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Expert Advice: William Goldman on mysterious heroes

9 September 2010

William Goldman is one of the great screenwriters. Not only did he pen Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride, he also writes very well about the art and craft of screenwriting, as seen in the introductory essays in his screenplay collections, and in his two behind-the-scenes tell-alls: Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I was re-reading the latter, and despite a few dated pop culture references, it’s still enormously entertaining and incredibly insightful. In the section about the writing (and possible reason for failure) of The Ghost & the Darkness, he uses this wonderfully witty exchange from Casablanca to illustrate the point that movie heroes must have one thing going for them: mystery.

What does “I was misinformed” tell us about Rick? As Goldman writes,

What it tells us is this: Don’t ask. What it tells us is this: Bad things happened, it’s dark down there, and I will die before I tell you. A lot of that comes from the dialogue, a lot from the speaker of the dialogue.  If the Hansons are in Casablanca, you know it’s because they have a gig there.  Or some high school girl they like is taking summer school.  But Bogart–Bogart then–forty-four years old, with the gravel voice, the sad wrinkled face, that man understands pain.  And no power on earth will make him talk about it, it’s that awful.

The character of Rick, of course, is very old — he is the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past. Most movie stars–actors, not comedians–have essentially all played that same role.  And they have to always face front, never turn sideways–

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what?  They disappear.

I thought this was especially interesting considering that the audience does eventually find out via flashback what the deal is. But in the first act of the film, Rick is very much a mysterious, larger-than-life figure who even pokes fun at the rudimentary file the Germans have on him (“Are my eyes really blue?”). The flashback works as an answer to the mystique. Imagine if the film instead opened chronologically, with the Paris sequence serving as a kind of teaser… not as good, right?

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