Rodents of Unusual Size have been known only to exist (outside of horror movies) in two places — the bayou country of Louisiana, where they torment residents after appearing in less remote places following Hurricane Katrina and in the Fire Swamp of Florin, where they tormented Buttercup and Westley, aka The Man in Black, aka The Dread Pirate Roberts in “The Princess Bride.”
The real ones (which are essentially nasty overgrown nutria) were so-named in a 2017 documentary as a nod to their fictional counterparts.
I trust even eternal-skeptic William Goldman found some mischievous delight in that addition to his legacy.
The writer — whose screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” received Academy Awards — passed away a week ago today at the age of 85, but lives on through an uncanny ability to coin phrases that have spread like nutria into our vernacular. While quoting a Goldman script (“Is it safe?”) is one of those secret handshakes that movie fans might exchange, his dexterity and economy of language could crystalize a moment.
Consider “follow the money,” the advice the anonymous source known as Deep Throat offers reporters Woodward and Bernstein as they seek the lead that ultimately brings down a presidency.
The only time Deep Throat said it, however, was in Goldman’s “All the President’s Men” screenplay. Yet, it was so on point for the circumstance that it has become part and parcel of any investigation.
“Nobody knows anything” was the opening line in Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” his classic examination and takedown of the business of making movies. Even if you haven’t read the book (and anyone with a love of movies truly should), you’ve either heard it or said it yourself in a setting that seems confusing, hopeless or confusing and hopeless.
For me, the quintessential Goldman moment comes when Butch and Sundance have been chased by the posse (“Who are those guys?”) onto a mountain ledge from which there seems no escape except to jump. Thus begins a verbal tennis match between Paul Newman and Robert Redford that ends with Sundance’s admission that he can’t swim.
“Are you crazy?” Butch asks with a laugh. “The fall will probably kill ya.”
What makes this work is that the characters are admitting to a reality that is usually ignored in most movie scenes. We laugh because, finally, someone on the screen says what those of us in our seats eating popcorn are thinking to ourselves.
Still, for all the screenplays and/or novels that he wrote (“Marathon Man,” “Misery,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Silent Gondoliers,” etc.), from the perspective of this keyboard it’s “The Princess Bride” that I’ll always think of first when William Goldman’s name is spoken.
I mentioned somewhere in here, I think, that Goldman’s ability to turn a phrase has led to those thoughts being adapted for a myriad of conversational tools. Discussing the writer’s passing this week with friends, I was alerted to another such use — as instructions on setting a proper tone for a business presentation.
Begin with a polite greeting “Hello.”
Introduce yourself “My name is Inigo Montoya.”
(Corrected from previous version) Disclose a relevant personal link “You killed my father.”
Cite your expectations for this interaction “Prepare to die.”
The secret to why this line works lies in the simplicity. No need to construct long and winding, tortuous roads (which inevitably will include parenthetical asides that actually add nothing to the ability to get to the end of the thought), or to slide in a segue about some tangential piece of information — such as, to this day, Mandy Patinkin still gets asked in public to cite Montoya’s refrain — just for the sake of elaboration on the way to making a point.
(Corrected from previous version) Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killedmy father. Prepare to die.
The novel, published 45 years ago, could be considered a template for today’s all-too-frequent forays into breaking the fourth wall. It’s filled with self-referential material, while creating a mythology within its pages about the book itself.
The film version’s characters and situations are present in the novel, but so is a fictionalized version of Goldman himself — depicting his struggles in adapting “S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure” for a modern audience. The 30th Anniversary Edition includes a new introduction one that references the introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition, which, helpfully, is included — along with character interviews and the first chapter of the never completed sequel “Buttercup’s Baby.”
Simply reading the well-known adventure story doesn’t suffice for a book like this. The joy is in trying to separate fiction from reality ... to what passes for reality in the world Goldman has created. It’s enough to lead one to the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity.
(I’d suggest that the reader’s task of keeping the various narratives straight would be inconceivable but I’m not sure I know what that word means, no matter how many times I use it.)
At the back of the 30th Anniversary Edition of “The Princess Bride” is one of those lists of questions and discussions for reading group — the last of which gets to the heart (strange choice of words, that) of Goldman’s talent.
“Is Goldman laughing along with his readers,” the question asks, “or laughing at them?”
I think the answer to that is Yes ... and we should be forever grateful he did.
Mail Tribune columnist Robert Galvin, who can be reached at email@example.com, knows something you don’t know ... he’s not left-handed.