By David Raether
The Spotlight Series I’m starting today will feature film artists who may not be very well known—character actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, set and production designers, editors, and more. I’ll feature the noteworthy artists who deliver a consistent style and quality to their work, rendering the movies they’re involved in worth watching over and over.
William Goldman is one of the finest screenwriters of all time. The old joke in Hollywood is that everyone hates the writer because nothing happens until the writer finishes writing. My personal theory (as a writer) is that everyone hates us because generally we are annoyingly neurotic and nothing but trouble. The biggest complainer you will ever meet on a set is the writer. We have problems with everything, even the free food at catering on the set.
Not William Goldman. He is a highly admired figure. Goldman fills his screenplays with characters of wit, ambition, and style. Starting out as a novelist and a playwright, Goldman came into his own in the ‘60s and ‘70s with a series of brilliant scripts that became unforgettable movies. Here are my favorites.
Goldman is a big fan of Ross Macdonald’s hard-boiled detective novel series about hard-boiled detective Lew Archer, who operates in the most hard-boiled city of them all, Los Angeles. This is a gritty mystery story with a great cast that includes Paul Newman in the lead, and features Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, and Janet Leigh. And pay attention to the sharp, angry, moody score by Johnny Mandel.
Coming out the same year as his highly regarded thriller, Marathon Man, the remarkable achievement of this screenplay is this: how do you make a thriller out of a story like Watergate, where everyone knows what happens at the end? Goldman did it by meticulously dramatizing all the setbacks, dead ends, and frustrations that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) went through in chasing the story of a lifetime. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, check it out again. It’s much more pulse-pounding than you remember. And the good guys win.
This picture is somewhat outside of the typical William Goldman arena. Normally, his pictures are intimate, witty and ironic. Bridge is an old-fashioned, epic war film, and one that is brave enough to show that the soldiers are flawed heroes. One interesting choice made by Goldman in this picture is that he didn’t hold back from showing that the Allies had flawed plans during this particular WWII operation. It features a cast of thousands, dozens of warplanes, tank battles, and a gigantic cast that includes Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, and many more. Plus, it’s directed by Richard Attenborough, so you know it’s going to be huge and dramatic.
All together now: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” Based on his own novel, this has to be one of the most beloved movies of all time, and one of the most frequently quoted. Unendingly witty and romantic, it features high adventure, dastardly villains, sword fights, and Andre the Giant. Directed by Rob Reiner, with an amazing cast that includes Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, and Peter Falk, the film is 30 years old this year and still feels as fresh as the day Wallace Shawn said:
“You have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders: the most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia! But only slightly less well known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”
The Writers Guild of America ranked The Princess Bride as the 84th best screenplay of all time. Frankly, if you ask my six daughters, that’s a little low. They would rank it #1. I would, too, if I knew what was good for me.
Watch it again. Even if it’s for the 30th time. And don’t forget: “Have fun storming the castle!”
Another collaboration between Goldman and director Rob Reiner, this is one of the scariest movies ever made…for writers. Misery is the only film based on a Stephen King novel to win an Academy Award. Kathy Bates won the Oscar for her portrayal of an obsessed fan of trashy romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan). Here’s a fun fact about the film’s cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld: he got his start shooting porn, then helped make an Oscar-nominated documentary about drinking water in New Jersey, and then was the cinematographer for a few Coen Brothers movies, and eventually became a director in his own right (Men in Black). So the next time your mother starts fretting about some of your apparently misbegotten career decisions, tell her about Barry Sonnenfeld.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.