By Scott Ross
Los Angeles, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=67460), responding to claims made by Robert Redford that he and the late film director Alan J. Pakula completely re-wrote William Goldman’s Academy Award®-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men (1976), further insisting that only 10 per cent of Goldman’s work remained in the completed film.
Redford, who as progenitor and producer of the movie (and indeed, as unofficial godfather to the original Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book) treated his scenarist with appalling condescension during the re-writing, insisting that Goldman read an un-commissioned script Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later, wife; still later, famously ex-wife) Nora Ephron had cobbled up emphasizing, in Goldman’s tart phrase, that Carl “sure was catnip to the ladies” — an act the screenwriter quite properly regarded as “a gutless betrayal.”* He didn’t add this, so I will: Particularly since it was Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a certified movie star, and that it was the author who recommended his casting as Sundance.†
On one of the supplemental documentaries featured in the 2006 DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray) reissue of ATPM, Redford claims as well that he and Pakula “re-structured” Goldman’s work from top to bottom before filming. If William Goldman is famous for nothing else (and he is, of course, famous for many things, or was, back when people still read books) it is as the author of two statements, one about Hollywood’s endless and panicky chase after the Next Big Thing (“Nobody knows anything”) and this, on his craft: “Screenplays are structure.” That Goldman, who suggested what now, in hindsight, seems the most obvious, simple means of cracking that book’s screen adaptation (throw out the second half) and who, say what you will about the quality of his individual novels and scripts, is absolutely solid on structure, needed an actor and a director, however gifted, to give his work that very element — particularly after a decade’s worth of scenarios, an Academy Award® and ten novels — most of them bestsellers — is, on the face of it, absurd.
Back to May, 2011. Richard Stayton suspects all of this too, but goes beyond it: Through dogged, painstaking research which involves (among other things) reading every single draft he could get his hands on of the ATPM script written by Goldman and comparing that work to the film as it has stood since 1976, he concludes that William Goldman — and William Goldman alone — wrote the screenplay. And I would take this a step further. It’s my understanding of WGA nominating practice for its own awards —and Christ only knows the rules may have changed in the years since I came across this data in Harlan Ellison’s book on the “City on the Edge of Forever” Star Trek episode — that the screenwriting committee making said nominations reads those screenplays. They may also compare them to either the completed movie or to continuity scripts (essentially, transcripts of the finished film after the final edit.) In any case, the WGA duly conferred on Goldman its Best Adapted Drama award for ATPM. I have no idea what procedures the Motion Picture Academy screenwriting committee undertakes, but they may be similar. Yet I would go further still: Neither Redford nor Pakula applied for arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild for credit on this movie they, according to Redford, completely re-wrote.††
I preface my remarks on ATPM with all of this in part because what Stayton did to prove the provenance of the screenplay is precisely what “Woodstein” undertook to unravel the mysteries attendant to the June, 1972 break-in at National Democratic Headquarters, and what the movie of their book is really all about. And here Goldman and Pakula, whatever the latter may have said to Redford, certainly agree: The movie is filled with examples of the sheer, mind-numbing, foot-wearying legwork Woodward and Bernstein went through, and which at that time was a hallmark of serious American journalism. Indeed, the highest (no pun intended) moment in the movie is an explication of exactly that. Faced with stacks and stacks of Library of Congress check-out cards, some of which might implicate E. Howard Hunt, the pair digs in. The movie cuts to a shot from above, of Redford and Hoffman at the table, poring over the cards. Pakula and his superb cinematographer, Gordon Willis, then dissolve to a higher vantage-point, the two Washington Post reporters swallowed up by the reading room, the cards spreading out before them like a small paper flood. They dissolve again, to an even higher overheard shot, almost a god’s-eye view that renders “Woodstein” as ants to a forest floor. That the search the pair is on ultimately proves fruitless is unimportant; it conveys the lengths to which two dedicated journalists go to nail down the facts they need to buttress their suppositions. The metaphor is repeated, in various ways, throughout the movie: Hoffman or Redford dwarfed by government buildings, or Redford’s car, seen via a helicopter shot, disappearing into Washington traffic. To a city whose very institutions, represented by those massive buildings, regard them as insignificant, Woodward and Bernstein are puny. Unnoticed, and unnoticeable. At least until they hit pay-dirt.
