Adventures in the Screen Trade


By William Goldman

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No one knows the writer’s Hollywood more intimately than William Goldman. Two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter and the bestselling author of Marathon Man, Tinsel, Boys and Girls Together, and other novels, Goldman now takes you into Hollywood’s inner sanctums…on and behind the scenes for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and other films…into the plush offices of Hollywood producers…into the working lives of acting greats such as Redford, Olivier, Newman, and Hoffman…and into his own professional experiences and creative thought processes in the crafting of screenplays. You get a firsthand look at why and how films get made and what elements make a good screenplay. Says columnist Liz Smith, “You’ll be fascinated.


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Author's Note

This book was begun at the greatest time of panic and despair in modern Hollywood history—late January of '82. Future film scholars may well term it "the Heaven's Gate era." And certainly that movie received more media coverage than any other contemporary disaster.

But only a few enlightened bookkeepers will know for sure if it lost more than, say, Raise the Titanic! or Honky Tonk Freeway.

During the holiday season of '81–'82, sixteen films were released by the major studios. Of those, only one—On Golden Pond—was a runaway success. And ten of the sixteen each lost more than ten million dollars. One major studio executive told me recently, "Of course the failures are upsetting. But there have always been failures. What's got us so immobilized now is that whatever it is that we're making, we're missing the audience by a wider margin than ever before. We don't know what they want. All we do know is that they don't want what we're giving them."

Perhaps the key word above is immobilized. By the end of February, only ten films will have begun production. At the same time a year ago, twenty-five had started shooting.

Again, this is the worst period within memory. By the time this book sees print, it may well be the best period within memory. The point being this: Movies are a gold-rush business.

Anyone interested in what follows had best commit that fact to memory.…

What follows, generically speaking, is a book about Hollywood. It may not come as a total shock to you if I say this is not the first attempt to mine that subject.

All I can provide that is different is my point of attack: I have been, for close to twenty years now, a screenwriter. I have seen a lot, learned more than a little—most of it, alas, too late.

In terms of authority, screenwriters rank somewhere between the man who guards the studio gate and the man who runs the studio (this week). And there is a whole world to which we are not privy. And I thought it may be helpful to know at least something about just what is taking place Out There. With that in mind, I've interviewed a number of people who work the other side of the street: studio executives, producers, directors, and stars. By the time we're done, it's my hope that you'll understand a good deal more about why you see what you see on the screen.

Because of my Hollywood work, I have seen films on three continents and in at least twice that many foreign countries.

But for me, still, always, it is the Alcyon.…

Certainly not a great movie theatre. Probably not even a very good one. But the Alcyon stands alone in memory because it stood alone on Central, even then an aging monopoly; if you wanted to go to the movies in Highland Park, Illinois, in the 1930's, it was the Alcyon—or it was no movie at all.

And the thought of no movie at all was just too painful.

Even when I was six and seven and eight, I was hooked. I suppose I still am, but the stuff I see today often vanishes, while the Alcyon remains.

Captain January. 1936. Shirley Temple. I was five and she was eight. My first time sitting there in the dark, I remember her curls so plainly. And could her dimples have been as large as they seemed? If the answer is no, don't tell me.

Tarzan Finds a Son. Late thirties and memorable because I went to see it twice on consecutive matinees, I don't think I liked it as much as I wanted to escape some visiting relatives, but the fact remains: I was the first kid on the block who had ever done such a lunatic thing. In this Star Wars era, nothing unusual. But the news swept the Elm Place Grammar School playground during Monday recess. "Twice? How could you do it twice when you knew who won?" I didn't have an answer. And I didn't like Tarzan Finds a Son as much the second time.

But I sure did like sitting there.

Not true of Invitation to Happiness, my first evening flick. I was eight and already a sports fan and, during an earlier matinee preview, Invitation to Happiness flashed on—

—a prizefight movie.

Fifteen or twenty seconds of solid slam-bang action were shown. I had to see it. It was only playing for two nights in the middle of the week and I understood the importance of school the next day. But I knew I had to go. Problem: I couldn't go alone. I launched a campaign of such ferocity that my parents gave in. Grudgingly, we trooped off to Invitation to Happiness—

—and it wasn't a prizefight movie, it was a kissing movie.

All they did was kiss, the hero and the lady. Those precious fifteen seconds of slam-bang action were there, all right, but that was the sum total of prizefighting. I never dreamed a preview would snooker you that way.

The kisses went on and on. I began to groan. Then I started counting. Eleven kisses. Now a quick buss on the nose, but that counted. Twelve. On and on they went, and by now I was counting out loud.

