Issue 04, Volume 02
A Conversation with Bo Goldman
by Theo Zenou
There are two ways to present the career and art of screenwriter Bo Goldman. The easy one, let’s call it the “cocktail party” way, would be to give you facts and figures about Goldman that clearly, undeniably affirm him as one of the greatest writers in motion picture history:
- 2 Academy Awards and 2 Golden Globes show Goldman’s ultimate mastery of screenwriting, one each for Original Screenplay and Adaptation. He was also awarded with the prestigious Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement by his peers of the Writers Guild of America.
- Writer behind some of the most enduring classics of Hollywood’s Silver Era such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) or Melvin And Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980).
But – really - is the “cocktail party” way the finest way to tell you who Goldman is?
You bet it isn’t! What matters – truly – is the work, its richness and its beauty. With Bo Goldman, there’s the manifestation - in all its warmth and pain - of the human condition. He’s truly the cinematic equivalent of Balzac, and his work offers the same unity of spirit and vision. Goldman writes with great intimacy about outsiders, drifters through life, men and women who struggle at “the artistry of life,” as he calls it in this conversation. Even when he writes about Death – literally – in Meet Joe Black (Martin Brest, 1998), what Goldman is really writing about is Life. What it means to us, how to come to terms with the passing of time... Scent of A Woman (Martin Brest, 1992) might just be Goldman’s finest work, his Le Père Goriot. Rarely has a film been so deep, dealing with issues of profound human concerns without becoming overly intellectual or self-conscious, while remaining intimate and direct.
But an introduction to Goldman’s filmography wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the humor: sincere, genuine comedy or “dramedy,” fleshed out from characters, always characters. One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest has some of the lightest moments in cinema next to some of the most psychological, raw scenes ever put on screen. And Shoot The Moon (Alan Parker, 1982) – the Lost (Overlooked) American classic that one can only hope be re-evaluated by this new generation of filmmakers and scholars when they study the New Hollywood.
In Meet Joe Black, Death takes the form of a young man (Brad Pitt) and chooses a mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) to show him the world before taking him away on the night of Parrish’s 60th birthday. And during the picture’s climax, right before they go away forever, Death and Parrish have this exchange that sums it all.
PARRISH: It’s hard to let go, isn’t it?
DEATH: Yes it is, Bill.
PARRISH: And that’s life… what can I tell you.
Your background is in plays and musicals. When you attended Princeton, you were the president of the Triangle Club where in 1953 you wrote, produced and composed the lyrics of Ham ’n Legs, which was subsequently presented on Ed Sullivan. What attracted you to the theatre, and made you initially pursue a Broadway career?
I saw my first Broadway show when I was five (Babes In Arms, music Richard Rodgers, lyrics Lorenz Hart), sitting on my mother’s lap. What I treasure from my ensuing childhood were Saturday matinees with my parents, riding across Central Park in a Checker Cab - the only ones with jump seats, that way, we’d fit - taking our places down front at the Booth Theatre or the Morosco or the Alvin. The tickets were purchased over the phone, that morning, from one of the two Deutsch Brothers, “Big Willie” or “Little Willie” who ran the Supreme Ticket Agency located on West 46th Street next to the Martin Beck Theater.
“I want top seats, Willie”, my father’s demand.
At Exeter prep school, I sat desultorily one Winter Saturday night to watch a musical produced by a Senior, cast by him, and wondered: “Why don’t I do this? (And I can do better).”
I chose Princeton only after seeing a Princeton Triangle Show. In New York, it played the Waldorf Astoria ballroom. The president and star of the show was Bob Abernethy. Sadly, years later, I ended up working besides him on a miserable teenage news show, Sunday afternoons on the NBC network, called Update. Bob had become a news commentator by then, and I was desperate for work, trying to get my second Broadway show on and, at the same time, support my growing family: six children.
At Princeton, I was cast my sophomore year in the Triangle show (the first year allowed in), played in it and wrote for it my junior year, elected President my senior year. I met my partner-to-be Glenn Paxton, with whom I did the score for my only Broadway show First Impressions, based on Pride and Prejudice, cast with the aging Hollywood movie star Farley Granger as Darcy, the British comedienne Hermione Gingold as Mrs. Bennet and a then current television singer and performer, Polly Bergen.
