23 March 2009

"Adventures in the Screen Trade" by William Goldman

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting
William Goldman
Date of Publication: 30 March 1983
Cover Price: $17.50
418 pages

William Goldman may not be familiar by name, but you're bound to recognize his work.  The subtitle, "A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting," would suggest that this is Goldman's memoirs.  In truth, this is really more of an introduction for laymen to how movies are made, told from a screenwriter's perspective.  There are three sections, each distinctive in its offerings.

The first section is an introduction of the key roles in films, complete with anecdotes illustrating each's ability to influence the outcome of the project.  Studio people with power of approval, directors, writers, actors, stars, agents; Goldman's thesis is that each is insecure and paranoid, and that everything one does is strictly to better his own idea of what his own self-interest might be.  A star encounters an agent at a gathering, and the latter scoffs at the former having to take a taxi on the way, rather than a limousine being sent for him; the star switched agents not long after.  Sound petty?  Sure it is; but petty by which party?  The agent who poached a client, the star who was talked into being upset about taking a taxi...or the original agent, who saw fit not to pamper his star client?  What of Dustin Hoffman deliberately making an aged Lawrence Olivier go through a series of physically demanding takes just to wear out the acting legend?  Olivier's graceful compliance--with nary a registered complaint--underscores not only Hoffman's insecurity and pettiness, but exposes the difference between a star and a real actor.

The second portion of Goldman's book is chock full of anecdotes from his film work up to the date of writing, on a film-by-film basis.  How's this for a filmography: Charly, Masquerade, Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Thing of It Is..., The Stepford Wives, The Great Waldo Pepper, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, The Right Stuff, Great Hotel and A Bridge Too Far.  Of these, only Butch and Bridge are written glowingly.  In point of fact, Goldman spent five years working to make Great Hotel...and ultimately removed himself from the project; the rest, he completed and the results varied.

What makes this volume so fascinating, though, is the third act: "Da Vinci."  The title refers to a short story published by Goldman in 1960, which is included in its entirety.  Goldman then walks us through how he would approach adapting his short story as a screenplay.  Once that's finished, he presents a screenplay (again, in its entirety).  These three pieces (story, screenplay and notes about the adaptation process) were then sent to key movie-makers for their thoughts on how each would approach this were it an actual film.  Production designer Tony Walton, cinematographer Gordon Willis, editor Dede Allen, composer David Grusin and director George Roy Hill each weigh in about not only how each works in general (expanding the scope of Goldman's book in the process), but questions and remarks concerning this specific screenplay.

Anyone who has seen or heard Goldman speak on a DVD feature will expect the salty language that permeates this work.  This is a guy that is entirely in love with movies, and largely frustrated by participating in the making of them.  (Small wonder, once you've read these "adventures.")  Very few people named in this account come off very well; Olivier and Richard Attenborough are the only two that come to mind as I write this.  Even Robert Redford, with whom Goldman collaborated several times, fails to come out of this unscathed.

Be advised that there is a streak of sexism throughout--key personnel, when not named, are called "he;" there are "copy girls" and other such titles.  These are not necessarily to be taken as Goldman's sexism, though, but rather a reflection of the industry at the time.  Even today, there are few women directors, studio executives or producers.  For those who aspire to change that, I would strongly suggest they start by reading this account of the dangers and frustrations that lie ahead.

Note: A subsequent edition includes the complete screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  This is noted on the cover of such printings.

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