There were twenty-three kisses in Invitation to Happiness and I hated every one.

But I didn't hate the movies. Not then, not now. Too many memories involved. Movies help mark out our lives. Do you remember who you were when you first saw Citizen Kane? I do. Or Casablanca or Singin' in the Rain? If you give it a moment's thought, I'll bet you can come up with an answer.

I've been a fan for forty-six of my fifty-one years. Before I ever dreamed of entering the business, movies were an essential part of my life.

And whatever theatre I walk into today, part of me, a large part of me, is still going to the Alcyon.…

Part One

Hollywood Realities

Chapter One

The Powers That Be

It may well be pointless to try and isolate the great powers of the movie industry. Stars, studio executives, directors, and producers all circle in the same orbit, subject to the same gravitational laws.

I have divided these powers nonetheless, in the hope that it may simplify matters and shed additional light on the movie-making process as a whole. Just remember that they are all joined at the hip, locked in an uneasy alliance, groping sometimes—but by no means always—toward the same mist-shrouded goal: a hit.

None of this is meant to imply that they like each other very much. Or trust each other, fully, ever.…


With one major exception, which will be dealt with in due course, as far as the filmmaking process is concerned, stars are essentially worthless—and absolutely essential.

Stars and studios coexist in an arena rarely glimpsed by screenwriters. When God chooses to smile on them, they make fortunes for each other. But money, as we know, doesn't cart happiness along with it. So if you choose to imagine these two mightiest of industry elements as snarly Siamese twins, you won't be far wrong. To understand why this situation exists, a little history may prove helpful.

Studios came first, and in the beginning they were not remotely ambivalent about stars: They hated them. It's important to remember that movies began as a fad—not unlike the Atari games today. No one knew what the future might bring—or if, indeed, there would even be a future—but the present was plenty lucrative enough for even the greediest executive.

April twenty-third, 1896—as much as any date, that can be taken as the beginning of the motion picture business. It marked the opening of the first theatre in New York that took money from the public in exchange for filmed entertainment. By the year 1910, there were over nine thousand theatres in operation across the country.

Movies, of course, were shorter then. D. W. Griffith, in one five-year stretch, directed over five hundred "movies." Not only were they of less duration, they were also a good deal more simplistic than what we are used to today; one early hit consisted in its entirety of nothing but a horse eating hay. (The filmmaker who created the horse movie followed up with another smash—some footage of a pillow fight between his two daughters.)

The audience could have cared less—they loved going to the movies. Clearly, these films were not directed at intellectuals or the upper classes. Movies then were for immigrants and the poor, who sought entertainment where they could get it cheaply.

And in this early booming decade, there were no stars.

Actors, mostly "legitimate" ones, were ashamed of this new medium. They snuck over to New Jersey and worked, but only for the bread—the last thing they wanted was their name attached to anything they did. Also, it was not glamorous labor: Actors were automatically given other chores to do, such as sweeping up, doing carpentry, etc. One early matinee idol shocked his employers by declaring, when he reported for duty, "I am an actor and I will act—but I will not build sets and paint scenery." Then again, it was difficult for the public to find a favorite: During this "buccaneer" period, theatres would often change entire shows—up to sixty minutes of short features—every day.

The resulting flood of product was, ultimately, responsible for the existence of Hollywood. All the major studios paid a fee to Thomas Edison for the right to make movies: The motion picture was his invention and he had to be reimbursed for each and every film.

But there was such a need for material that pirate companies, which did not pay the fee, sprang up. The major studios hired detectives to stop this practice, driving many of the pirates as far from the New York area as possible. Sure, Hollywood had all that great shooting weather. But more than that, being three thousand miles west made it easier to steal. (The more things change, etc., etc.)

In spite of the studios, certain performers began to become favorites. Of course they had no names. If you wrote to them, you would have to send off your fan letter to "The Butler with the Mustache" or "The Girl with the Curly Blonde Hair."

If a studio had a performer they used a great deal, they still would never give the public a name to associate with the face. And so it was that, in 1910, perhaps the most popular film performer in America was known as "The Biograph Girl," Biograph being the company that had her under contract.

But when her contract was up, another studio stole her away. There were, of course, the usual inducements—a higher salary, her husband came along with her with a directing contract of his own—all standard. What was not standard, and what altered the future of movies, was this: The new studio agreed to feature her name. And so, in 1910, a beautiful young girl with the mellifluous name of Florence Lawrence initiated the star system in America.