For my generation of writers, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. Not because their investigation ultimately led to the resignation of a notably hated President (although that was rich icing on the cake) but because their work, unappreciated at first, thorough and irrefutable at last, was, to us, a shining example of why newspaper journalism existed, and was so terribly important to the life of the Republic. Legions of us became (or wanted to become) would-be Woodsteins because of their example. Alas, far too few of us wanted the grinding, exhaustive, shoe leather-thinning grunt-work that went into it. And fewer still, in this age of 24/7 corporate cable news, instant celebrity and the blogosphere, practice it. Why dig for the truth when you can present rumor, or (even better) just make up your own “facts”? Why ask questions, and seek their answers, if airing innuendo will get you the fame and the book-deal and the featured position on Fox or MS-NBC? They still want to be Woodstein; what they don’t want is having to do the work Woodstein did. That Bill Clinton, with his 1996 Telecommunications Bill, guaranteed the death of the vaunted (and necessary) American free press and replaced it with one wholly subservient to corporate desires is, for once, almost beside the point.
In this regard, if in no other, All the President’s Men looks better with every passing year. It is, moreover, a movie of rare intelligence, filled with pleasures. Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation, short attention spans and internet profusion, of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion, it is nearly impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today, at least in Hollywood.§ As such it fits neatly into that brief, shining moment, the glory that was 1970s cinema. Few studio suits now would consider green-lighting a movie in which politics are central; recognizable and fully-explicated human characters fill every frame; the ultimate outcome is already known; and a considerable portion of its greatness, and its concomitant tension, arise from long, close, unbroken shots of its stars talking on the telephone. Two such sequences in particular (one each for Redford and Hoffman) show the power of fine dramatic writing, good acting, and assured direction by people who weren’t afraid, as filmmakers are today, of holding on an actor in a medium close shot for several minutes… unless, of course, the actor and the camera are both moving, allowing yet another Scorsese-wannabe his moment of ostentatious Steadicam glory. (And would a mass audience even put up with such a thing now?)
Pakula must also be accorded credit, along with Willis, for the prevailing aura of increasingly justifiable paranoia the movie generates. This was something of a Pakula specialty; his previous films as a director included The Parallax View and Klute, which form with All the President’s Men a kind of unholy trinity of anxious national obsession. (Quartet, if we include the later Presumed Innocent.) That he was an actor’s director is made manifest in the performances in these movies, from the smallest role to the largest, and by his astute sense of casting. ATPM, like another Redford hit, The Sting, benefits from one of the finest all-around supporting casts of the period: Jason Robards (Ben Bradley), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), the magnificent Jane Alexander giving a virtual master-class on screen acting in two scenes as the frightened, angry Committee to Re-elect bookkeeper, and Robert Walden as an amiable, anxious Donald Zegretti. And, in smaller but no less telling or important roles: Meredith Baxter, James Karen, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Nicholas Coster, Lindsay Crouse, Neva Patterson, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday (the last two in a scene — presumably from Bernstein’s self-serving draft of the screenplay — with wholly fictionalized accents, such as Carl’s fooling Holliday’s secretary in order to see Beatty.)
And that is not even to mention Hal Holbrook’s mesmerizing turn as “Deep Throat” (now known to have been the former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.) It was to Deep Throat that Goldman assigned the script’s most famous (and wholly fictitious) line, “Follow the money.” But there is far more to the role than unintentional catch-phrases, as there is more to Holbrook’s riveting performance than shadow and cigarettes.# Veiled in more ways than merely the visual, Holbrook’s Deep Throat is, despite a certain, indefinable, air of the sinister, also a man outraged, disappointed and disgusted by the Nixon Administration’s utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the American people. (Although it has been strongly suggested that Mark Felt was equally livid at being passed over for the Directorship of his agency after Hoover’s death, and there appears to be truth to that accusation; Felt was known by the White House to be “leaking like a sieve” to the media.) And it is in these scenes that Goldman lands some his most apposite dialogue. Some of it may come from Felt’s own remarks in the book — it’s been a few years since I last read it — but in either case, many of the movie Deep Throat’s observations are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so:
“Look: Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
And, later: “I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.”
How he would loathe the papers (and the broadcast networks) now.
