"I HAVE moved 23 times in my life," screenwriter Bo Goldman once claimed, "mostly with six children in tow, sometimes with a pony wedged into the back seat of an old Dodge convertible, dragging an old U-Haul smelling of other people's belongings, always with my heart on my sleeve, a lump in my throat and a generous portion of guilt as I put my family through yet another instance of the grass being greener somewhere else, a rainbow around the bend."
By the fairytale standards of Hollywood, Bo Goldman's life is the stuff that dreams, and movies, are made of. Stories of struggle and success in the movies are never in short supply. Every featured player and ingenue has his version to tell of his meteoric climb to the top when, after years of obscurity, urged by fate or chance, sheer drive or raw talent, he flashes into the white-hot spotlight of fame. Few lives, however, have touched the roller-coaster lows and lofty highs that Goldman's has.
When Milos Forman brought Bo Goldman's adaptation of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to the screen in 1975, it represented not only Goldman's first screen credit but also his first work to be published or produced in more than 15 years. The result was an Oscar for Goldman. He would win another in 1980 for "Melvin and Howard." In between those films he wrote the script for the Bette Midler film "The Rose."
Most recently, Goldman wrote the screenplay for the highly praised "Shoot the Moon," starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Many speculate that it may net him his third Oscar.
In the wake of the acclaim for "Shoot the Moon," Goldman has temporarily abandoned his home in St. Helena, Calif., and, with his family, set up house on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he has labored to finish the script for the film that will mark his directorial debut. The screenplay is based on Avery Corman's "The Old Neighborhood" and, according to Goldman, tells the story of "someone who's willing to threaten himself in order to find out who he is."
"The Old Neighborhood," Goldman explains, "is about a guy from the Bronx who works all his life to become a success and does so in the advertising business in California, but finds that his achievement has left him empty, alienated and distant from himself. He drops out, moves to New York and begins to haunt the places in the Bronx where he hung out and grew up. The overall theme is that it really doesn't matter what you do; but that it is more a matter of not forgetting who you are."
The theme is not irrelevant to Goldman's own life, although the particulars differ vastly. After only a short time with him, one senses that enthusiastic curiosity is, for him, a perpetual state, generously seasoned by humor and faintly, perhaps, by fatalism, the residue of past disappointments. Dressed casually in a dark-blue turtleneck sweater and roomy tan slacks, staring into his glass of red wine, he speaks softly, like a priest conferring absolution.
Tall and squarely built with thinning reddish hair, he most resembles an eccentric but ardent Irish Catholic clergyman. His true origins, however, could not be more different.
Goldman, who will turn 50 on his next birthday, was born in Manhattan, the son of a vastly wealthy and influential New York businessman. Julian Goldman was the inventor of the installment plan that he implemented into his nationwide chain of 78 People's Stores. He was the founder of contract bridge and a Broadway producer, as well as a confidant and advisor to FDR. He was also a sportsman with a stable of horses in Chantilly, France. Three years before Goldman was born, the Crash of '29 would force the collapse of his father's empire. At his death he would retain the ownership of only a single store. "I am convinced," Goldman has written, "that I will equal him in this one respect; his ending, a downward spiral into two dingy rooms in a residential hotel."
After a resolutely unorthodox "Park Avenue Jewish upbringing," Goldman attended in succession the Dalton School, Exeter and Princeton. At 25, his first play, "First Impressions," was produced. "The play starred Farley Granger and Polly Bergen, if you can imagine that," Goldman remembers. "Brooks Atkinson reviewed it and wrote that Farley Granger played his part with all the flexibility of a telephone pole."
"First Impressions" ran for three months on Broadway and had a respectable tour on the road, but by most standards the show was a flop. For the next fifteen years, Goldman labored to mount his second show, "a serious Civil War musical entitled 'Hurrah, Boys, Hurrah.' " His collaborators on the project were among the best the period could offer. Fred Coe, one of the early wizards of television, was producer; Arthur Penn and, later, Jerome Robbins were directors, but the show would never make it. At the same time, he plunged into television, working on "Playhouse 90" and "Playhouse 62." His first writing assignments, he recalls, were to adapt television scripts from two old David Selznick movies, "The Spiral Staircase" and "The Paradine Case." The cast for the latter included Richard Basehart, Viveca Lindfors and Boris Karloff as the judge.
