Screenwriter Bo Goldman, who won Oscars for his scripts to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Melvin and Howard” and was among a select group of film scribes including Robert Towne and William Goldman considered to be among that generation’s best, died Tuesday in Helendale, Calif., his son-in-law, director Todd Field, confirmed to the New York Times. He was 90.
Goldman was also Oscar nominated for 1993’s “Scent of a Woman.”
The 1976 Oscar he shared with Lawrence Hauben for co-adapting Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a particularly impressive achievement considering that “Cuckoo’s Nest” represented only Goldman’s second screenplay and the first to be produced. The win for adapted screenplay was part of a sweep for the film that also included victories for best picture, director, actor and actress. No movie had won those five awards since 1934’s “It’s a Wonderful Night” (this achievement was equaled in 1991 by “Silence of the Lambs”).
Goldman began in television: He edited, wrote scripts and served as an associate producer for CBS’ prestigious “Playhouse 90” anthology series in the late 1950s, working on episodes including Civil War drama “The Tunnel.” Also during the 1950s, he was an associate producer on “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse” and a producer of CBS’ brief “The Seven Lively Arts.”
Goldman co-wrote both the lyrics and the music to a tuner adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” called “First Impressions” that starred Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Farley Granger but failed on Broadway in 1959.
Goldman later told the Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter, “I think that lyric writing was very good training for writing screenplays — because you can’t waste a lot of words, even though I concentrate a great deal, in the movies I write, on language. I think there’s a very powerful rhythm that exists in any film and either you have an ear for that or you don’t — it’s a musical thing.”
He did the adaptation for a 1962 NBC version of “The Paradine Case,” earlier made as a feature by Alfred Hitchcock; penned a 1964 episode of “The Defenders”; and produced two segments of “Great Performances” in 1974: “Enemies,” based on a play by Maxim Gorky, and “June Moon,” a play from the 1920s by George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner. But generally, for a long period before he broke into features with “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Goldman found so little work that, the New York Times said in 1980, “His wife provided most of the family’s income by operating a seafood market called Loaves and Fishes in Sagaponack, L.I.”
Director Milos Forman chose Goldman to rewrite “Cuckoo’s Nest” after reading his script “Shoot the Moon” (later made into a film starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton).
Goldman received only $8,000 for his work on “Cuckoo’s Nest,” but the critical acclaim and Oscar jumpstarted his career.
The strengths of his next produced work, 1979’s “The Rose,” laid in Bette Midler’s volcanic performance and less in the fragmented script by Goldman and an uncredited Michael Cimino that loosely adapted the life of Janis Joplin. (Midler and supporting actor Frederic Forrest deservedly drew Oscar nominations.) Goldman professed not to like the film.
His next film, “Melvin and Howard,” on which he carried a solo writing credit, was far more impressive. With director Jonathan Demme he crafted what Vincent Canby called a sharp and engaging “satiric expression of the American Dream” in the story of Melvin Dummar, who claimed to have met Howard Hughes and be one of the beneficiaries of a suspicious will that surfaced after the eccentric billionaire’s death. Goldman won his second Oscar for his effort. (The screenwriter also penned a Hughes-related script for Universal called “Sonny” that was never produced, and he later wrote another Hughes-centered script for Warren Beatty; in 2014 Beatty directed and starred in a film centered on an affair Hughes had seemingly based on his own script.)
After “Shoot the Moon,” directed by Alan Parker, in 1982, Goldman did uncredited work on Demme’s 1984 comedy “Swing Shift,” starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, and on Garry Marshall’s romantic dramedy “The Flamingo Kid,” starring Matt Dillon.
“Little Nikita,” a 1988 spy thriller with Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix, was more commercial, but Goldman came back with director Martin Brest’s 1993 film “Scent of a Woman,” which the screenwriter adapted from the 1974 Italian film of the same name and the novel upon which it was based. The film picked up Oscar nominations for best picture, director and Goldman’s screenplay, and Al Pacino won for best actor.
“By the end of ‘Scent of a Woman,’” Roger Ebert wrote, “we have arrived at the usual conclusion of the coming-of-age movie, and the usual conclusion of the prep school movie. But rarely have we been taken there with so much intelligence and skill.”
Goldman did not have unerring judgment about either the projects he chose or those he turned down: “I did the first draft on ‘Ragtime’ for Milos and decided I didn’t want to continue,” the screenwriter told the New York Times. “I also turned down ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and ‘Ordinary People.’” He seemed to have a sense of humor about it.
Director Harold Becker’s Pacino-John Cusack film “City Hall” (1996), to which Goldman contributed along with Ken Lipper, Paul Schrader and Nicholas Pileggi, did not live up to its ambitions to be a politically muckraking New York story along the lines of “Prince of the City.”
For the spiritually inclined romantic drama “Meet Joe Black,” vaguely based on the classic 1934 film “Death Takes a Holiday,” Goldman was brought on by director Brest to work on a script that was ultimately credited to four writers (though Goldman claimed he did not look at the previous drafts). Unfortunately, the film that resulted, starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Claire Forlani, was not well-received by critics.
Robert Goldman was born in New York City; his father, Julian, owned the Goldman department store chain and employed Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his lawyer but lost his fortune during the Depression. Robert frequently attended stage performances with his father, a backer of Broadway shows, and was educated at prep schools included Phillips Exeter Academy. While at Princeton he wrote a musical, “Ham ’n Legs,” that was ultimately presented on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” After college he served in the Army for three years.
Interviewed for William Froug’s 1996 book “Zen and the Art of Screenwriting,” Goldman said of penning screenplays: “It’s not a craft, it’s an art. It takes the sensibility of an artist. And a lot of great writers who are novelists or journalists can’t do it.”
Despite the success he achieved, Goldman had six children and sometimes took assignments for the money. In 1990 he did uncredited work on the Warren Beatty film “Dick Tracy” even though he blamed Beatty in part for the poor showing of “Shoot the Moon,” according to Peter Biskind’s Beatty biography “Star.”
More impressively, he did a complete (though uncredited) rewrite of the script to “The Perfect Storm,” which became a huge box office success in 2000.
Goldman was held in high esteem by his fellow writers. In 1998, Eric Roth told the New York Times that the “great Bo Goldman” is “the pre-eminent screenwriter — in my mind as good as it gets. He has the most varied and intelligent credits, from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ to ‘Shoot the Moon,’ the best divorce movie ever made, to ‘Scent of a Woman,’’ to the great satire ‘Melvin and Howard.’ He rarely makes mistakes, and he manages to maintain a distinctive American voice. And he manages to stay timely.”
The screenwriter reaped a number of kudos from the Writers Guild of America, winning WGA Awards for “Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Melvin and Howard,” drawing nominations in 1983 for “Shoot the Moon” and in 1993 for “Scent of a Woman” and picking up the guild’s Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement in 1998.
Goldman’s son Jesse died in 1981. He is survived by son Justin Ashforth, an actor; and daughters Serena Rathbun, an occasional writer and costume designer who is married to actor-director Todd Field, film editor Mia Goldman, producer Diana Rathbun, and Amy; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.