Willis’ lighting is superb throughout, from the strong depth-of-focus that keeps every image crisp and allows the viewer a firm grasp of everything in the frame to the way he darkens the surroundings as the central mystery itself becomes more circuitous and frightening. In a career whose highlights included Klute, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Pennies from Heaven, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, Willis’ work here stands as a veritable exemplar of his devotion to craft, and clarity, as well as to un-self-conscious art. Equally worthy of praise is George Jenkins’ set designs, and the set decor of George Gaines, which include a meticulous re-creation of the Post’s pressroom; and the quietly efficient editing of Robert L. Wolfe. David Shire’s uncannily effective, abbreviated score too deserves mention: It’s brief (less than 12 minutes) and there isn’t a note heard until 30 minutes in, yet this spare, splendidly-spotted music — essentially winds, brass, strings and an un-emphatic but most efficacious synthesizer — performs miracle work in its subtle suggestion of a subcutaneous un-ease that slowly becomes first pervasive, then quietly terrifying.
In this year, which has just seen the 42nd anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will soon commemorate the 40th year since Nixon’s characteristically worm-like resignation, and in a world (and a country) that is essentially unrecognizable to those of us who lived through these events and dared to dream that Woodward and Bernstein just might, in their dogged, unassuming fashion, have helped to create a new political reality, it is incumbent upon us to revisit these crucial events, the meticulous, careful investigative journalism that exposed them, and the nearly flawless movie that evolved from both… and which was itself enormously successful.
And to reflect perhaps as well that, from the first instance to the last, both those initial Post articles and the movie that celebrates them, are the work of the what is arguably the last, un-sung, hero of American life: The writer.
Look on these Works, ye Modern, and despair.
The past is a foreign country.
*Maybe it was seeing that phrase “gutless betrayal” that turned Redford from a friend to such an implacable foe. He seems remarkably thin-skinned, even for an actor… about himself, anyway, if not about the feelings of others. It appeared to personally offend him that Pauline Kael’s reviews got reprinted in her books. I wish I shared Redford’s conviction that books are immortal, since these days it seems only pop songs (from the rock era only), motion pictures and old television sitcoms really are.
†Goldman, perhaps wisely, did not comment on the controversy. In an emailed response to Stayton’s request for discussion he wrote, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” In his influential Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman wrote: “If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”
††I would never suggest that Pakula filmed every word or scene exactly as Goldman dictated. Nearly every movie is altered, to some degree, and often improved, by its making. Circumstances change. Locations are switched. Scenes are cut. New sequences may be added. Actors improvise. Dustin Hoffman, in one of those ATPM video documentaries, makes the ludicrous claim that “you don’t film the script”; no — apparently, you film what Dustin Hoffman decides to do, and say. He also maintains (on the Tootsie DVD) that “screenplays are just blueprints,” a falsehood of such epic proportions, and repeated by directors and producers so often it seems to have become Hollywood Holy Writ. A blueprint is not a suggestion. Once it has attained its final form, it cannot be altered significantly, without the entire building structure becoming unstable. You don’t, unless you are mad or self-destructive or criminally negligent, add or subtract or move walls or floors in a building under construction once the architect has signed off on the final blueprint. The “screenplays are blueprints” metaphor is both entirely specious and blissfully ignorant of reality.
§The recent success of Spotlight seems to refute my argument, unless you reflect that the picture, which I admire, concerns itself with the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and not, as with ATPM, with the anti-Constitutional machinations of the Federal government. Both were appalling. Indeed, the damage done by the Church to its most vulnerable parishioners might seem, taken on an emotional basis — and over not merely decades but centuries — to trump what Tricky and his minions achieved. But (and I most certainly do not mean to minimize or in any way denigrate the suffering of young victims of rape — I had my own “#MeToo” moment as an adolescent) the attempted murder of a democracy is, I aver, the far greater sin, if only because it affects so very many more people.
#It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Carter was inspired by Holbrook, and his cigarettes, when he created “The Smoking Man” for The X-Files.
Post-Script: August 2018
I was struck, on re-reading this essay, by the sentence which begins, “Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation… of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion…”
If the current mass-insanity among first Democrats and the mainstream press (and now, increasingly, Republicans) which has led to a resurgence of Red-baiting McCarthyism unseen since 1954 and based wholly on a lie cobbled up by one candidate to “explain” her loss to another, and based as well on that candidate’s vulnerability on the “collusion” question (all those uranium bucks from the Russian Federation going to her husband and their phony Foundation) is not an illustration of the impossibility, now, of independent journalism by the major news media, I’m Ben Bradlee.
All text (other than Goldman’s) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross