William Goldman: The Screenplays

November 18, 2018
Remembering the screenplays of William Goldman that were actually filmed.

Masquerade (1965)

By the early 1960s, Goldman was well established as a novelist, enough to make a living at it – his third book, Soldier in the Rain, had even been filmed by Blake Edwards in 1963. His new novel No Way to Treat a Lady was read by actor Cliff Robertson who thought Goldman might be ideal to adapt the Daniel Keyes novel Flowers for Algernon into a screenplay. Before Goldman handed in that script Robertson then recommended the writer be hired to Americanise some dialogue on Masquerade, a spy spoof on which Robertson had recently replaced Rex Harrison. No one much remembers the resulting script or film – Goldman rarely talked about it – but he did get credit.  Goldman subsequently finished the Algernon script for Robertson, who disliked it, and replaced him with another writer (the resulting movie was Charly), but Goldman was always grateful to the actor for starting his screenwriting career.

Harper (1966)

Goldman’s novel Boys and Girls Together became a best seller and was optioned by producer Elliott Kastner. Goldman pitched Kastner the idea of doing a film based on the Ross Macdonald detective novels about Lew Archer and the producer agreed. The resulting movie, which starred Paul Newman, was a solid hit and revived the popularity of private eye movies. The script holds up pretty well today, though Goldman was to do better on his next movie. (NB. No film was ever made of Boys and Girls Together although it was a best seller.)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Goldman had long been fascinated by the history of these two outlaws, but didn’t want to do the research necessary to write a novel, so he wrote it up as a screenplay. The first version mysteriously found no buyers. He rewrote it slightly and it sold for a then-record $400,000. It’s a mostly wonderful script, with two sensational lead parts. There are some repetitive spots in the middle, but the ending is one of the best of all time and the film is still remembered today.

The Hot Rock (1972)

Adapted from Donald Westlake’s first John Dortmunder novel, this is a film that no one gets that excited about. Audiences didn’t much care back then either, despite it starring Robert Redford and George Segal and being directed by Peter Yates. It’s quite a bright heist film, very seventies, and a little repetitive, but with a lot of charm.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Goldman complained that director Bryan Forbes mostly rewrote his adaptation of Ira Levin’s classic novel. It’s not a bad film, but then the source material is very strong – it’s much better than the Frank Oz remake. The ending is apparently all Goldman’s.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

In his memoirs, Goldman blames the (relative) failure of this film on the scene where the character played by Robert Redford is responsible for the death of a woman played by Susan Sarandon. This was a passion project of director George Roy Hill, an entertaining action-adventure with Redford in good form, which still isn’t that popular with film buffs.

Marathon Man (1976)

Not as good as Goldman’s novel but still pretty good, helped along by John Schlesinger’s direction and a superb cast (not just Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier but also Roy Scheider and William Devane). Nightmarish, terrifying, and twisty, this is a quintessential New York ‘70s thriller known by dentists everywhere. Goldman complained about the ending which Robert Towne wrote, but really his in the book and the film isn’t that much better. (NB. Goldman wrote a sequel, Brothers as a novel in the mid ‘80s but no one ever seems interested in filming it.)

All the President’s Men (1976)

A stunning screenwriting achievement, taking Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s book and turning it into a pulsating, surprisingly-easy-to-follow-yet-still-complex thriller which remains perhaps the best ever film about journalism. Goldman’s contribution to the script has been downplayed in recent years by Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Carl Bernstein, all of whom (coincidentally?) had been criticised by Goldman in print. Read his script and watch the film – it’s basically Goldman’s work and the writers who suggest otherwise just because Redford is having a whinge ought to be ashamed of themselves.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

A solid war film, and a strong adaptation from a tricky source novel. It is perhaps a little unfair on General Dowling, who takes the blame for several things done by Lord Montgomery, and might have been a better movie if made when more of the people depicted on screen had died, so that Goldman could be more critical of them in his characterisations.

Magic (1978)

Like Marathon Man, not as good as his novel but still pretty good. The film suffers because Anthony Hopkins, while a superb actor, is simply miscast as a ventriloquist comedian. Maybe Richard Attenborough was the wrong director too. This is the Goldman script we would most like to see remade.

Mr Horn (1979)

When researching the Butch Cassidy story, Goldman became obsessed with another real-life figure, Tom Horn. He wrote up a screenplay which was almost filmed with Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford, but didn’t end up being made until years later, as a TV movie starring David Carradine. Goldman called it a “bad experience”.

Heat (1986)

One of Goldman’s best later novels was Edged Weapons which he adapted into a screenplay for this film. Production was famously troubled – there were five or six directors over the shoot, depending on who you talk to. According to a DGA ruling, the film was 41% directed by Dick Richards, who had a falling out with star Burt Reynolds (who punched out Richards and was sued for his trouble), and 31% directed by Jerry Jameson – others made up the rest. It’s a shame that first choice director Robert Altman couldn’t work with Goldman – Altman would have been able to capture the atmosphere and character that this script needed. Reynolds actually gives a fine performance, but the film is a mess. Richards never directed another movie.

The Princess Bride (1987)

A film was almost made of Goldman’s novel in the mid ‘70s but didn’t happen until Rob Reiner came along in the mid ‘80s – which in a way was a relief because it’s hard to imagine a more perfectly cast film than this version. Truth be told Reiner isn’t very good at the action stuff, but it is a film with a magic about it. Extremely good script.

Twins (1988)

Goldman had briefly worked with Ivan Reitman on Memoirs of an Invisible Man before being called in to do some uncredited script doctoring on this comedy hit. Goldman claims it was his idea to keep the twins’ mother alive, which was a good one – this helped launch a very lucrative career as a script doctor. He consulted on films like A Few Good Men, Malice, Dolores Claiborne and Extreme Measures.

