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The Rock Star of Screenwriters: William Goldman

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Princess Bride. All the President's Men. That's a taste of legendary screenwriter William Goldman's career, and last night Aaron Sorkin, Tony Gilroy, Scott Frank, and David Koepp paid tribute to his influence.

William Goldman

How often does a writer get to really hear and see the results of his work? How often to people really get to express the importance of someone's words, ideas, and expression of the human condition? Last night, before the free Drive-In screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a league of extraordinary screenwriters convened to pay tribute to Oscar-winning screenwriter and New York Knicks fan William Goldman's work, career, and careful mentorship. It was an idea dreamed up by Festival juror and writer Beau Willimon ("It's all your fault!"  Goldman joked as he saw the young screenwriter running around the pavilion), and enacted by writers Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, David Koepp, and Aaron Sorkin (whose work includes Out of Sight, Michael Gilroy, Ghost Town, and The West Wing, and I am barely scratching the surface).

Frank started by citing his transformative William Goldman moment; when he was 10 years old and read in the Butch screenplay:

Harvey Logan: Rules? In a knife fight? No rules.
Butch then delievers the most aesthetically exquisite kick in the balls in the history of cinema.

The audacity and rule-breaking of the writing—the cut-tos and musical interludes, the wry comments on the action—changed Frank's life and led him on a path to the same career. "William Goldman, you are the most aesthetically exquisite kick in the balls of all," he closed.

Gilroy told an ancedote concerning Goldman and the Academy Awards; when he won for Butch, he wasn't at the ceremony. He was at the Garden watching the Knicks game. "Can a writer really do that?" asked Gilroy, relating Goldman's disregard for ceremony to his disregard for screenwriting tradition: "Can he ignore and throw away all of the anal rules—Butch is about two guys who don't change at all, and how can he tell this story of tragic dimensions and make it really funny at the same time?" He ended with, "thank you for giving us something unattainable to fail towards constantly."

Koepp accused Gilroy of "stealing his ancedote" and then proceeded to talk about Butch's unique birth. "He didn't know he was writing a movie. It was a treatment for a novel. And that's the sign of a good storyteller. The medium doesn't matter."

William Goldman


Sorkin was hilarious, starting with "since 1969, any good screenwriter has had to deal with the suspicion that his work was "ghostwritten by William Goldman." He then took another turn, mentioning a word in Hebrew, "dayenu," which rougly translates to "it would have been enough." Sorkin used that word to succinctly sum up Goldman's amazing career:

"If he had just wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it would have been enough..." Then, Sorkin went on a tear, using "it would have been enough" as a refrain, and getting to Goldman's (approximately) "26 screenplays, 16 novels, two books for Broadway shows, nine memoirs/non-fiction," and so on, ending with "it would have been enough." Thank you, he said, "for your perfect screenplay."

A visibly touched Goldman took to the stage and told a short story about walking around Manhattan with Butch director George Roy Hill the weekend the film came out. Both men were crushed by bad reviews, but when they walked into a theater to check out the scene, an employee was grinning at them: "We're selling out every show and they love it." Hill said: "Maybe it's not such a disaster after all!"

Maybe it wasn't such a disaster after all: when Goldman's name unfurled across the screen, the audience's hoots and hollers rang through the night. Dayenu.

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