Do you have any key memories of that time at Princeton, or Exeter before, that influenced your later work, in particular the prep world of Scent of A Woman?
My brother Douglas, who changed his name to Gorham, married a Swiss girl, expatriated himself to Italy for the rest of his life after doing his Naval service, and ended up running the Bally Shoe Company in Florence, was a class ahead of me at Exeter in 1947. He was expelled from the Academy post-Thanksgiving for “intoxication” and then, a first for the school, was re-admitted the following fall and graduated with his class. The story in brief: he was invited by a classmate for the holiday weekend to the friend’s home in Nashua, New Hampshire. En route they went to an annual Thanksgiving event: the Boston Bruins hockey game. His “friend” bought a pint of cheap whiskey, which they drank at the game. My brother arrived with his friend that night, sick from the whisky. The father – whose guest he was, and who had been expelled from Exeter himself – put Douglas in his car and turned him in that night to the Dean at Exeter.
Friends, years later, remembered the incident and suggested Scent of A Woman was based on it. It wasn’t but certainly there was something of it in the subtext. The inspiration for the story – the Italian film Profuma di Donna – remotely suggested my years at Exeter, and I seized on them, giving me the opportunity to dramatize the insularity and arrogant clubbiness of the American prep schools then. Its student body presuming itself something of an American anomaly: aristocracy.
Interestingly, you gradually made your way towards Cinema. You first went from Broadway to the world of live television, working on Playhouse 90 alongside Fred Coe. To which extent and how did it inform your later approach to screenwriting?
My years as Associate Producer for Fred Coe on Playhouse 90 (1958-59) were the school and inspiration for whatever “career” I had as a screenwriter. Fred was known as the Father of Dramatic Television; in fact he invented live television drama as the producer of NBC’s Philco Playhouse. He discovered Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote (later, both Pulitzer Prize winners). I was lucky Fred allowed me to sit in and contribute to script conferences (“You can do this, Pap, you have good ideas”), on shows such as Days of Wine and Roses or Old Man. The former became a film, an Academy Award winner. Fred taught me all I was ever to know about “story” and “character” (refined for movies by my work with Milos Forman).
Fred Coe was a plainspoken Mississippian who knew the canon of American drama from years of producing “Little Theater” in Columbia, South Carolina. Fred put me in touch with directors such as Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann and John Frankenheimer. Closeted with them and the writers, I attended a Drama school beyond (if I had ever had them) my wildest dreams.
Martin Scorsese believes that “movies fulfills a spiritual need that people have: to share a common memory”. What are some of the defining directors, screenwriters or films that helped shape your understanding of that “memory” and inspired you to contribute to it yourself?
I don’t know about “spiritual need” and “common memory”, but I loved movies from first going to the Trans-Lux newsreel theater at 60th Street and Madison Avenue (next to where Barney’s now) when I was four years old with my mother. Years later, I was to work with the source of your quotes, Scorsese, on an adaptation of Wild Strawberries for Gregory Peck. It never came into fruition. Instead of an aging doctor, Peck was to play an old-time “westerns” director, like John Ford.
Movies I loved were Sunset Boulevard, Marty, A Streetcar Named Desire (in fact, I liked the latter better as a play, Jessica Tandy rather than Vivien Leigh as Blanche). There were all stories, I sensed, that taught me about life. I never enjoyed children’s movies. Snow White and Pinocchio, they seemed silly even though I was a child. They will always be “cartoons” to me even though they are more elegantly labeled these days “animations”. I don’t buy a ticket for them (haughty as that might sound). I never read the funnies, or watched a marionette show. I love to observe and be informed by the behavior of real people.
The first script you wrote was Shoot The Moon, and in her review, Pauline Kael noticed, “the characters [in the film] aren’t taken from the movies, or from books, either. They’re torn bleeding from inside Bo Goldman and Alan Parker and the two stars”. First, do you find Kael’s analysis pertinent and if so, do you consider some of your characters to be either loosely autobiographical or directly born from your life experiences? (As opposed to your film-watching experiences)
I find Pauline Kael’s analysis pertinent, in fact, right on the money. Shoot The Moon is taken to some degree from my own life but more exactly from the lives of a brother and schoolmates whose dreams were shattered by “real life”, overcome by children, wives and consuming extra-marital affairs; failures at the artistry (which it demands) of life.
You’ve written several book adaptations, the most iconic being One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. How do you tackle an adaptation? (i.e. principally in terms of structure and plot). And to which extent did you find personal expression in Cuckoo’s Nest?
Adaptations. Not a good idea to “tackle them”, better circle them warily, make sure you love them and perhaps, find something within (in fact, a lot) with which you can identify. Milos Forman hired me (after interviewing months of applicants) because my first suggestion was that McMurphy should kiss the guard who brings him in. I always felt, feel I am McMurphy: an outsider, tolerated perhaps but not really equipped to cope with life as it presents itself. Luckily I married someone who can and with her I have produced children who embrace life rather than warily circle it, as I do.
I imagine the same technique is used when adapting a real story as you did in Melvin and Howard, although you may have more freedom of interpretation?
Yes, the same “technique” although I feel I have none; in fact “feel” is the operative word. I am always feeling my way through my work. I lived with Melvin for three weeks, retraced the trip with him depicted in Melvin and Howard. I spent a week with Linda, his ex-wife, at Disneyland in Orange County. I then devoted months of research to the volumes of guessed-at information on Howard Hughes, traveling to Houston, scrutinizing files at the University of Texas library (where my information was removed from the place where I was working when I stepped out for lunch). And, through a college friend, an interview was arranged with his father, who had grown up with Hughes and later partnered with him.
You can’t learn enough, and you must stay with it until you no longer can. “Research” is an enervating word; I would call it “discovery” which, interestingly enough, is a legal term.
Throughout all your films, one can witness a constant voice and beating heart that could be deemed auteuristic. How did you manage to develop that voice while simultaneously working with similarly strong directors?
The “auteurism” and that “beating heart” to which you so kindly refer keeps beating through all the projects hopefully because that is what I am hired for, or if I originate the project, what my collaborators value.
Your collaboration with Martin Brest created two emotionally, spiritually and intellectually fulfilling films. How did your partnership started? And what was the collaboration like?
The partnership with Martin Brest started upon his invitation to write what became Scent of A Woman. He might deny it, and I may be wrong, but I think he had approached others and been turned down. Brest had spent too long a time securing the rights to Profuma di Donna, was somewhat exhausted by the efforts but we shared the same wonderful agent, Jack Rapke (now a producing partner with Robert Zemeckis). Jack urged me to take the job. It became my life. Marty and I spent days patrolling the lot at Universal working out the story. He sat with me as I wrote it, transcribing and getting into his directing soul my illegible (not to me) handwritten pages on a computer (an unfamiliar object which I immediately detested, and still do). Marty, as the expression goes, “got it out of me”.
Do or would you have any plans to re-team with Brest?
I’d work with him forever if I could but approaching age 80, forever seems too soon. I am working on a memoir now but I am regularly in touch with Marty, a friend of any project he might embark on. I could not accept an assignment or officially join him until the memoir is finished (it may never be) but I would always be there for him in any way I could, not only because I love him, but because he is a great director (and, like others like him now, having difficulty finding work).
One of the saddest things about “Hollywood”, or the “movie business”, these days is that it is becoming more and more like the financial world. Getting in touch with my agent after a long absence, his assistant answered the phone with a “Regarding what?!”. It reminds me of the executive at Goldman Sachs who quit, having experienced the contempt with which brokers regarded clients, like Muppets. The talent agencies have taken on the same air with their artists.
Your films are always incredible character studies, yet supported by plot. With you, it seems you found a way to use plot to further deepen the characters. Could you explain your approach to the governing dynamic of character and plot?
As some guru once put it, “Plot is a lie”. And it is, but a useful one, an unlikely compression of life. But if you know your characters well enough, and they’re real, when they are confronted with life’s exigencies, or, to speak less fancily, put to the test, they will behave in certain idiosyncratic way, which is theirs and theirs alone. Because that is who they are.
