“Nobody knows anything.”
That familiar – to many, though not everyone – quotation recently resurfaced, due to the passing of two-time Academy Award-winning (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men) screenwriter, William Goldman, who famously invented it. (Including it in his respected exploration of Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983.)
Today, I put fingers to keyboard to clarify that oft-quoted pronouncement. Why? Because there is a serious misunderstanding of what William Goldman was actually saying.
Most people don’t care about that, enjoying the quotation exactly the way it is. Why again? Because it’s fun to deflate the egos of lavishly-living people residing in a warm place year-round and when it drops below 70 they go to Hawaii. (Note: This does not include us. Except the “go to Hawaii” part. Which, I now belatedly realize, does include us.)
Before proceeding further, let me provide the complete quotation accompanying the commonly assimilated, “Nobody knows anything.”
“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out, it’s a guess, and, if you’re lucky, an educated guess.”
The “unabridged” version of the quotation, which when you examine it closely reveals telltale suggestions of Goldman’s underlying intention.
As a veteran screenwriter, William Goldman excelled at writing for that medium. Not everyone writes like him – adhering tightly to the narrative, with limited “off-story” flights of “imaginatorial fancy.” But in the style he wrote in, he was the acknowledged best of the bunch. In his particular era.
So when William Goldman memorably opined that “Nobody knows anything”, you can be sure he was not saying, “Nobody knows anything about screenwriting. Including myself.”
Though that sounds obvious, the truncated “Nobody knows anything” leaves the inaccurate impression that nobody in show business knows what they’re doing, which I have appointed myself the necessary assignment of straightening out.
When William Goldman proclaimed that nobody “for a certainty knows what’s going to work”, he was alluding not to “what’s going to work” in the script, but to what will successfully work at the box-office, rather than ignominiously “tanking”, causing you to have to sell your house and your boat. (Shameful Confession: I just mistakenly wrote “… sell you wife and your boat.” Try to keep that under your hats. As I, too guiltily, could not.)
What Goldman implied with “Nobody knows anything” was that no one can insure a guaranteed hit. Which should alsobe obvious, but people are paid millions of dollars to act like they can. (A lot of which goes into therapy, because they know that they can’t.)
This leads to Goldman’s subliminal message. Since nobody can insure a guaranteed hit –
“Hey, movie executives and superstar actors with their names ‘about the title’! Stop telling us (screenwriters, and, yeah, specifically two-time Oscar award-winning me) what to do!!!”
There is this incredible pretense that… wait.
Lemme hit this from another direction.
Some of which comes from personal experience.
Here’s what makes us all crazy.
When executives (or superstar actors) give writers “notes” on submitted material – or after watching a “runthrough” in half-hour comedies – there is this underlying assumption that if we assiduously follow those received “notes” – rather than our own writerly instincts – there will be an increased likelihood of commercial success.
The truth is, they can’t possibly know that, because, when it comes to predicting commercial success – all together now...
“Nobody knows anything.”
What Goldman was – implicitly, because he wanted to keep working – demanding was the following:
“Hey, movie “Big Shots!” Instead of carelessly throwing your weight around because you can – ‘Trust the professionals!’ (The “Educated Guessers” of Goldman’s extended quotation.) And please, since no one in the world can predict box-office success, stop embarrassing us both by pretending you can.”
That’s what should be remembered about “Nobody knows anything”:
Respect for professionals.
And reasonable humility.
Of course, if William Goldman literally didmean “Nobody knows anything”, that would entirely invalidate this blogatorial excursion.
And I am sincerely sorry for wasting your time.