"The last thing I wrote for Karloff to say," Goldman says, "was 'Cheerio.' He owned a great deal of real estate in London and was enormously wealthy; he had spent his whole life at Lord's Cricket Field, and I remember him telling me, 'My dear boy, no one from England says "Cheerio" except Colonel Blimp.' "
"I only did the work," he explains, "to sustain my writing of 'Hurrah, Boys, Hurrah.' It wasn't real work; I would get the jobs randomly. Maybe two or three times a year something would come up, an Emmy show or a special, I'd run out to the West Coast, and that would hold us together for four months. When I finished, people would ask me what I was doing next and when I told them I was going back to Long Island to work on the musical, they'd say, 'Oh, God, Bo, not that play!' No one could understand it. I'm not quite sure I understood it, but somehow the play was the key to my being serious as a writer."
"It was always a question of keeping the dream alive," Mab Ashforth, Goldman's wife and the mother of their four daughters and two sons, explains. "Giving up just never crossed our minds. I always thought that the saddest people were the ones who had settled or those who had never dreamed."
Neither Ashforth nor Goldman would suggest, however, that dreams do not exact their full price in hardship and strain. In spite of his occasional television jobs, Goldman constantly labored under the shadow of bankruptcy.
"I would hate for you to see my income tax returns for about 10 or 15 of those years," Goldman says. "About the only way I could maintain my equilibrium financially was through selling shares of myself to my rich friends from college. Finally we just about bottomed out and I had to preside over the disintegration of my family."
During this period, Goldman's older children were sent to boarding schools as scholarship students or to live with other families as au pairs, where they would look after other children in exchange for their board.
Ashforth, who comes from a wealthy family of northeastern Protestants that stretches back to the Mayflower on both sides, became a fishmonger and baker, opening a still-thriving fish and bread shop (she sold the business some years back) called "Loaves and Fishes" in Sagaponack, Long Island, to help make ends meet. She also recalls operating a nursery out of their apartment and sleeping three to a mattress in the attic of an unheated farm house with a single blanket to share.
Goldman himself suffered at the time from what he describes as a "choking, insufferable humiliation." Some of the money borrowed from his richer friends subsidized his psychoanalysis, made possible only by his status as a "scholarship patient."
"There's a line in 'Melvin and Howard,' " Goldman explains, "where Mary says of Melvin, 'He can't make any money and it makes him feel bad.' I couldn't support my family and I felt lousy about it."
"I also learned," Goldman continues, "that it is only with strangers that you realize how provoking your life can be. It's from strangers and acquaintances that you receive those gratuitous slaps in the face. It takes a lot to swim upstream against that. The only thing which kept me going was my wife and the kids who never cared about my success or lack of it. They only cared because it was causing me pain."
"People were so contemptuous of us," Mab Ashforth adds. "It's really fascinating to me that all the things which at that time were thought of as arrogance, a lack of reality, and stubbornness are now referred to as idealism, persistence, courage and individuality; it's remarkable how success has transformed us into acceptable people."
Goldman recalls that his low point came sometime around the winter of 1971 in a cold Polish boarding house on northern Long Island.
"During the summer months the boarding house is very popular," Goldman explains, "but in the winter all the heat is turned off except in certain rooms and it was cold. I remember at one point having a producer and his wife over for dinner and it was too cold for us to take off our gloves to eat. Once the pipes were frozen solid and the plumbing wouldn't work so my wife and kids had to bundle up and run behind the house to go to the bathroom. Not long after that Mab said that she might go out to California and take the children. It was then that I began to put down my first notes for 'Shoot the Moon.' "
"Shoot the Moon," originally called "Switching," was Goldman's first attempt at writing for the screen. Milos Forman was so impressed by it when he read it that he asked Goldman to write the script for "Cuckoo's Nest."
"The script began making the rounds in Hollywood some time in 1972," Goldman says, "and the reaction to it by the producers there was always, 'Bo, I love it, it's beautiful, it's the story of my life, I don't want to do it, but here's something just like it.' I turned down the chance to write the scripts for both 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and 'Ordinary People.' After writing 'Shoot the Moon,' well, it just didn't make any sense."
Set in several moody locations in tranquil northern California, similar to those in St. Helena, "Shoot the Moon" looks inside the troubled family of George and Faith Dunlap, a marriage strained by his recent success as a high-caliber sportswriter and her time-consuming duties as a mother of four. Although some of the events parallel parts of Goldman's experience, he stresses that to assume that "Shoot the Moon" is his story would be to miss the point. Rather than emphasize the autobiographical elements of the story, Goldman prefers to highlight the areas which most broken homes may have in common, for example, the effect of divorce on children.
