iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #52: The Big Picture by William Goldman


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.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #48: The Temple of Gold by William Goldman

This first novel from legendary screenwriter William Goldman crackles with the author’s precocious wit and playful sense of humor, but the clash between Goldman’s light touch and the dark nature of his plot make the reader uncertain where to place his sympathies. More succinctly, Ray Trevitt might be too much of an asshole to build a book around.

Now, if you read this book, for about the first half you’re going to think I’m nuts. Sure, childhood Ray might be a little rough around the edges, but he’s just a good-ole American boy, in the vein of Tom Sawyer. And you’d be right. Ray, the product of a marriage between a Greek scholar and one of his students, is a fun-loving, affable guy, quick-witted, sarcastic, and amusing. His exploits with his friend Zock (short for Zachary) and his attempts to chase girls will delight many readers, especially thanks to Goldman’s deceptively casual prose.

But about halfway through the narrative, events transpire which will not be spoiled here, and you’re opinion of Ray will have to change. And I’m sure Goldman knows that, I’m just not convinced he knows how much you’re opinion will and should change. Because Goldman, who it should be pointed out was 24 when this novel was published, never changes his tone. Even when Ray’s behavior is appalling, however understandably, Goldman still has him cracking wise, as though you’re supposed to enjoy watching him keep plugging away.

It is perhaps less than illuminating to write this review without mentioning the key turning point. It constricts me, prevents me from fully getting into my fundamental problem with the story. For now, let it suffice to say that Goldman uses a character, a really good, well-drawn character, in a way that I always hate, less like a person and more like a plot device for the protagonist. It’s too shallow for the great writer Goldman would turn out to be.

As an early work of a master stylist, The Temple of Gold is a worthwhile read. Certainly its brevity and the breezy nature of the prose will keep you from wasting too much time on it. But as a narrative in and of itself it is unfortunately lacking. An enjoyable disappointment, if you will.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #33: Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

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William Goldman is one of the most successful and most highly regarded screenwriters in Hollywood history. This book, a followup to 1982’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, follows Goldman’s later career and his increasing pessimism over the future of good movies. Published in 2000, the book takes an episodic look at Goldman’s career since the first tell-all, followed by an exploration of what makes great screenplays work through examples from some of the best of all-time, and finally an original screenplay written by the author just for this book, in which Goldman invites the reader to read with a critical eye and explore the possibilities of the form.

Goldman is a very readable author, which carries Which Lie Did I Tell? through a few more rough patches than there were in the first book. For one thing, this book is burdened with explaining Goldman’s fallow period, which lasted almost nine years. Despite winning his second Oscar in 1977, Goldman went from 1978 to 1987 without seeing any of his scripts filmed. Of course, the film that broke that streak is on many movie fans’ top ten lists, The Princess Bride. Like many people I was very interested in reading about this film, and Goldman does go into much detail about the production. The stories about Andre the Giant alone would be worth the price of the book.

Goldman seems to be on a righteous crusade on behalf of the screenwriter at times in Which Lie Did I Tell? He laments quite frequently how little movie critics and the public understand the movie business, and deplores the worldwide obsession with crediting everything about a film to its director. He has compelling evidence to back him up. Everyone knows Alfred Hitchcock, but how many people know the name of Ernest Lehman, let alone that it was he, almost totally alone, who came up with the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest?

Goldman’s original screenplay is kind of a trifle, in that you could never imagine it really being filmed, but it is an interesting exercise to read the notes of Goldman’s chosen “script doctors”, some of whom hold nothing back. Even when he’s just tossing off a third-rate idea, Goldman can’t help but be entertaining.

Though there’s less of an inside look at Hollywood this time around, Goldman’s followup is still a worthwhile read for movie buffs and aspiring screenwriters alike.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #12: Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

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William Goldman is one of the best screenwriters of all time, having written such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride. Adventures in the Screen Trade is a memoir/guide to the world of screenwriting written in 1982. As such, it is a fascinating look at the Hollywood of the time, gossipy is the best sense, and a sobering look at the reality of why so few great screenplays get turned into films.

The book is split into three parts. The first is an insider’s guide to the current problems with the studio system. In 1982, fewer movies were being made than at any time since the beginning of the movie business. The colossal failure of Heaven’s Gate and its ruinous effect on United Artists had a chilling effect on the other studios. The few movies getting approved were mainly comic book movies and sequels. Goldman explores why this is the case and depicts all the roadblocks a script faces on the way to being filmed. He does through several outrageous real-life examples and some creative fictionalizations. Goldman’s wit is on display in a section where he imagines a film adaptation of “The Little Engine that Could” from conception through negotiation to final product.

The second section features Goldman following his varied career in mostly chronological order. Goldman includes all the films he’s written, as well as several projects he was either fired from or had to abandon due to creative differences. Goldman isn’t shy about naming names, even when the high profile people in his stories would probably not appreciate Goldman’s interpretation of their motives. The movies and stars prominently featured in this section include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Lawrence Olivier, A Bridge Too Far, The Right Stuff, and more.

The third section suffers in comparison to the other two, but is still worthwhile reading. Goldman decides to reprint an old short story of his own and adapt it into a screenplay for his audience, all the while informing us of the potential difficulties inherent to adapting a story into a screenplay.

The story itself, about a boy in a small town who inadvertently provokes a conflict between his barbershop-owning father and his mercurial employee, is a delight to read. However reading the same scenes in Goldman’s adaptation as he comes at them from different angles becomes a little tedious. Finally, Goldman concludes his book with a series of interviews with other filmmaking professionals, as they evaluate his screenplay and describe how they would go about turning it into a film. These include a cinematographer, a designer, and the famous director George Roy Hill.

Adventures in the Screen Trade is a fascinating inside look at the Hollywood studio system. William Goldman’s writing is fluid and graceful and makes for an easy, entertaining read. For any fan of the movies, this is a must-read.

Tyburn Blossom’s #CBR 5 Review #4: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

The-Princess-Bride-the-princess-bride-4640763-604-483I’m having an incredibly hard time writing this review, because I suspect it’s going to be one of those extremely unpopular opinions that makes me a totally uncool geek, like not liking Star Wars or Neil Gaiman.

I grew up with The Princess Bride…the movie. I loved it. I still love it. I have both a VHS and a DVD copy, and I still watch it every single time I come across it showing on TV, no matter how much of it I might have missed.

As a matter of fact, there are a few movies and books that I use as a litmus test for friendship–it’s ok if you haven’t seen or read them, but if you have and you didn’t like or actively hated them, I think that reveals some basic level on which we’ll never get along. Friendship was just not meant to be if we don’t agree on this short list. The Princess Bride is on that list.

It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this book. When there’s a movie coming out or already out based on a book I decide I want to read, I try to watch the movie first. The reason is simple: the book will be better. If I go into the movie blind, I’ll enjoy it (or hate it) on its own merits. Besides, a great movie won’t ruin a good book, but a good book will easily ruin all but the best of movies. However, that hardly seems fair when you’re talking about the book on which some childhood favorite was based. Still, I felt like my failure to read this particular book was a regrettable oversight. There’s even a copy of it sitting on my bookshelf, making me feel guilty. And the screenplay was written by the author, so there’d have to be plenty to love, right?

That makes it so, so much harder to admit that I kind of hated the book, and I only finished it out of the desperate belief that it would grow on me.

Read the rest of the review at The Everyday Alchemy Lab.