In every life there are signpost moments, events that both encapsulate and call attention to where a person has been and what he has accomplished. For Samuel Goldwyn Jr., this Oscar season has been such a moment.
It's not only that the independent company that bears his name came away with five nominations, placing it on a par with such corporate giants as Warner Bros. and Fox and ahead of TriStar and Universal. It's that four of those, including the prestigious best actor, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay nominations, came for a work of such remarkable qualities that Goldwyn has told associates he's waited his entire life for a film like it.
That would be "The Madness of King George," a picture that probably would not have been made without Goldwyn's passionate interest (though with typical absence of raging ego he didn't take personal credit on it). Its success, both artistic and commercial, is the culmination of a career, proof that, at age 69, Goldwyn has fully come into his own. And, paradoxically, it is also a film that emphasizes his connections to the past, whose echoes reach down and link up with the kind of work done by the celebrated father whose name he bears and whose house he lives in.
"Good movies are what I wait my whole life for," says Goldwyn, a thoughtful, silver-haired man with tortoise-shell glasses. "You wait for a movie where you say, 'I can take the whole dare on this.' Every so often you get a gut on something, you feel, 'I've got to do this picture, I've got to.' And finally you have to trust your gut."
As chairman and chief executive officer of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., Goldwyn presides over a balanced enterprise that is involved in the production of television as well as film, most notably with the very successful "American Gladiators" show, proof, he cracks, "that I'm not just hanging out at Croatian film festivals." The company's film library is now estimated at more than 900 titles and, partly through the acquisition of Heritage Entertainment, it has become the operator of the country's largest specialized theater circuit, boasting roughly 125 screens nationwide.
Yet what is most noteworthy about Goldwyn is that his current success is merged with an ethos, forged in a very different Hollywood, that makes him seem like the movie business's Last Gentleman. His immigrant father, the Goldwyn in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was an industry pioneer who went on to become perhaps the town's preeminent independent, a producer of 80 films whose best efforts, classics such as "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Wuthering Heights" and "The Little Foxes," were said to have "the Goldwyn Touch."
"I vicariously lived the life of an independent producer from the time I was 4 years old," Goldwyn says. "And what was always important was writing, writing, writing. It was hard for my father to read, it took him a long time, but he had tremendous retention and tremendous appreciation for writing. 'Don't forget,' he would say, 'it all starts with the word.' "
For Robin Swicord, screenwriter and executive producer on "The Perez Family," an upcoming company release, working with Goldwyn has not been business as usual. "In a rash moment I said I would work for him for free for the rest of my life, and that's because of his ethics," she says. "He's gutsy but he's not an egomaniac, he doesn't insist on being the most important person in any conversation. And he's interested in high quality films, he has an aesthetic sense, which is something you don't always run into."
It was his commitment to writing that got Goldwyn involved with "Madness" when it was a play on the London stage--and it is typical of his approach that he rightly insists on the critical role of playwright Alan Bennett, who had years before written the script on the Goldwyn-distributed "Prick Up Your Ears."
"I saw the play ("The Madness of George III") at the National in London and I felt it was just crying out to be a movie," he says. "But when I went to Alan backstage and said, 'I want to do this movie terribly,' he just looked at me. 'It'll never make a movie,' he said. 'Maybe television.' I must have deviled his agent 50 times, but Alan would not sell me the piece. Finally he said, 'Let me first write it as a film and see if I like it.' That's a writer of integrity."
One of the concerns of Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner turned out to be whether star Nigel Hawthorne, whose George III was the performance of a lifetime, might be edged out of the movie version, as he had been in "Shadowlands," for more conventionally bankable British stars. But Goldwyn was as keen on Hawthorne as they were, and was impressed by the actor's clear vision about how his part had to be changed for film.
" 'I must have more humor,' he told me. And he felt that George's predicament had to be first and foremost a human predicament, the story of a man who could be anybody caught in a trap. 'If it doesn't work on that level,' he said, 'it's going to be just a history lesson.' "
And it was in fact Hawthorne who came up with the most publicized of the changes that happened between stage and screen, the shifting of the piece's title from "The Madness of George III" to "The Madness of King George."
" 'That title is no good for America,' Nigel told me. 'Every American film has numbers on it; people are going to be thinking "I didn't see One or Two." And the important thing is that we want people to see it.' "
Goldwyn saw the actor's point, but it made him nervous. "Here you had a play that had won all kinds of awards and I could see that me with the cigar in my mouth was going to get blamed for the change. I called Alan's agent and he said, 'Sam, you better handle that one.' So I called Alan myself to ask him, and there was a long pause, and then he broke into laughter. 'It is a practical idea,' he said. Can you imagine anything like that happening in Hollywood?"
