Adventures in Reading Goldman

William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade promised a look into the secret inner workings of the film and screenwriting industry. This Hollywood exposé, published in April of 1984, is subdivided into four parts, with the latter two sections dedicated to the act of screenwriting. Unfortunately, Goldman’s simplistic and conceited tone left me feeling underwhelmed by his message, and his examples and references were outdated for the 21st century reader. As a novelist, Goldman won my heart with The Princess Bride, he excelled as a screenwriter with his films Misery and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but as an essayist, he wasn’t anything special. Readers who aren’t familiar with any concept of Hollywood benefit the most from his over explanation of every concept, however, it made the book less than revolutionary.

The book opens with an examination of “Hollywood Realities” and he names the main bodies of influence in the film industry, or the “powers that be”.  His simple description of the role of stars, studio executives, directors, and producers led to an easy comprehension of the powers, however base his generalizations were. For instance, he describes a star as “someone who opens”(12), a definition that disregards movies that flop despite their big names, and producers as “agents” but then goes on to describe the separate role of agents in relation to stars (41). He presents a complex industry in black and white terminology that generalizes the roles of independent parties. Furthermore, he often presents opinion as facts. In one instance Goldman names The Sound of Music as “the most popular movie in history” despite the existence of Gone With the Wind, which premiered 26 years earlier and made $500 million more (40). He constantly asserts that “nobody knows anything”, including himself, a tool he employs to convince his readers that his word is fact (39).

Despite his undermining of his legitimacy, Goldman provides many examples and anecdotes to support his assertions. He implores the use of lists often, usually to name successful movies or successful stars, and follows with a thorough explanation of each item. He relates to us his interactions with movie stars such as Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and many directors including Norman Jewison and Stephen Spielberg. Although this strengthens his accounts of Hollywood, Goldman holds a fear of angering these powers. When describing the “powers that be”, he skims over the role of the director and instead says they fill him with “awe and inspiration” and that “some of my best friends are directors”, a respect that the other three powers were in want of (59). While his first-hand accounts add indefinitely to his narrative of the film industry, he’s selective about what he writes. In addition to this, his references are outdated for the 2018 reader. His lists include the films The Godfather, Cabaret, Slaughterhouse – Five, A Separate Peace, Fat City, and Birdman of Alcatraz (157). A good majority of these have become classic films, but others have fallen into obscurity along with big names like Ali McGraw and Lee Marvin.

The anonymity of these names made the second section of the book difficult to read. The section Adventures details the various encounters and projects that Goldman worked on throughout his career in Hollywood. The Stepford Wives was the only film I recognized of the ten he discussed, in part due to this, this section became 96 pages of gloating and redundancy. Every new chapter was filled with big names that he talked about in a manner that made him sound “cool”. Goldman worked with Robert Redford on The Great Waldo Pepper when “he was not just the biggest star in the world. He was a phenomenon” (208). They also worked together on a couple of other films, and the way Goldman writes about Redford sounds like an infatuation. The whole section reads like a love letter to Robert Redford written in a way that makes Goldman seem cool by association.

Despite this, another strength of Goldman’s book is the insertion of his original screenplays into the text; it’s one thing to read about a screenplay, and another to understand as you read a screenplay. It was very unexpected for two entire screenplays to be present in the book, and although Butch Cassidy was lengthy, it wasn’t detrimental to the reader’s understanding. It was also at this point in the book that Goldman defined every technical term in existence. He dedicated a couple of paragraphs each to the descriptions of basic terminology such as “pan over” and “fade out” when a sentence or two would have sufficed (287). Here again is an example of the over explanation that would benefit the Hollywood ignorant. It is moments like these that make the syntax feel condescending because he assumes the reader is completely unfamiliar with every aspect of Hollywood.

After this, Goldman delves into the weaknesses and strengths of screenplays, and he unfortunately sounds extremely chauvinistic. He writes that the handling of “the girl” in screenplays is done well by keeping her out of the western narrative where she has no significance to the plot. He then immediately praises himself for including Etta in Butch Cassidy because he gave her agency, not just as a teacher, but as a girlfriend to Butch, and he applauds the “sexuality alive in the scene” which she brings (471). However, earlier in the book he scolds those who are “so obsessed with women being nothing but subordinate sex objects” (205) but the page before that he describes the Stepford Wives as “gorgeous. I mean, you never saw such bodies. Not a Twiggy in the town” (204). The blatant hypocrisy was tough to swallow, and the aftertaste of sexism was worse.

Besides this hypocrisy, the most comical part of the book was the fourth, and last, section. Almost without explanation, Goldman plopped an entire short story into his narrative. The story is titled Da Vinci and it recounts the tale of a barber; he also included the screenplay adaptation of Da Vinci that he penned, and proceeds to tell us “we’re making a movie” out of it (476). I found this extremely comical due to the fact that the movie never happened. Nearly 40 years later and the intricate production plan Goodman developed never made it to Hollywood. He describes that he “ultimate strength” of a screenplay is luck, and the irony of his failed Da Vinci didn’t escape me (471).

Completely unlike The Princess Bride, Adventures in the Screen Trade was not a captivating read. As a fan of William Goldman, I expected more. His “secrets” weren’t anything revolutionary to the 21st century, nor were the celebrities he mentioned impactful to me. Fame is fleeting and popularity is conditional, and there isn’t a book that shows it more than this Hollywood tell-all. Throughout the book, Goldman praises the structure of a screenplay more than its content. He describes the cues as beautiful and the specifications of lighting and sound magical. His love of structure is evident in his book’s layout because it enabled the book to be as cohesive and comprehensible as it was. Overall, William Goldman proved he loved his craft and knows his industry well, but it’s definitely time for an updated Hollywood manual.

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