The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays is in reality a collection of magazine pieces that two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman wrote during the 1990s. Since they were not written specifically for the collection, there are a number of issues involved in reading them so long after the fact. The essays are thankfully in chronological order, but are not specifically dated, meaning you have to rely on your own knowledge of Hollywood and movie history for context. There are also no footnotes, follow-ups, corrections, or amendments, meaning the irony of certain pronouncements will be lost on the theoretical casual reader. (I suppose most people seeking out a fourteen-year-old book on the movie business would not qualify as casual.)
With few exceptions, Goldman’s pieces focus on three main topics, the summer movie season, the Oscars, and identifying the biggest star in Hollywood at the moment. Most of these pieces were written in anticipation of the events they describe, which can be fun if you remember what actually did well at the box office or won the awards that year, and can compare it to what Goldman and his slate of anonymous insiders have to say. Particularly funny to me was Goldman’s piece on the nominations for the 1991 Oscars, when every category featured prognosticators explaining why Silence of the Lambs would not win. As you may know, Silence of the Lambs is one of only three movies to ever win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.)
Many of Goldman’s pieces take on the tone of a cranky veteran irritated by the lack of quality product put out by Hollywood, but if you really reflect on the paucity of truly great movies of the period Goldman’s frustration becomes understandable. To his credit, he still enjoys the very good movies he sees as much as he enjoyed the classics of old. He just wishes there were more of them to enjoy, and despairs of that ever happening.
As one of the best screenwriters in history, Goldman’s insights into why certain movies work and why others don’t is often fascinating. Watching him rip apart Saving Private Ryan made reading the whole book worthwhile. He’s also very perceptive about the star system and how it can limit an actor’s choices and career.
For any big movie buff, I highly recommend William Goldman’s writing, on Hollywood. Although this lesser effort is not the best place to start, it is still enjoyable to hear an expert’s take on the subject.