To Scott Berg, author of "Goldwyn," the landmark biography of Sam Sr., one of the things that is fascinating about "Madness" is the way it has "all the hallmarks of a Goldwyn Touch movie. It has a sophisticated subject, it used a great screenwriter, it is more about character and emotions than plot and action, and it has superb production values."
Those who know Goldwyn agree, and further find it ironic that a film that his father would have loved turns out to be the capstone of a process of becoming independent of the family legend that began with the deaths of his parents in the mid-1970s and continued with his dedication to building a worthy monument to each of them: the state-of-the-art Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Motion Picture Academy and the Frank Gehry-designed Frances Howard Goldwyn Public Library in Hollywood.
"That's a famous name he's lugging around, for a long time he was Sam Jr., in the shadow of his father," says a friend who has known him for years. "But over the last 10 years he has built the company and become his own person to the point where he can claim the name for himself."
In the independent film world, those 10 years have been spent financing and/or distributing an impressive series of films that can match any company in terms of quality and daring. The list includes "Stranger Than Paradise," "Sid & Nancy" and "Dance With a Stranger" from the 1980s as well as the more recent "To Live," "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Waterdance," "To Sleep With Anger" and, this year's best foreign film nominee, "Eat Drink Man Woman."
More than that, some of the films his company has distributed, such as "Suture" and Ken Loach's "Ladybird, Ladybird," were so divorced from what even an independent film audience would be eager to see that Goldwyn, in a typical moment of self-examination, asks, "Do you think I'm too esoteric? Maybe it's a flaw, but I don't know any other way to do it. I've made some terrible mistakes, but when you run a company and you make decisions, you have to live with them."
Balancing this aesthetic judgment is another, equally characteristic Goldwyn trait, and that is fiscal prudence and continual worry about remaining afloat commercially. "It's very important to stay in the game," is how he puts it. "My father always emphasized that this business was like a greased pole, you go up and you go down. The important thing is not to be destroyed by failure and not to take hits too seriously. If I heard that once, I heard it a thousand times.
"I'm often asked what it was like to be part of old Hollywood, and what people want to hear is how I was dandled on Clark Gable's knee," Goldwyn continues. "But what I remember most is the days my father's movies were paid off. The adults had a drink and I was allowed to have a little drink of beer. People look at me and say, 'But that's like paying off a mortgage,' and they lose interest. But if those movies weren't paid for, we were in trouble."
As he approaches his 70th year, Goldwyn finds himself thinking more and more about his father, wondering "how the old guy would have dealt with things" and examining what it was in his upbringing that made him succeed where so many of the children of the original moguls did not.
"Most of them were spoiled," he says, laughing. "My dad came from the street--he came to this country when he was 13 years old. No one ever gave him anything, and he never let me forget it. Neither one of my parents did. My mother had supported her family from the time she was 14; they'd both been through the school of hard knocks. My mother used to say, 'I've been through three or four generations of rich and famous in this town.' "
Goldwyn remembers going to a tony Hollywood military school during the 1930s and having one of the other "picture business kids" say to him, " 'Your father's finished in the business.' I didn't understand what that meant and when I told the old man what had happened, he got terribly upset. 'I'm never going to be finished as long as I've got Goldwyn,' he said. It wasn't 'I can do it,' it was 'I've got to do it.' The one thing my parents never wanted me to do was quit at anything."
Having "watched what happens to kids in this town," Goldwyn tried to keep his own children away from show business, and though he is intensely proud of the sons who did go into the movies, actor Tony and Paramount executive John, he does not regret making the effort.
"It's very difficult to keep your head in this business," he explains. "When people get $12 million for 10 weeks' work, God, that's got to have an effect on their kids, that puts a terrible responsibility on parents.
"My father was close to Irving Thalberg (MGM's famed production supervisor), he really adored him, and I can remember as a kid going every year to a big birthday party for Irving Jr., where every grown-up in town came and paid homage to him. That's tough for a kid growing up. Irving Jr. became a professor of philosophy, and he told me not going into the business was the smartest thing he ever did."
When it comes to the future, Goldwyn is hopeful and especially bullish about the possibilities of the new technologies coming in, but he understands the tentativeness with which they are treated in Hollywood. "My mother went with Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg to see 'The Jazz Singer' and he told her, 'Sound is a passing fancy, it won't last.' My father's generation resisted television, they said 'No one's going to sit home and watch this little box when they have movie theaters to go to.' There is always tremendous resistance to change because it affects the economics of the whole industry, it has a big impact on what we do."
But whatever technology does or doesn't do, there is one thing Sam Goldwyn does not question. "Good stories," he says, with the finality of experience, "are still what it's going to be about."