"When I started to write this screenplay years ago," he explains, "I looked around me and all the marriages were collapsing, and the real victims of these marital wars were the children. I think that children are the philosophers of our time because they are the only ones who are not afraid to tell the truth. Children know that a war is being waged and call a spade a spade while the adults are busy justifying their lives, rationalizing their actions, and criticizing their spouses. In one passage which I took out, Faith says, 'George, you took vows.' Vows is an archaic word in our language; no one vows anything anymore. Children somehow innately know that these vows are important, that marriage is meant to be for life, forever. Everyone says that nothing is forever.
"Certainly my marriage has undergone tremendous stress," Goldman continues, "and there have been difficult times, but the story of George and Faith Dunlap is not my story, though many things could have come from my own life. The atmosphere of the house, the sense of life emanating from the kitchen and, in particular, the relationship of Faith to the children is based on my wife and kids. But I think that all the female characters which I write are based on my wife because she's really the only woman I know. I am continually trying to capture what it is that she does. There's a lot in common between Linda in 'Melvin and Howard,' Rose and Faith in 'Shoot the Moon.' "
Goldman does admit to another aspect of George's character, a part of his anger and volatile frustration, which he claims to have uprooted from his own experience. In one scene in a restaurant late in the film George tells Faith, "I was in awe of you. You were creating lives, and what was I doing? Looking for a pat from an editor and doing a profile on the greenskeeper at Pebble Beach."
" I felt like an outsider," Goldman explains, "and always will, I suppose; like a guest in my own home--a very privileged guest. I was honored to be a part of it all, but it didn't have much to do with me. It was theater. These kids were growing up and the curtains that came down every day were wonderful."
Goldman confesses to a great pride of authorship in "Shoot the Moon" but admits that he looks forward to the time when, as a director, he will have more complete control of his work.
However, before filming can begin on "The Old Neighborhood," Goldman must return to California to complete work on the screenplay for "Final Payments," a project, based on the novel by Mary Gordon, that he began some time ago for Diane Keaton.
"With 'Final Payments'," Goldman says, "I'm trying to create a vehicle for an actress whom I believe in. I believe that there is some tradition for that. After all, I come from the musical theater where people used to write shows for Merman and, not to sound immodest, didn't Shaw write for Ellen Terry?
"It's the story of a woman who at the age of 35 tries to discover how to live after having given over the first half of her life to the elimination of all the risks of living. Diane became interested in the book some years ago. Several studios have looked at it and turned it down. It's very delicate and difficult but we're seeing if we can solve it. I took a hack at it once, then put it aside. Now I'm going back to it."
The project, Goldman says, is a thorny one. "It's a Catholic novel which takes place in Queens," he says. "So with 'The Old Neighborhood' in the Bronx you've got me in two boroughs."
Goldman says his work scouting locations for "The Old Neighborhood" has conjured up many memories of his own childhood experiences in the borough just north of Manhattan.
"My mother was from the Bronx," he explains. "And I have lingering memories of the trips we used to take there on holidays to visit our so-called 'poor relatives.' They lived a simpler life and I always felt terribly welcome there, somehow more so than in my own home. I've amalgamated a lot of what I remember of those days as a boy in the Bronx."
"I take a tremendous amount of care in how a screenplay is written," he says, "and its quality, by itself, as a piece of work. The New Yorker published Ingmar Bergman's screenplay for "Cries and Whispers" and I feel that all my screenplays should be publishable. I consider myself a dramatist; I happen to write screenplays--I'm a screenplaywright. That's a pretentious phrase, but I take that much pride in the work I'm doing."
Goldman says repeatedly that he is "at an in-between time" in his life. He is deeply involved in "Final Payments" but impatient to take on his new role as a director. Also, the recent accidental death of his 22-year-old son cast a dark shadow over his family, reinforcing the fear that his good fortune has been gained only so that it may be taken away.
"I feel that I'm starting out fresh again," he says, "that writing all these movies has been a preparation for my real work which is to direct. I want to make films which are completely my own so that later I don't have to say, 'How did it turn out that way? Wasn't it clear what I wanted?' I have never been satisfied with my films and I can't fault the directors; that's an empty exercise. I'm very happy with 'Shoot the Moon' and Jonathan Demme's work on 'Melvin and Howard.' 'Cuckoo's Nest' was really Milos' vision and I was the analyst; I evoked and interpreted his dream for him. It can be your vision as a writer, but, in the end, the director has to go out and shoot the picture.
"If there is a train of thought which runs through my work," he continues, "it is a yearning, a longing to make the people real and capture their lives on the screen. I think there is nothing more fulfilling in the world than to see your view of life realized in art. For me, film is unique; it has a peculiar quality for recreating life. I find life so wonderful, that to try and capture it in art is like trying to catch starlight."