Obituary: James Goldman

Tom Vallance
Tuesday 03 November 1998 01:02

THE PLAYWRIGHT, novelist and screenwriter James Goldman won the Academy Award for the screen adaptation of his own play The Lion in Winter, his dialogue described by one critic as "witty, intelligent, pithy and often mercurial". His other screenplays included Robin and Marion, and his work for the stage included the book for the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies. Particularly happy with historical subjects, he wrote the screenplay for Nicholas and Alexandra, a novel about King John, and a play about Tolstoy.

The older brother of the writer William Goldman (who wrote such screenplays as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Absolute Power), he was born in 1927 in Chicago and graduated from Chicago University. He was studying to be a music critic until his postgraduate work at Columbia University was interrupted by his being drafted into the army, and after his discharge he decided to become a playwright.

In 1961 his whimsical play They Might Be Giants, about a man who believes he is Sherlock Holmes and is attended by a psychiatrist named Dr Watson, was produced by Joan Littlewood in London and 10 years later was turned into a film starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward and directed by Anthony Harvey. Harvey also directed the 1968 film version of A Lion in Winter, the most celebrated of Goldman's straight plays, though it had only a brief run in its original Broadway production, despite stunning performances by its stars Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston.

The story of a Christmas Eve battle between Henry II and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine over the succession, the film also won Oscars for its star Katherine Hepburn and composer, John Barry. Henry was played by Peter O'Toole, who had already played the same character in Becket, and said later, "They were somehow extensions of each other . . . Unless I'd played Anouilh's Henry, I couldn't have played Jimmy Goldman's Henry the way I did 'cause the sense of the loss of Becket filled everything I did in the other piece."

Goldman, who used to describe himself as primarily a comedy writer, later remarked, "The best laugh I ever got was in The Lion in Winter. There's that big horrendous scene in the bedroom when Queen Eleanor and King Henry say terrible things to each other. And finally the Queen asks, `What family doesn't have its ups and downs?' That got the biggest laugh."

Goldman's first play on Broadway was a comedy about life in the army, Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole (1961), that he wrote with his brother. The following year James and William collaborated with John Kander on the musical A Family Affair starring Shelley Berman, James also writing the lyrics with Kander. The story of two families bickering over wedding arrangements for their offspring, it had only a brief run, but Goldman's next musical was to be far more celebrated.

In 1965 Stephen Sondheim asked Goldman if he had an idea for a musical. ("I went to Goldman," said Sondheim, "because I'd read a play of his called They Might Be Giants and it bowled me over.") Goldman suggested writing about a reunion, perhaps of college graduates, but after he read about a reunion of former Ziegfeld Follies actresses the story was changed to that of a group of Follies performers who find that old jealousies and resentments surface at a reunion, leading to murder. The show at that time was called The Girls Upstairs, but six years later the pair were persuaded by the producer Harold Prince to alter their vision of the show and make it a "memory piece", with both youthful and mature versions of the four main characters appearing on stage.

Produced by Harold Prince, directed by Prince and Michael Bennett and starring such illustrious film names as Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson and Yvonne DeCarlo, Follies won the New York Drama Critics Circle award as best musical and ran for 522 performances, but lost money and its failure is often attributed to the book, though Sondheim staunchly defends Goldman.

"In Follies we deliberately decided not to create characters with warts and all. Everybody would be, not a type, but an essence of whatever they were about, which is why James Goldman's book got so heavily criticised. People didn't understand what he was trying to do. I kept hearing people say, `Those people seem so bloodless.' Yes, that's the idea of the piece . . . Jim was drawing essences. That's his style of writing."

With its wealth of show-stopping numbers, the score is one of Sondheim's most tuneful and accessible, and the show has subsequently been revived in concert in New York (with Lee Remick and Barbara Cook in the cast), was staged in London in 1987 starring Diana Rigg and Julia McKenzie with a revised book by Goldman, winning both the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards as Best Musical, and was revived again this year in New Jersey with Ann Miller in the cast.

Goldman and Sondheim collaborated a second time in 1966 with a television musical, Evening Primrose, starring Anthony Perkins. Based on a story by John Collier, it was a wistful and ultimately sinister piece about people secretly living in a department store, coming out at night and zealously guarding the secret of their existence. Sondheim found his inspiration for the young heroine's plaintive ballad "I Remember" from a speech written by Goldman, and later stated, "With the kind of a book writer who has the poetic invention and the sense of music's function that Jim does, that's the closest I've ever come in my career to simply taking everything my collaborator had done."

Goldman's other screenplays included Robin and Marion (1976), which, like Follies, received some criticism for uninvolving characters, and White Nights (1985), a thriller with Mikhail Baryshnikov as a defecting ballet star.

Goldman's novels included The Man from Greek and Roman (1974), Myself as Witness (1980: its subject the 13th-century ruler of England, King John) and Fulton County (1989), his television versions Dickens's Oliver Twist (1982) starring George C. Scott, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1985) with Paul Scofield as Karenin. Two years ago Goldman's biographical play Tolstoy was produced unsuccessfully in London.

A Lion in Winter is being revived next February on Broadway starring Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne, and at the time of his death from a heart attack Goldman was writing the book and lyrics for a new musical composed by Larry Grossman based on Fielding's novel Tom Jones.

James Goldman, playwright, novelist and screenwriter: born Chicago 27 June 1927; twice married (one son, one daughter); died New York 28 October 1998.

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