the top-paid script-polishers/invisible-rewrite-artists in town, from 1979’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The Early Days” (yikes) till 1986’s “Heat” (starring Burt Reynolds), the phone stopped ringing.

That’s when Goldman wrote his most famous words, the opening salvo in his 1982 memoir, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” a straight-talk summation of the projects he’d written to date. For years, Goldman had been analyzing what worked in Hollywood, tracking the success — and failure — of sequels, which stars were “bankable” (the belief that they could open a movie), until suddenly they weren’t, and so on.

As someone who writes long sentences crowded with clauses, over-loaded with multiple ideas, occasionally running an entire paragraph in length, I envy and appreciate Goldman’s terse style. He operates in simple, direct sentences. Fragments even. There’s no bulls—, no spin, and no ego. Actually, there’s a ton of ego. Too much of it sometimes, but Goldman earned it, and that book, along with its 2000 “sequel,” “Which Lie Did I Tell?” contain more practical wisdom than can be found in a college degree for any aspiring screenwriter.

You know what else is better than film school? Track down a copy of the three-disc special edition DVD of “Panic Room” and listen to the screenwriter’s commentary. No, Goldman didn’t write “Panic Room” (David Koepp did), but for the DVD, he sits down with Koepp for two hours and delivers a master class on how it’s done. When entertainment journalists talk to screenwriters, they almost never know what to ask — about process, about where ideas come from, about re-writing (what changed and why) — but Goldman is an expert interrogator. He asks pushy questions and isn’t shy about pressing for more whenever Koepp is coy (as in the recasting of the lead role). That session delivers the single best lesson any screenwriter can get, which is why, in the graduate film class that I’ve been teaching four years running, it’s the thing I screen on the first day of class.

At the end of the conversation, which was recorded a few years after “Panic Room” came out, Goldman mentions a movie that bombed against all odds. It starred real-life couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, was directed by Martin Brest (who’d made “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Scent of a Woman”), and must have read like the next “Pulp Fiction” on the page. The movie was “Gigli,” a project whose seemingly inconceivable failure just goes to show what Goldman has been saying all along. “Nobody knows anything.”