On that same page, your dialogue is strongly psychological as it expresses the point-of-view of your characters. Yet, it never fails to fulfill its narrative, forward-moving role. What’s your approach to writing dialogue?
You can either write dialogue or you can’t. Fred Coe said Paddy Chayefsky “had a tape recorder in his ear.” That’s what you must strive for, or, as Milos Forman repeated over and over, “It must be real”. But contrarily, the genius of Eugene O’Neill could never be found in his dialogue. It is real but enervating, yet the life underneath is undeniable.
What is also fascinating with your dialogue is that it does sounds incredibly real. It differs from a more formalized cinematic language. And yet, on closer inspection, there’s great style and poetry to your lines, arguably more than in the way people really speak. How do you manage to create this?
In some ways all conversations have sub-textual poetry. A writer has to listen, straining out everything extraneous, put down what she or he “hears”. It won’t be what civilians hear, but it will be a lot more interesting and luckily, dramatic.
You obviously wrote parts played by some of the world’s finest actors, in particular three roles that were played by Al Pacino. Does knowing you’re writing for Al Pacino gives you more freedom to deepen, knowing he’ll get it right or do you always try to write regardless of the actor?
What makes Al Pacino a great actor is he’ll find a way into his character that will make it indelibly his own. You’re lucky if you can get him.
Particularly in Scent of A Woman, did Al Pacino bring out aspects or qualities in the character you did not foresee in the script? If yes, do you remember any example of such in a particular scene, for instance?
Yes, Pacino was always expanding the possibilities or rather the depths of his character. One moment, for instance: when he says goodbye to Charlie, the “boy”, he is not really saying goodbye from his seat in the limousine. He knows (but Charlie doesn’t) that he is going to return and appear for him at the disciplinary hearing. Yet the Colonel makes it so real, what he does is give Charlie this tender, lingering pat, almost a caress, on his cheek. He has come to love him – and he is going to fight for him as my Father did for my brother at Exeter, traveling on weak knees and in his sixties to discuss Douglas’ problem with every member of the Disciplinary Committee.
Although you are uncredited on Dick Tracy, it is known you re-wrote the original script for Warren Beatty. How did you find the balance between the pulpy, fun adventures while still giving the project gravitas and resonance? In short, how did you transcend the great pleasures of entertainment?
I did not receive credit on Dick Tracy because Warren Beatty insisted on sharing it with me. If officially teamed with a Director who wants writing credit, the “arbitrators” have to determine the pair is responsible for at least two-thirds of the script, an impossible fraction (see Peter Biskind’s biography of Beatty).
But I always felt the model for Tracy was my Uncle, Samuel Levy, a Jewish-gangster type but an honest man who owned liquor stores, insurance agencies and tenements in The Bronx. I always secretly believed he put me through all my fancy schools.
I repeatedly showed Warren how “Sammy” buttoned and unbuttoned his double-breasted jacket. “That’s Tracy”, I told Warren. He used it.
Were you ever interested in directing? And if so, what was the most exciting to you?
I had deals to direct several times. One, an adaptation of a novel Monkeys, another Sons and Fathers, and yet another Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, about a grandfather’s relationship with a lonely granddaughter, and his friendship with a septuagenarian his own age. For one reason or another, all fell apart. Probably, if I couldn’t go on to write other movies (that is, I had an alternative), they wouldn’t have.
I think I would have made a director. Or as one studio head put it (Ned Tanen, who ran Universal and the Paramount): “You would have been a good one”.
Now I’ll remove my hand from its pat on my back.
Finally, you’ve adapted novels and remade films. Yet, and correct me if I’m wrong, none of those remakes/adaptations were originated by you. If you had to pick a film to remake, a play or a novel to adapt – what would you choose and why?
I would remake The Great Gatsby (even though it’s being done, I believe, with Leonardo DiCaprio; I fear for the outcome). I felt the last version with Robert Redford missed the point. To me, the movie is the other side of Death of a Salesman, exploring the American Dream from the viewpoint of, rather than failure, success.