The peers of Carl Laemmle (the executive who had spirited away Miss Lawrence) were, of course, more than a little displeased. Why? Because they were afraid that once the public really began to identify with performers, they might be forced to pay them more. You can say what you will about the morals of these early titans, you can scorn them as little more than furriers. But boy, they sure weren't dumb. Here is what happened to salaries:

  • 1912: Miss Lawrence was now the highest paid movie worker, making, by the end of that year, $250.00 per week.
  • 1913: Mary Pickford signs for $500.00 per week.
  • 1914: Miss Pickford re-signs for double her previous weekly fee.
  • 1915: Miss Pickford re-re-signs, this time $2,000.00 weekly compensation.
  • 1916: $10,000.00 per week—that was Charlie Chaplin's stipend. Plus $150,000.00 in bonus money for signing.
  • 1919: Fatty Arbuckle became the first star in history to be guaranteed a salary of one million dollars per year. Minimum.

The war cry of the studios has been the same ever since: Every time the business is about to self-destruct, they can pinpoint the reason—it's the goddam greed of the stars. In the late sixties, the most recent crisis time till now, it was the Burtons' fault, each of them getting a million to co-star in such items as The Comedians and Boom! (The exclamation point didn't help the latter at the box office.)

Today, a million dollars is what you pay a star you don't want.

Personally, I don't blame the stars for grabbing every cent they can. They all know the studios are going to rob them of as much of a film's profits as they can. And no one forces the studios to pay what they do. Most of all, though, stardom just doesn't last. (For a gifted few, sure. But only a few.)

No one can say with mathematical precision who are the top ten stars. But Quigley Publishing Company has been taking a poll of theatre owners for fifty years now. And it's flawed: In the middle seventies, the star who was being offered the most money often wasn't even on their list, but that was because Steve McQueen wasn't working. Still, the Quigley poll is the best we have. Theatre owners, after all, should know at least a little bit about whose movies perform best in their theatre. Following is the Quigley list of the top ten stars of last year, 1981:

  • (1) Burt Reynolds

  • (2) Clint Eastwood

  • (3) Dudley Moore

  • (4) Dolly Parton

  • (5) Jane Fonda

  • (6) Harrison Ford

  • (7) Alan Alda

  • (8) Bo Derek

  • (9) Goldie Hawn

  • (10) Bill Murray

Now let's go back just five years. Here are the top ten for 1976:

  • (1) Robert Redford

  • (2) Jack Nicholson

  • (3) Dustin Hoffman

  • (4) Clint Eastwood

  • (5) Mel Brooks

  • (6) Burt Reynolds

  • (7) Al Pacino

  • (8) Tatum O'Neal

  • (9) Woody Allen

  • (10) Charles Bronson

In just five years, only two repeaters: Eastwood and Reynolds. This is five years before then—the top ten of 1971:

  • (1) John Wayne

  • (2) Clint Eastwood

  • (3) Paul Newman

  • (4) Steve McQueen

  • (5) George C. Scott

  • (6) Dustin Hoffman

  • (7) Walter Matthau

  • (8) Ali MacGraw

  • (9) Sean Connery

  • (10) Lee Marvin

Only Eastwood is still on from the '81 list. And only Eastwood and Hoffman still were around to make the list in '76.

This last list is from 1961. I know that twenty years is a long time. But we are talking here about the ephemeral quality of performers, which often manifests itself in their behavior and material. Also, twenty years isn't that long—not in the career of a professor or a doctor of internal medicine.

  • (1) Elizabeth Taylor

  • (2) Rock Hudson

  • (3) Doris Day

  • (4) John Wayne

  • (5) Cary Grant

  • (6) Sandra Dee

  • (7) Jerry Lewis

  • (8) William Holden

  • (9) Tony Curtis

  • (10) Elvis Presley

Now some of these people are dead, and some are retired. But a bunch of them are still there, but they're not making this kind of list anymore. Decline and fall can't ever be easy, but for a star it's torment. Because, when they are on top, they are so adored. Movie stars, as has been stated elsewhere ad nauseam, are perhaps as close as we come to royalty. So the distance of the drop is much greater than the rest of us may (or will) experience.

But more than that, these people are role players. They had lives, grammar school, high school, just like the rest of us. But they weren't contented with their parts. That's why they become actors. And when they become not just actors but stars, that's getting-what-you-wish-for time.

There's a cliché that goes "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." The problem with stars is they get their wish but not for long.

Which is why it's crucial for a screenwriter to remember this: Never underestimate the insecurity of a star. Look, we're all insecure, we know that. Even brain surgeons probably get the shakes when no one's watching.

