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Critic's Notebook: William Goldman represents the end of an era in Hollywood

Critic's Notebook: William Goldman represents the end of an era in Hollywood
Katherine Ross, left, Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Willliams Goldman's Oscar winning "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." (Twentieth Century Fox)

I was at a party a few days ago (it happens) and I ran into a pair of screenwriters I’m acquainted with. You’d know their names, both are accomplished enough to have Oscars in their resumes, but their conversation went something like this.

“So,” says screenwriter A, “when did you get the memo?”

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“The memo?” asks screenwriter B, starting to catch on.

“Yes, the memo that said we were out of the business.”

For “the business,” which is how people on the inside habitually refer to Hollywood, has changed dramatically since these men began. Now, the kind of smart, entertaining films for adults they specialized in are largely gone with the wind, either migrated to television or just flat out disappeared.

And, as if to provide the perfect punctuation to their lament, William Goldman, the paragon of screenwriting professionalism with two Oscars to his credit and a wealth of movie knowledge at his fingertips, died at age 87 within hours of that conversation.

Talk about the end of an era.

For in a time when studio energy and interest lie almost entirely in sequels and comic book extravaganzas, a working life with the range and longevity of Goldman’s sounds like something from an alternate universe.

For in an active career that began in 1965 with “Masquerade” and lasted more than four decades, Goldman wrote dozens of produced screenplays in a wide variety of genres.

There’s no better indication of his range than the pair of films that won him Oscars, 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and 1976’s “All the President’s Men.”

“Butch Cassidy,” an original screenplay, is a romp and a lark that helped cement the positions of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as massive stars. It managed to be smart without taking itself too seriously, something of a Goldman trademark (and a trait in short supply today).

“All the President’s Men,” by contrast, was not only an adapted script taken from the Carl Bernstein-Bob Woodward nonfiction book of the same name but its dark, somber tone also couldn’t have been more different from “Butch and Sundance’s” levity.

Even more impressive, seen today, “All the President’s Men” is that rare serious, issue-oriented film that has not dated even a hair, a tribute not only to Alan J. Pakula’s direction but also to the care Goldman took not to overreach or overwrite.

A novelist before he was a screenwriter, Goldman often adapted his own work, like 1987’s ever-popular “The Princess Bride” and the 1976 thriller “Marathon Man,” which had Dustin Hoffman facing off against Laurence Olivier and kept me away from the dentist for months. (No, that’s not a typo, both “Marathon Man” and “All the President’s Men” came out the same year.)

Goldman was equally adept at adapting the work of others. Among the wildly diverse writers whose work he expertly crafted for the screen were novelists who had virtually nothing in common aside from having Goldman focusing on their work.

This group includes Ira Levin and “The Stepford Wives,” Donald E. Westlake and “The Hot Rock,” Stephen King and “Misery,” even Ross Macdonald’s “The Moving Target,” which Goldman turned into the slick “Harper.” Not to mention historians such as Cornelius Ryan, author of the World War II narrative “A Bridge Too Far.” That would be quite a group to have around a table.

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Not only does the variety of material Goldman worked with display an enviable level of skill but it also bespeaks a movie business that was willing to go in a variety of directions in its search for material. A movie business that no longer seems to exist.

The reasons for that change are obvious and too familiar to need reiterating, but just looking at what Goldman accomplished certainly underlines the gap between then and now.

One of the interesting things about Goldman is that, unlike many of today’s writers, he seemed to have no desire to direct and became instead an incisive observer of the business that employed him.

He wrote several books on Hollywood, most famously “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” and according to the Internet Movie Database, appeared as a talking head discussing aspects of the business in 38 documentaries. He knew what he knew and was not shy about passing the word.

If Goldman was known for one phrase, it was a line from “Screen Trade” which posited that when it came to what will be successful in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.”

Though that still is a great line, it’s another indication of how much the man and his career are the end of an era. These days, the almost nonstop steamroller success Disney has had with its Marvel and Pixar brands shows that knowing what will triumph at the box office is not as much of a guessing game as it used to be. While the rich are getting richer, we as a movie culture are getting the short end of the stick.

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