clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In Memory of William Goldman, Who Explained Hollywood While Mastering It

The legendary screenwriter gave movie fans a portal to an otherwise unreachable world. His legacy is accessibility.

Black-and-white headshot of William Goldman Getty Images

William Goldman once said, “The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.” Coulda fooled him.

Goldman wrote so many words—16 novels, three memoirs, magazine columns, 23 produced screenplays (and many more that never saw the light of day), a fan-driven sports book, two plays, and a children’s book. I thought I’d read most of those words until this summer, when I was wandering around a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I nestled into the film section of the store, as I often do when visiting, and saw a familiar name on a spine, but not a title I recognized: Hype & Glory, William Goldman. I pulled the book down from the shelf, looked at the ruby-embossed lettering, the diamond tiara and film strip encircling it on the cover. Underneath Goldman’s name, it became clear this was the same man—he was billed as “Author of Adventures in the Screen Trade.” I’d never seen this book before, never even heard of it, but there it was. A true account by the only person to have been a judge at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant—in the same year—and lived to tell about it!

I read it in short order. It’s one of Goldman’s most revealing memoirs, a portrait of a man figuring out how to move forward from a divorce while also judging a beauty pageant. It’s dissonant, fractured, funny, gossipy—pure, distilled Goldman. It’s also, invariably, about movies. Not just how they’re made, but how they’re received, discussed, memorialized, judged. Mechanics colliding with ineffable feeling. Goldman is one of the greatest makers of movies ever. He never held a light or designed a production or directed a film. But he is the author—both literally and figuratively—of some of the greatest movies of the second half of the 20th century.

Goldman died Friday. He was 87 years old. Through his screenwriting, including Academy Award wins for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1970 and All the President’s Men in 1977, and later his work in chattery, highly readable industry memoirs like Adventures and Which Lie Did I Tell?, he became a sage for Hollywood participants and aspirants. Goldman was born and raised in Chicago, but he was ultimately a resolute New York figure, attending graduate school at Columbia and living in the city for the majority of his life. His writing voice was clever, familiar, almost avuncular, and deeply New York—an avowed Knicks fan and frequent chronicler of Broadway, Goldman represents a vanishing New York to me: warmly gruff, straight-talking, wizened. But his instincts were pure Hollywood.

If someone asks me what The Ringer is, I usually say we try to evoke the Smartest Friend at the Bar archetype, the person with lots of information, opinions, jocularity—but ultimately someone you want to be around. This is completely ripped off from Goldman, who managed to create characters—think of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in President’s; or Butch and Sundance; or even Mel Gibson in Maverick—that you wanted to be nearer to. Goldman was the same way in his prose, eloquent but unceasingly familiar. There are so many things I could pick out about Goldman’s work that stick to my ribs. The obvious, unforgettable films, like Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, The Stepford Wives, The Hot Rock. The podcast I host, The Big Picture, is a direct reference to his collection of New York magazine columns from the ’90s, the sort of book you find in a library and never return. I’m even fond of his misfires, like Magic and Year of the Comet. I’ve thumbed over the chapter in Which Lie Did I Tell? in which he compares the screenplays for Chinatown and Fargo a dozen times. He was generous, even in competition. Goldman somehow didn’t play by the mum’s the word philosophy of Hollywood mythmaking. He was always unpacking in his books, unraveling appeal, trying to determine why something did or did not work—at the box office, certainly, but also in the culture. What makes a movie star? It sounds silly, but it explains what we love about storytelling, who we want our heroes to be.

He knew that wide appeal was the ultimate currency of movies, that as a form, it could reach millions. He wasn’t an outsider, but his version of inside felt more like missives from a garage rather than a grand ballroom. Journalists and columnists—not just Woodward and Bernstein, but Mike Lupica, and our boss Bill Simmons—were magnetized to him. He had gravitas and approachability. His axiom, “Nobody knows anything,” is one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the movie business, a linguistic cheat for “We fucked this up.” Thing is, he never did.