‘Who are those guys?’ The artistry of William Goldman

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

When we watch movies, we’re tempted to take what they say in one ear and out the other because we’re there to look more than listen.

Screenwriters know this, and, as with anybody compelled to hold up their end of a conversation, they seek ways to attract attention. Their names alone aren’t going to do it, so they find attention and, at times, immortality through a line or two that sticks in an audience’s collective memory bank.

Consider, for instance: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” from “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). The line is credited to Terry Southern, who won literary notoriety for such satiric novels as “The Magic Christian” and “Candy,” but whose “War Room” joke, I bet, is remembered by many more people.

William Goldman, who died Friday in New York at age 87, also started out as a novelist, publishing five novels before he turned 33. But though he went on to publish other books of fiction and nonfiction, Goldman will be remembered more for his Oscar-winning screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) and “All the President’s Men” (1976).

Goldman was a virtuoso of pithy dialogue that flowed with sharp, tangy momentum. At its most limber and colorful, the repartee in a Goldman script allowed plenty of room for memorable lines to leap happily into spectators’ ears and stay there.

William Goldman speaks during a screening of  "Butch Cassidy" at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

When in “Butch Cassidy,” Sundance (Robert Redford) confesses that he can’t leap into a river from a high cavern because he can’t swim, Butch (Paul Newman) laughs and says, “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill ya!” (Of course, they jump.)

And whatever else you want to say about “Butch/Sundance” (that year’s highest-grossing film despite mixed reviews), you have to believe that a writer has to have a pretty good sense of pacing and hearing to leave audiences repeating long afterward the fugitive heroes’ bemused query, “Who are those guys?”

Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the full impact of “Butch/Sundance.” But Goldman definitely had enough of a touch to resonate through at least two decades of prolific scripting – whether they involved adapting his own novels (“Marathon Man,” “Magic,” “Heat”), other people’s novels (“Harper,” “The Stepford Wives,” “Misery,” “Absolute Power”), original stories either made up (“The Great Waldo Pepper”) or real life (“All the President’s Men,” “Chaplin”).

These and many others, including several he wasn’t even credited for, have their fans. But since I have the floor, I will declare that “The Princess Bride,” Goldman’s 1987 adaptation of his 1973 fantasy-quest novel, represents his single finest achievement. I don’t think I’m alone in falling for “Princess Bride’s” combination of winking slapstick, high adventure, enchanting romance and whimsical invention.

And it doesn’t just have memorable lines. Even the way one says the single word, “Inconceivable!” (as blurted by Wallace Shawn in the film), can expose a “Princess Bride” devotee. If you look for it, there’s a video of contemporary Hollywood A-listers from Nicole Kidman, Steve Carell, Emma Stone to Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Chastain and Emma Thompson quoting great hunks of dialogue from “Princess Bride.” (Says Kidman, wistfully: “I just want a man to say ‘As you wish’ ” as Cary Elwes’ hero says those words in the film.)

Goldman made such eternal magic look easy. And he insisted it was easy (sort of), saying screenwriting was more of a craft compared with the artistry involved in writing novels or composing poetry.

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    What wasn’t easy, however, was being able to make his professional way through the often-impenetrable thickets of the movie industry. The process of dealing with wave upon wave of producers, directors, agents, stars and other Hollywood field workers led Goldman to some rueful, hard-won and caustic conclusions about the film business, one of which he famously summed up in “Adventures in the Screen Trade” (1983), one of a handful of wise, juicy, insider accounts of show business.

    “Nobody knows anything,” he wrote. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

    To repeat: “Nobody knows anything.” As noted earlier, the man could come up with a snappy line that lasts a long time.