NEW YORK—Bo Goldman, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplays “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Melvin and Howard” and whose empathetic, textured screenplays made him one of Hollywood’s greatest writers, has died. He was 90.
Goldman died Tuesday, July 25, in Helendale, California, said her son-in-law, director Todd Field. No details were given about the cause of death.
It wasn’t until Goldman was in his 40s, after years of struggling as a playwright, that he found success in Hollywood. In 1975, he adapted Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for his first film credit. The film, directed by Miloš Forman and starring Jack Nicholson as a patient in a psychiatric ward, won Best Picture Oscars and Best Adapted Screenplay for Goldman and Lawrence Hauben.
Five years later, Goldman won again for Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard,” based on a hapless Utah gas station owner named Melvin Dummar who claims to be a Howard Hughes beneficiary after the billionaire’s death.
Those scripts and more: the family drama “Shoot the Moon”; “The Rose,” with Bette Midler; “Scent of a Woman,” with Al Pacino, made Goldman a widely-regarded master screenwriter alongside contemporaries such as Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsky. Goldman said that he considered himself a playwright who happened to write screenplays. “I’m a screenwriter,” he said.
“If there is a thread of thought that runs through my work, it is a yearning, a yearning to make people real and to capture their lives on the screen,” Goldman told The Washington Post in 1982. “I think there is nothing else rewarding in the world than seeing your vision of life realized in art. For me, cinema is unique; it has a peculiar quality to recreate life. I find life so wonderful that trying to capture it in art is like trying to capture the light of the stars.”
Robert Spencer Goldman was born on September 10, 1932 in New York, the son of an enormously wealthy businessman, Julian Goldman. His father’s clothing chain at one point had locations all over the country. He produced Broadway shows. Franklin Roosevelt was his lawyer. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 finished him off. At his death, he only had one store. When he was a young adult, Goldman learned that his father had had another family and had never married his mother.
“My father was a ghetto kid who went from rags to riches, then lost it all, and having committed my life to imitating him in nothing, I am convinced that I will match him in this respect: his end, a downward spiral in two gloomy rooms in a residential hotel and bankruptcy,” Goldman wrote in a 1981 essay in The New York Times.
While attending Princeton, Goldman wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, a theater company. She dropped the second “b” in Bob after a college paper accidentally left it out. She liked Bo and kept the name.
After serving three years in the Pacific during World War II, Goldman’s first work, “First Impressions,” was produced when he was 25 years old. (Goldman was a lyricist.) It starred Farley Granger and Polly Bergen, but received poor reviews and was judged a flop. Goldman then toiled for years trying to stage his Civil War musical, “Hurrah, Boys, Hurrah.”
In that time, Goldman worked intermittently in television, but the years were painfully short. Poverty, he wrote, “lurks in the ring of every phone call, in every mail delivery.” In 1954 Goldman married Mabel Rathbun Ashforth and they had six children together.
“There’s a line in ‘Melvin and Howard,’ where Mary says of Melvin, ‘He can’t make money and it makes him feel bad,'” Goldman later recounted. “I couldn’t support my family and I felt bad about it.”
Things changed after Goldman wrote her first screenplay, “Shoot the Moon,” about a mother of four whose husband has an affair with a younger woman. The Hollywood producers turned it down, but Forman read it and hired Goldman to rewrite “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
“He said, ‘What would you do with this script?’ Goldman remembered the Writers Guild years later. “The first thing I remember saying is that McMurphy (Nicholson) should go in and kiss the admissions officers.”
The enormous success of the film (which also won Oscars for Forman, Nicholson and Louise Fletcher) was the breakthrough Goldman had long hoped for, though he considered it a qualifying victory. “Even then I hung my head,” Goldman recounted in 1981. “After all, I had adapted someone else’s work; Was it really mine?
Finally, “Shoot the Moon” was made, directed by Alan Parker in 1982 and starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. But first Goldman wrote 1979’s “The Rose,” which starred Midler in a loose adaptation of the life of Janis Joplin.
However, “Melvin and Howard” was one of Goldman’s greatest achievements. The comedy, directed by Demme, was a critical success (Jason Robards was nominated for an Oscar; Mary Steenburgen won for best supporting actress) and remains a cult favorite.
Goldman also wrote “Little Nikita” (1988), with Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix, and worked uncredited on Garry Marshall’s “The Flamingo Kid” (1984), Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981), and Demme’s “Swing Shift.” (1984). . He starred in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” (1990) and received a story credit at his end credit: in Beatty’s 2016 film “Rules Don’t Apply.”
In 2017, screenwriter Eric Roth, for a New York magazine project on the best screenwriters, praised her “bold originality, her understanding of social mores, her wry sense of humor and her utter anger at being human, and all with his soft-spoken grace and eloquent simplicity.”
Goldman, who lived in Rockport, Maine, lost a son, Jesse, in 1981 and his wife died in 2017. He is survived by four daughters, one son, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“Essence of a Woman” (1992), adapted from a 1974 Italian film of the same name, gave Goldman her third Oscar nomination — and one more moment in the spotlight.
Goldman often spoke about the “hard work” of writing screenplays. Even if you’re lucky enough to succeed, he said, the tension only increases with the studios and the directors. “You’re fighting for your job all the time,” he said. “And they hold all the cards. And for them are the shoes. They are selling shoes.
When asked by the Times in 1993 how it felt to once again find praise for “Scent of a Woman,” Goldman replied, “People ask me, ‘Are you surprised?'” Goldman said. “I’m always surprised when something good happens to me.” /ra
Milos Forman, Oscar-winning director, dies at 86
Sharon Stone on Jon Jon Briones as ‘the Brando of our time’
subscribe to ASK MORE to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer and over 70 other titles, share up to 5 devices, listen to the news, download from 4am and share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.