But movie stars? It's all but inconceivable. They are so blessed, and not just with physical beauty. They have talent and intelligence and command and an unending supply of self-deprecating charm.

We have read their interviews in the papers and we've seen them on the talk shows, and it's very hard to realize that what we are seeing are not the people themselves but the actors doing what they do best: acting.

George Segal may have put it best. I had watched him be terrific on a talk show, playing his banjo or whatever the hell instrument he plays, and joking it up. I asked him if he had always been able to enjoy himself that way.

He said, "That's like class: I prepare myself—I do an acting exercise. I tell myself I'm playing a character who's enjoying himself."

In my early days, whenever I met anyone who had worked with performers I revered, I would always pester them with the same question: What was that performer really like?

I already knew the answer, of course: They were the parts they played.

Alas, not so.

A man who worked with Bogart told me: "Miserable pain in the ass, always making trouble, always grousing that he had shit to say and everybody else had the good lines. Whined and bitched the whole shoot."

Bogart whining?

A man who worked with Cary Grant told me: "Cary was at his peak. I did two pictures with him and both times it was the same fight: He was convinced he had no charm and couldn't do a lot of scenes because the audiences wouldn't buy him. It was madness—here he was, maybe the most charming actor ever, and it was like pulling teeth. He was absolutely certain that his charm had gone."

Grant without charm?

I don't ask that question much anymore. I'm tired of the same surprise. I think I'm like most of us in that I want to believe the image. Don't tell me Clint Eastwood hates horses, I don't want to know it.

And what's this got to do with insecurity? Just this: From the star's point of view, it can get very scary. One example of what I mean, from an early day's shooting of The Hot Rock, a 1972 picture that starred Robert Redford.

We were working at a prison in New York and the shot simply required Redford, who had just been paroled, to exit a prison gate. He was dressed in intentionally ill-fitting clothes.

A bunch of prison workers were standing around while the lighting was finished. Some guards were watching, too, and one of them began talking to me.

"This is how it's done, I guess."

I said it was.

"Always take this long?"

I said it did, or longer.

Peter Yates, the director, was conferring nearby with Redford. They talked for a while, I assume about last-minute odds and ends.

"My wife would like to fuck him."

This remark caught me more or less by surprise and I turned to look at the guard: ordinary-seeming guy, maybe forty, in his prison uniform.

"I mean, you don't know what she would give just to fuck him."

Yates and Redford separated, Yates moving to the camera area, Redford to the gate.

And the guard, need I add, was not watching Yates. "She said to me today, my wife, that she would get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time. One time."

Now, I had seen Redford act on stage: After his brilliant comedy performance in Barefoot in the Park, I was convinced he was going to be the next Jack Lemmon.

And I had known him a little socially. He was attractive and a wonderful storyteller and a good athlete and nobody ever said he was dumb—but rooms did not hush when he entered them.

Suddenly everything was different. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had opened, and Redford was an international cover boy. And here was this goddam guard using every word in his vocabulary to try to convey to me the extent of his wife's sexual passion for a guy who was basically a fine actor from California who had made some disastrous movies. (Anyone remember Situation Hopeless—But Not Serious?)

Well, if half the world suddenly thinks of you as this guard's wife thought of Redford, that's bound to be just the least bit unsettling. You've spent three decades walking along being one thing, and you're still that thing—part of you is—but no one's seeing that. You don't know for sure what the public is reacting to, but you do know it's not you. And you don't know how long the reaction will last, but you do know that chances are, it won't be forever.

Stars have to live with that madness.

I still remember the first day of my first trip to Hollywood: I met with some representatives of Paul Newman. We were talking about the scheduling of Harper, and I was worried whether Newman would be ready when Warner Bros. wanted to go with the picture. One of the men in the meeting said this after I voiced my concern: "Someday Paul will be Glenn Ford, but right now they'll wait for him."

It was my initial contact with the cruel kind of Hollywood remark that so often tends to deal with heat. Glenn Ford had been, a few years earlier, the number-one star in America and I wasn't aware that his career had stalled. And this was Newman's man forecasting his client's future. But he wasn't cruel, not in his terms. He was simply facing the reality that stars come and go.

Only agents last forever….


Used to be an easy answer: A star was a performer who was billed above the title. But those were the days when billing meant something; now, more often than not, it's something that's doled out in lieu of a higher salary.

In other fields, it's easier to nail it down. Katharine Hepburn, for example, is a star in the theatre. Put her in a play and count your profits. Put Baryshnikov in tights, he's a star too. It doesn't matter if he's dancing Graham or Balanchine, just so he's dancing. Pavarotti and Itzhak Perlman, regardless of their program, are stars on the concert stage.