Misery (1990)

Goldman does a solid adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel, helped immensely by Kathy Bates’s break out performance as Annie Wilkes. Watching this years later feels more and more that James Caan is miscast (and we like Caan) and first choice William Hurt would’ve been so much better… but then Hurt turned down the role twice (they had a lot of trouble casting it.) Goldman later adapted the book into a play which made it to Broadway with Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalfe.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Goldman first worked on this in the mid ‘80s, when it was going to star Chevy Chase and directed by Ivan Reitman. He left the project when Chase wanted to push the project in a more serious direction; Reitman soon left as well. The film was made years later directed by John Carpenter of all people. In hindsight its commercial failure was a turning point in Chase’s career.

Year of the Comet (1992)

A Charade-type caper about red wine, written in the late ‘70s, then unwisely revived by Castle Rock in the early 1990s. The film needed proper stars in the lead but got Tim Daly and Penelope Ann Miller (both fine actors, just not stars), and Peter Yates’ direction was lethargic. However, it has to be acknowledged that Goldman’s own script isn’t that great.

Chaplin (1992)

Goldman was one of many writers on this, his third collaboration with director Richard Attenborough. No one seems to think much of this film except the quality of Robert Downey Jr’s performance in the title role. In fairness, Goldman thought the film should have just focused on Chaplin’s early life and he was probably right.

Indecent Proposal (1993)

Goldman was paid $1 million to rewrite this film, which shows you how insane payments got in Hollywood in the ‘90s – no wonder the A list miss those days. Amy Holden Jones’ original was pretty good – none of the changes (and several hands did it) improved it.

Last Action Hero (1993)

Arnold Schwarzenegger brought in Goldman along with Shane Black to do rewrites on this action comedy, a famous box office disappointment at the time. This film actually has good moments and is a lot better than most of Arnie’s post-True Lies work. But it had a central problem – you know Arnie’s not going to die, so there are no stakes in the last act; if you had Arnie playing a fictitious movie star you could have killed him off and it would have been more exciting. (There you go, we just script doctored William Goldman).

Maverick (1994)

Amiable Western comedy on which Goldman did a workmanlike but decent job. There’s some clever twists and it’s an ideal vehicle for Mel Gibson. Jodie Foster is pretty charming in the female lead. Remember when Jodie Foster did comedy? What happened to those days?

The Chamber (1996)

Truth to told not many have seen this adaptation of the John Grisham novel – in part because it’s been bagged by everyone, including Grisham and Goldman.

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

Goldman blames the failure of this film on a combination of the casting of Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, and Douglas insisting on a scene explaining his character’s backstory. Even if those things had been changed, we’re not sure that the film would have worked – it’s a slightly wonky script and maybe 1996 was too late in the day for an Imperial Africa adventure tale.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

GOLDMAN DID NOT WRITE THIS SCRIPT. REPEAT DID NOT WRITE IT. YET PEOPLE KEEP INSISTING THAT HE DID. It’s so different from Goldman’s other work, and so typical of the sort of script that actors would write (to wit, each scene is basically a dialogue scene between two characters) that we can’t believe how much traction the Goldman-secretly-wrote-it rumour still gets to this day. He provided a little advice, that’s it – he said so in writing several times and he had no reason to lie.

Absolute Power (1997)

In his second volume of memoirs, Goldman talks about the difficulties of adapting this into a vehicle for Clint Eastwood. He turned a character who is killed into the hero, which we can understand, but the film still lacked that surprise death which was in the novel – they should’ve killed the detective played by Ed Harris. Really this isn’t much of a movie but it’s OK, with a great cast.

The General’s Daughter (1999)

Decent enough thriller which probably needed a female writer or at least director to properly tackle the themes raised, but it’s entertaining.

Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

Goldman spoke fondly of this film, another from a Stephen King novel, directed by Australia’s own Scott Hicks, but no one seems to remember it these days.

Dreamcatcher (2003)

No one seems to much remember this film either – a bit of a low point in the career of writer/director Lawrence Kasdan. But then no one speaks too highly of the original source material from Stephen King.

Wild Card (2015)

Not a new Goldman script, but rather the one he wrote back in the 1980s and filmed as Heat. This was an attempt by Jason Statham to do a more character-based action film, but it awkwardly falls between stools – not in depth enough to work as a character study (Simon West was the wrong sort of director for this) but with insufficient action to be satisfying on that level. Still, great cast.

That’s a forty year career as a screenwriter. It’s a decent swag of credits, with three classics (Butch Cassidy, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride), a handful of very fine films (Misery, Harper, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far), some films which had real cultural impact (The Stepford Wives, Twins, Indecent Proposal), some films which are probably due for rediscovery (The Great Waldo Pepper) and some true misfires (Year of the Comet, Heat). It’s a very fine record – a very great screenwriter. He’ll be much missed.

Comments

  1. Phil Avalon

    WILLIAM GOLDMAN
    I had written a couple of scripts during my drama school years.
    One was torn up by my drama teacher in front of the class, she shrieked ‘blasphemy’ – it was like I’d committed murder. (I’d tried to rework a Shakespeare piece for graduation ).

    The other, ‘Double Dealer’ was produced as a tele movie. It was a reasonable attempt, but looking back, it needed a good edit.

    BUT, I had a taste. The next effort SUMMER CITY was produced and was successful. I was on a roll. Lookout William Goldman! (Joking)

    Around this time as a working actor I got to read hundreds of scripts, Everett DeRoche was my fave, a truly gifted writer.

    I then began reading U.S movie scripts. The one that absolutely blew me away was BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID.
    I was gobsmacked, read it many times. I looked up the writer and read more of WILLIAM GOLDMANS screenplays. O.M.G his body of work – remarkable – What a talent.

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