William Goldman’s first novel, “The Temple of Gold,” was published in 1957. In the part of the timeline of American cultural history devoted to expressions of youthful male restlessness, that’s exactly between “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Goodbye, Columbus” and roughly coincident with “On the Road.” The literature of the period in particular bristles with the energy of young men in revolt against the expectations of their parents and the stultifying conventions of postwar society.
Goldman’s protagonist is a smart, horny, confused professor’s son named Raymond whose raging search for authenticity looks, in hindsight, like a fairly standard coming-of-age story. A note from the editors on the back of the first Bantam paperback edition insists otherwise, saying that “an angry library trustee” had called the book “a blueprint for juvenile delinquency” and demanded its removal from the shelves. Hyping a young writer’s shocking candor about sex and his unflinching honesty about life, the blurb promises that the reader of “The Temple of Gold” will confront “the truth about this country’s most controversial generation, told by one of them.”
Perhaps, but there’s no doubt that Goldman, who died on Friday at 87, was a member of one of the country’s most formidable literary generations, a near-contemporary of Philip Roth, John Updike, Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. Of course it isn’t as a literary figure that he’s most remembered, but rather as a screenwriter, best known for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Princess Bride.” He was also a wily truth-teller about the ways of Hollywood, the author of many memorable lines in and about movies. (“Nobody knows anything.” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)
[Read our obituary of William Goldman.]
If he’d stuck exclusively to novels, Goldman would most likely be eulogized now as a minor author, a middle-range talent who plied his craft in the shadow of more illustrious contemporaries. Instead, he occupies a special place in the history of movies. He wasn’t the first novelist to strike out for Hollywood, but he managed the crossover with exemplary dexterity, professionalism and panache.
Not many screenwriters before or since matched his visibility or name recognition, a level of celebrity that resulted from his wit, good looks and sociability. Even before he wrote his shrewd, seductive tell-some accounts of Hollywood life (“Adventures in the Screen Trade” in 1983, followed by “Which Lie Did I Tell?” in 2000), he was a quotable source and an attractive profile subject.
His literary pedigree didn’t hurt. His career coincided with — and perhaps helped to expedite — the shifting of a certain kind of cultural prestige from East to West, from page to screen. A photograph reprinted with several of Goldman’s obituaries shows Norman Mailer, who presented the screenwriting Oscars in 1977, flanked by Goldman (who won best adapted screenplay for “All the President’s Men”) and Paddy Chayefsky (who won best original screenplay for “Network”).
It’s nearly impossible to imagine an equivalent arrangement today, now that novelists are almost never invited to hand out movie awards or appear on network television broadcasts of any kind. Mailer, in the middle of the picture, is at the center of the complicated transaction it represents. He had tried — and would continue to try — to add auteur to his résumé, partly out of fascination with the power of cinema and partly because he sensed that some of the glamour and gravitas that had belonged to novelists in the ’50s was being claimed by filmmakers in the ’70s.
Goldman might have surmised something similar, but he was not one to make a big deal out of it, or to talk about his craft in lofty, sweeping terms. He used the secondary status of screenwriters — one of the most durable facts of Hollywood life — to his advantage, positioning himself as an indispensable craftsman and an insightful participant observer.
He was an ambassador from the “silent generation,” whose young men harbored dreams of writing the Great American Novel, to the “film generation,” which wrote the mythology of the New Hollywood. His insider-outsider books at once affirmed and debunked the myths, skewering movie-industry hypocrisy, venality and pretension even as they celebrated the hard work, scrappy creativity and helter-skelter deal making that allowed the movies to flourish. His skepticism stopped short of cynicism, and he never seemed to stop having fun.
And pleasure — the durable pleasure of hearing or reading language used well, of watching a story unfold in pictures — is a central part of his legacy. In spite of the rhetoric the publisher of his first novel used to sell copies, Goldman wasn’t the voice of his generation, and he didn’t try to be. He was a voice, though, one that permeated American movies for more than three decades, even when his name wasn’t in the credits. Without him, modern Hollywood is inconceivable.