The most common definition I've heard out there lately is this: A star is someone who opens. (When a movie begins its run and no one comes, people in the business will say this of the movie, "It didn't open.")

A star may not guarantee you a profit—budgets can grow wildly for reasons totally out of their control—but they will absolutely be a hedge against disaster. A star ensures that, even if the movie is a stiff, the movie will open. One of the ways producers measure the appeal of a star is the amount of business a picture does on its first weekend. Is that too stiff a requirement, bringing the public flocking early to a disaster? Look at it this way: If you are a success financially, and you average fifty thousand dollars a year income for forty years of work, you are making a great deal less than what a star gets paid for three to eight weeks in front of the camera. I don't think staving off disaster is too much to ask from them….


Not as easy to answer as you may think.

Example: Back in the late sixties, Life magazine, then a weekly, had a performer on its cover who they said was the biggest movie star in the world. I was meeting that day with the head of one of the biggest studios. I asked if he'd seen Life. He said he hadn't. I told him what I've just told you. And then I asked if he'd care to guess who the performer was.

"Newman," he said.



Not McQueen.

A pause now. "Can't be Poitier."

I agreed. It wasn't.

Now a long pause. Then, in a burst: "Oh shit, what's the matter with me, I'm not thinking—John Wayne."

The Duke was not on the cover.

The situation was now getting the least bit uncomfortable. "If it's a woman it's either Streisand or Julie Andrews."

I said it was a man. And then, before things got too sticky, I gave the answer. (It was Eastwood.)

And he replied after some thought, "They claim Eastwood? Eastwood's the biggest star?" Finally, after another pause, he nodded. "They're right."

The point being that if a studio giant couldn't guess the biggest star in his business, the territory is a bit murkier than most of us would imagine.

A lot of it has to do with playing hunches.

Example: In the early seventies, two big Broadway musicals were made into movies. Cabaret starred Liza Minnelli and was a big hit. Fiddler on the Roof starred Topol and took in twice as much money. But the prevailing wisdom was this: Minnelli was a brand-new star, Topol was carried by the property. Nothing much happened to his film career, but Minnelli starred in several big-budget failures until the disaster of New York, New York sent her scurrying back to the theatre, where she is a star—the biggest, perhaps, on Broadway.

But in movies, the answer to "Who is a star?" is "It's whoever one studio executive with 'go' power thinks is a star and will underwrite with a start date." (A superstar is someone they'll all kill for….)


Invariably, by mistake.

And invariably that mistake is committed by another performer who is a bigger name at the box office. You may think of Robert Redford as a force of nature, but if Marlon Brando or Steve McQueen or Warren Beatty had said yes to the part of the Sundance Kid, Redford might well have remained what one studio executive told me he was when talk of hiring him first came up: "He's just another California blond—throw a stick at Malibu, you'll hit six of him."

If Albert Finney had agreed to play the title role in Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole wouldn't have happened. If Kirk Douglas had played Cat Ballou, forget about Lee Marvin.

Montgomery Clift deserves special mention.

(Clift, for me, is the most overlooked of the great stars. His was a talent that ranked right up with Brando's. I once met Burt Lancaster, and he told me a story of his first days with Clift on From Here to Eternity. One thing you should know about Lancaster: The man exudes physical power. Even today, if he went in the ring against André the Giant, I'd bet Lancaster. He told me, "The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant, I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn't stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. But I'd never worked with an actor with Clift's power before; I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen.")

A recent biography of Clift reports that he turned down, in one short stretch, four roles: the William Holden part in Sunset Boulevard, the James Dean part in East of Eden, the Paul Newman part in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and the Brando part in On the Waterfront. These were all crucial roles in their careers—would these wonderful actors have become stars if Clift had given the thumbs-up sign?

Hard to say for sure.

It's easy to say, though, that without the aid and assistance of George Raft, there is no Humphrey Bogart. I know that's hard to believe today, since Bogart has become such a revered cult figure. But he scuffled for a decade or more in second-rate stuff. High Sierra


  • "[This] is that big, sad, funny, incisive, revelatory, gossipy, perception-forming book about Hollywood that publishers have been promoting for years -- and now the real thing is finally here."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • "A deliciously honest book...Goldman deserves a special Read of the Year award."—The Plain Dealer (Cleavland)

On Sale
Mar 10, 1989
Page Count
608 pages

William Goldman

About the Author

William Goldman was a screenwriter on such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men.

Learn more about this author