By Kelli Frost-Allred
Long before the term “dysfunctional” was commonly applied to families, James Goldman gave the world a glimpse of this age-old phenomenon by creating for the stage the members of England’s original Plantaganet family: King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons. Although best known for this play, The Lion in Winter, and the screenplay for the resultant movie, Goldman was a prolific writer who based many of his novels, plays, and screenplays on history, a subject he dearly loved.
Goldman’s written corpus is evidence of this fascination with history. Russian history studies led him to write about Tolstoy, Czar Nicholas, and Anna Karenina. But his specialty seems to have been English history, with twelfth century ruler Henry II as the central character in The Lion in Winter, and he used thirteenth-century King John as the subject of his novel Myself as Witness and in the film Robin and Marian. “I read about the things they did, I studied them and then imagined what they felt and thought and said and wanted from their lives. What they were really like, of course, no one will ever know,” wrote James Goldman in his preface to The Lion in Winter. In 1980 he wrote, “The truth of things is always underneath. It has to be imagined.”
Audience members mustn’t be misled into thinking that The Lion in Winter is a drama. “He understood what comedy was about,” said his agent and wife of twenty-seven years, Barbara Goldman, in an interview with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. “The Lion in Winter could have been a tragedy as easily as a comedy. And it has to do with his point of view of the world. He viewed himself as a comedic writer. I think his sense of humor was everything about him.”
“Does it matter what comes after us?” Eleanor asked in the play. It mattered terribly to Eleanor, but not to James Goldman. His outlook on life prevented him from worrying enough about such mortal trivia to bother answering his own question. And while King Henry may have said “My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived,” the man who invented these words for Henry did not share his zeitgeist.
“Jim was not a man who would have taken something and been pompous about it,” Mrs. Goldman said. His Oscar sits “somewhere on a bookshelf” in the Goldman home.
Goldman wrote every day, seven days a week. “He did not write on a computer; he would only write using an IBM Selectric— you know, the kind with the golf ball,” Mrs. Goldman attested. “Jim called his typewriter ‘Big Jack’ in honor of his favorite golfer, Jack Nicklaus.”
James Goldman was born in Chicago on June 30, 1927. Four years later, his brother William (author and screenwriter ofThe Princess Bride) was born into the family. The two brothers would remain close, and eventually both became writers. In fact, the two wrote collaboratively for film, television, and theatre (A Family Affair, Stanley Poole). Both received Academy Awards for their screenwriting, but at separate times for separate films: James won for The Lion in Winter (1969) while William won for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1970) and All the President’s Men (1977). James collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on Evening Primrose (1966) and on Follies (1971). Goldman began writing Follies in 1965 as a murder mystery, but eventually took it to Broadway and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical (1971). The 1987 London revival of Follies garnered the Olivier Award for the year’s best musical.
After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, Goldman was drafted and served in the U.S. Army. He later attended Columbia University in New York City, where he studied musicology, but eventually decided that writing would be his career. He married Barbara Goldman, a producer, in 1971. A very private family, the Goldmans seldom socialized with business associates in the entertainment field, in spite of the fact that James worked with such Broadway heavyweights as Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, Harold Prince, and Stephen Sondheim.
Hollywood has transformed many theatre scripts into huge film successes, and although The Lion in Winter is among those plays, it remains a classic of modern theatre as well. Goldman wrote that “The Lion in Winter was more than reprieved by the movie. It was transformed into a theatre work that has been performed all over the world.” The original stage cast included Robert Preston as Henry II, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Christopher Walken as France’s Philip Capet. The film version of The Lion in Winter marked milestones in several careers: Goldman’s first and only Academy Award (for his screenplay adaptation) as well as a Golden Globe nomination; Katharine Hepburn’s third of four best actress Oscars; an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award for Peter O’Toole (best actor); the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film of 1968; Anthony Hopkins’s film debut playing Henry’s son, Prince Richard; and Timothy Dalton’s film debut as Prince Philip.
Goldman distinguished himself as a writer in several genres, including novels (Myself as Witness, Waldorf, The Man from Greek and Roman, Fulton County), short stories (White Nights), theatre (The Lion in Winter; They Might Be Giants; Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole), television (Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna), film (The Lion in Winter, Nicholas and Alexandra, Robin and Marian, White Nights), and musical theater (Follies, Evening Primrose). At the time of his death, Goldman had just completed the script for a musical based on the novel Tom Jones, which is currently being planned for production.
Through the voice of an aging queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Goldman asks: “For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children; we could change the world.”
James Goldman died unexpectedly on October 28, 1998, after suffering a heart attack. Goldman did not leave us with an account of his life. The narrative that was his life has yet to be told, but his legacy is left to us in words. “The Lion in Winter has relevance today. This is why we’re doing it in New York this year, for the first time since the original production in 1966,” said Mrs. Goldman proudly.