Is Goldman Overrated?

by F.

I know that William Goldman is the idol of many. But why, other than the fact that he made a lot of money in Hollywood, is he considered a great writer?

Last night, we watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I have to say that Act I was just… fucking boring. About 20:00 in, there’s that whole “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” bicycle riding scene, which looks more like an ad for deodorant soap than a movie (“When raindrops start falling on my head, I lather up with Irish Spring so I can feel clean and fresh as the top O’ the mornin!”) I suppose it’s meant to be funny. Or something. Maybe in was fresh in 1969. But in 2006 it seemed merely stupid. Both of us sat there waiting for the movie to begin. At 30:00 minutes in, there still wasn’t much story going on in the movie.

We ejected it.

Now, who am I to question such a Great Writer? And I know I’m in the minority of viewers in my low opinion of Butch Cassidy. After all, Butch Cassidy is #132 in the IMDb Top 250 (whatever that means). And it gets an 8.1 (out of 10) average rating in IMDb as well. (Though, of course, it’s not obvious what the mean IMDb rating is. Probably around 7.5, from what I can see.)

But, I’m not totally alone. As Goldman points out in a 1994 interview, the critics hated the movie. Thought it was shit. And while I think movie critics are generally better at being full of shit that spotting shitty movies, I have to in this instance agree with them, especially Pauline Kael. Mostly I agree because of the unbelievably boring and under-plotted first act.

To see an example of a good first act, look at almost any episode of The Simpsons. Before the first commercial, the main story will be set up. But it usually gets set up through another, entirely entertaining story—the “other plans” that are derailed by the incidents that give rise to the main story (or main tension, or second act—whatever you want to call it). Take last week’s episode (7/17/2006—I’m not sure of the number).

It opens with Bart, Millhouse, and Nelson painting address numbers on sidewalks for cash. They do Moe’s house and, because of an accidental shotgun discharge, Moe thinks he discovers oil in his yard (it turns out to be a sewer line that erupted). The boys then move their scam on to Homer’s. Halfway through the number painting, Homer takes over and screws the job up, which leads to a cameo by the 74 Oakland A’s and (more importantly) someone else’s mail being delivered to the Simpson’s house. This erroneous mail delivery leads to Marge winning a contest and getting a maid, but, embarrassed that the maid will think less of her if she has a dirty house, she pre-cleans for the maid (as most of us do). During cleaning she is overcome by the fumes from her cleaning solution, faints, and hits her head, resulting in amnesia.

And only then does the main story begin. Now that is a plot. The first 8:00 of a Simpson’s episode contain more story than the first 30:00 of Butch Cassidy, both ostensibly comedies (Goldman calls his story a comedy).

For other Goldman dogs, watch or read the screenplays for Absolute Power and The Ghost and the Darkness. I really don’t know how he managed to screw up the latter. I mean, you have a story about two man-eating lions attacking a railway construction camp in Africa. It’s Jaws with fur. You can’t miss with that kind of a story. But he does. Gotterdammerung of the 70’s writing gods, I suppose.